There are few things as inevitable in football as the end of a Chelsea managerial cycle. The West Londoners are a club where leaks from within the camp are notorious and prevalent, so rumours of unrest are invariably accurate. The murmurings of discontent rumble in the background, until it drips into on-field activities and leads to Roman Abramovich pulling the trigger.
Antonio Conte has cut an irritable and frustrated figure for much of this season and is widely expected to depart English shores this summer. His major gripe seems to boil down exclusively to the transfer dealings conducted above his head, an understandable grievance when analysing it objectively. Contrary to popular belief, he worked well with former technical director Michael Emenalo. Following Emenalo’s departure in November, his relationship with Abramovich’s closest ally Marina Granovskaia is supposedly untenable.
Winning the Premier League title at his first attempt was a not-inconsiderable achievement by the Italian, especially considering how dire a situation he inherited. He was aided by Chelsea’s absence from European competition allowing a full week to prepare for league matches, but the lack of rotation was also a necessity due to the shortage of options at his disposal. Yet, rather than receiving ample backing and the targets he desired, the Chelsea hierarchy have expected him to compete on four fronts with a similarly threadbare squad.
Conte allegedly wanted upgrades in both wingback roles as well as another striker to challenge Alvaro Morata. Instead, the club failed to add a left wingback leaving Marcos Alonso required to play almost 3000 minutes in all competitions, sold key players (Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic) and signed younger models (Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko). Receiving over £100 million for two 29 year-olds still constitutes smart business, but the performances of both replacements have illustrated the problem when lacking depth and variety.
Bakayoko has largely disappointed, but rushing back from knee surgery has severely hindered his chances of adapting to a new league and culture. He looks a shadow of the domineering midfielder who starred in Monaco’s Champions League run, but his flawed start wouldn’t be as sharply criticised if there were others to share the load. Morata began brilliantly, scoring eight times in his first eight games. A hamstring injury blighted that and his confidence and form has dramatically tailed off since. Without sufficient backup, Conte has been unable to take either out of the firing line.
Chelsea have adopted the approach of signing players in the 20-25 age bracket, but also only replace outgoings rather than increase the squad size, which led to Conte describing the transfer strategy as an ‘austerity’ program. Now, given the transitory nature of the modern coach, the club no doubt feel compelled to bring in their targets and plan for the future. Yet this begins to make less sense when young, English academy players are discarded or farmed out on loan and players who are no better are brought in for big sums of money. What was the point of letting Nathaniel Chalobah go when he could have performed the same function as £30 million Danny Drinkwater? And why sign Ross Barkley when you’ve already loaned out a superior player in Ruben Loftus-Cheek? On the face of it it resembles long-term planning – until you release that the fringe players recruited have many more games under their belt and require less patience and development than those fledgling homegrown prospects.
If Conte has a genuine gripe with those supplying him his tools, he hasn’t helped himself by his negativity in interviews or in the way he sets his team up tactically. The 3-4-2-1 formation from last season fooled so many of his peers and gave Chelsea balance and an array of attacking options. The switch to a 3-5-1-1 hasn’t worked as well, the honorary exception being the 2-1 away victory at Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. It has neutered them in attack and made them far too reliant on Eden Hazard to create.
Despite this, Conte still remains an exceptional coach and will no doubt be in high demand when some of the major jobs become available. As they’ve hardly given him an incentive to stay, the club don’t seem to be too upset allowing him to go, prepared to hedge their bets on the next high profile candidate available.
Presuming Conte does leave, Chelsea’s next appointment is hugely important. Their rivals are seeing the benefit of relative managerial stability and progress is being made at both Manchester clubs, Liverpool and Tottenham. Word is that the blues are seeking a facilitative figure such as Luis Enrique next after two huge personalities in Jose Mourinho and Conte, but surely that wouldn’t make sense when the squad requires hands on work.
Bringing in a coach capable of implementing a style of play whilst nurturing the younger talent in the squad should be paramount. But the problem every manager faces at Chelsea is that they must win in the first season or face certain sacking, which actively discourages patience or far reaching thinking. It is an infuriating cycle and one that will continue to breed fleeting success but no dynasty.
And yet, Chelsea have won more trophies in the Abramovich era (five league titles, the Champions League, the Europa League, four FA cups and three league cups) than any other English club in that period. They will point to their model as inarguably successful, but given the financial clout and pedigree now present in Manchester, it feels less certain that they can match previous heights with their current scattergun strategy. It makes you wonder where they would be with a more holistic plan in place.