Upon arriving at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2016, the Chelsea faithful were mixed in their reception to the appointment of Antonio Conte.
Roman Abramovich had seemingly handpicked one of the finest managerial talents on the market, fresh off the back of guiding Italy to the quarter-finals of the European Championships; narrowly losing out to Germany in a 6-5 defeat on penalties, and with three consecutive league titles with Juventus under his belt from 2011-14. This was a manager at the peak of his game, and Chelsea had secured the services of Conte for three years – Abramovich was expectant, and with the signings of Ngolo Kante, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso, Conte was equipped with the tools to make this Chelsea side tick.Embed from Getty Images
Though to say Conte made Chelsea ‘tick’ in the 2016/17 season would be quite the understatement. Following consecutive league defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, the Italian, with the impetus of a newly crafted 3-5-2 formation, went on a 13 game winning streak in the Premier League, falling just one victory short of the record set in a sole season by Arsenal’s Invincibles from 2002.
In a season where the appointments of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Jose Mourinho at Manchester United had dominated headlines, Conte was going about his business in an unassuming yet remarkably efficient manner – pre-season, Chelsea were not considered amongst the favourites for the title, though by January, they were the run-away leaders at the top of the Premier League.
As a manager, Conte was unquestionably getting the best out of his ‘star’ assets, though his ability to manoeuvre the likes of Victor Moses into an unbeatable wing-back was telling of the pedigree Conte held and continues to hold as a manager. He is able to utilise the excellence of his typically ‘bigger’ players, though can spot flexibility and talent within his squad.Embed from Getty Images
Though perhaps it is this reputation, built on case-study evidence, that has lead to Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea hierarchy; most notably previously Michael Emenalo, becoming somewhat lackadaisical in their clinical identification and purchasing of players from the market.
Decisions have been made by the Chelsea board that have clearly not harmonised well with Conte – the £40m sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United in the 2017 summer window stands out as a prime example of this, with his replacement, Tiemoue Bakayoko, admittedly a promising player, but perhaps lacking nous and experience, as evidenced in his red card inside 30 minutes on Monday night at Vicarage Road – a game Chelsea went on to lose 4-1 and pile pressure onto Conte.
As mentioned, Chelsea’s hierarchy used to contain Michaeal Emenalo, formerly Technical Director at Stamford Bridge since 2011. Emenalo in his tenure as TD has overseen a period of unprecedented success for the club in an increasingly competitive domestic league, and Chelsea, backed by Mr Abramovich’s loose pursestrings, have usually been able to handpick the players they take a liking too, and shell out large weekly pay-packets with an equally large transfer fee to go with it.Embed from Getty Images
It could be argued the departure of Emenalo in November, triggered by his resignation, is telling of discontent behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge. Emenalo did not resign to take a sabbatical or a break, three weeks later he was appointed sporting director at AS Monaco. Whilst one could say this is merely a co-incidence, in a transfer window where Chelsea were noted to have not purchased their prime targets, coupled with Conte’s growing unrest, it seems that the Italian manager was not the only Chelsea employee disillusioned with the transfer policies of the West London club.
Whilst Chelsea did successfully bring in the likes of Alvaro Morata in a club-record £70m deal from Real Madrid, the lack of title-winning pedigree in their squad was evident. Yes, Danny Drinkwater; a £33m signing from previous league winners Leicester, by definition holds ‘title-winning pedigree’, but when placed in comparison to the central midfield signings of Manchester United (Nemanja Matic) and Manchester City (Ilkay Gundogdan from 2016) are Chelsea successfully competing with their fellow league challengers on a player-for-player basis?
Where Manchester City signed Kyle Walker in a then world-record deal for a defender, Chelsea signed Davide Zappacosta, their second-choice transfer target after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain opted for Liverpool. Kurt Zouma was let out on loan to fellow Premier League side Stoke City, with the capable replacement Antonio Rudiger signed in replacement, though note the emphasis on replacement.Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea, following on from Conte’s maiden Premier League title, should’ve been looking to bulk up their squad in terms of both quality and quantity, their impending return to the Champions League only further emphasising this requirement. Put simply, they failed in achieving this. Conte throughout the summer had given indications of his discontent with Chelsea’s transfer dealings, and as the window closed in September, it was clear Conte was far from elated with their business.
“I think the club tried to do its best in the transfer market and sometimes you are able to buy and sometimes you are not able to buy for many reasons but the club tried to do it’s best in the transfer market.”
“We have to wait at the end of the season and we will see and I can reply very well to this question [about if the squad is strong enough].
“Now it is very difficult. Now the window is closed it is time to continue to work and work with these players and I am very happy to work with the players we have.
Antonio Conte, September 2017
A diplomatic response from the the Italian, yes, but a telling indicator of Conte’s disapproval of Chelsea’s transfer dealings? Most certainly.
Conte felt he had been let down by the Chelsea hierarchy, and the January window represented a chance for Abramovich to loosen those pursestrings once more and get Conte some of his desired assets. In came Giroud, out went Batshuayi, but then a key alteration in Chelsea’s policy from the summer 2017 window was evidenced. Ross Barkley and Emerson arrived from Everton and Roma respectively, and out went: nobody.
Abramovich had acknowledged the requirement for Chelsea to bolster the size of their squad, and the arrivals of Barkley and Emerson did just this. Though perhaps it could all just be too little too late for Chelsea, as consecutive Premier League defeats to Bournemouth and Watford; both by three goal margins, have left Chelsea languishing in fourth place in the Premier League, having won just one of their last five games.
Conte is clearly feeling the pressure, and couple this with the Italian’s highly publicised ‘war of words’ with Jose Mourinho relating to touch-line demeanour, ‘demenza senile’ (Chelsea later insisting Conte meant amnesia) and match-fixing allegations, the 2017/18 campaign has been far from a smooth ride for the Chelsea boss.
Conte arrived in England an unproven Premier League entity, though his debut season in the competition was nothing short of a stunning managerial creation. 13 matches won successively, the craft and guile to have his side playing simply mesmeric football, and no disputes in the press.Embed from Getty Images
The 2017/18 campaign; sparked by a 3-2 home defeat to Burnley on the opening day, has not been quite so smooth for the Italian. Though whilst Conte will take the blame for Chelsea’s lack of cutting edge and consequent results, this is a man who has been badly let down by his hierarchy.
Chelsea simply needed to spend big, not sell to title rivals against their manager’s wishes (Matic) and prepare for their return to the Champions League. Antonio Conte is an outstanding manager who will go onto achieve considerable success either in England or further afield, though one senses his time in West London may be nearing an unfortunate end.
If it is, Chelsea must learn from the mistakes made and what could be seen as simply a failure to back their manager both monetarily and with faith. Conte has written his chapter in Chelsea’s history books, and as the club progress to what seems like an unavoidable new era in the summer, it is a chapter Chelsea could certainly learn from, and must learn from, to move forwards both on and off the field.
Written by Tom Newman.