Something seems to be awry at Stamford Bridge. Following a summer of missed transfer targets and rumblings of board unrest, Antonio Conte has cut a frustrated figure on the Chelsea sidelines. He appears to be edging towards the exit door.
Last season, everything aligned for the Italian. While his rivals prioritised European competitions and blustered to varying degrees, the Blues marched to the Premier League title with two games to spare. Before the calendar year was out, Conte became the first manager in history to claim three consecutive Premier League Manager of the Month awards (October, November and December). Things could not have been rosier.
Despite being runaway victors in the league, Chelsea’s summer began under a cloud after being thoroughly outplayed by Arsenal in the FA Cup final, an outcome which surprised both punters and bookies alike. The indications of discomfort have continued apace ever since.
There’s an adage in the UFC that suggests a fighter cannot be deemed a true great until they have faced and overcome adversity in a bout – that the true mark of a world-class competitor is one who is victorious only after conquering hardship along the way. This has been Conte’s summer of adversity, his resolve having been tested at every juncture. He has faced them before in his career and his response now is pivotal.
In early June, a text message sent by Conte to Diego Costa was leaked. It was cold and matter-of-fact, “Hi Diego, I hope you are well. Thanks for the season [sic] we spent together. Good luck for the next year but you are not in my plan.” While Costa leaving was neither surprising nor wholly panic-inducing for Chelsea fans, it was the identity of his replacement which was critical.
As Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United hijacked the deal for Chelsea’s number one target, Romelu Lukaku, Conte was said to be ‘fuming’, and appeared to raise serious questions over his future at Stamford Bridge. Before this was confirmed, the ex-Juventus boss was reportedly making tactical plans with the assumption that Lukaku was a Chelsea player. That must no doubt have rankled.
It is worth pointing out that it is not as though Chelsea have not spent money this summer. They have made five official signings totalling over £120m, including Tiemour Bakayoko (£39.7m), Antonio Rudiger (£33.3m) and Alvaro Morata (£58m). Having offloaded 31 players though, many of whom on loan, there appears to be alarming gaps in the first-team squad, and Conte is desperate for further reinforcements.
Their main summer signing, Morata, as Costa’s replacement to lead the line, not only missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out in the Community Shield on Sunday, but also looked worryingly short of confidence in front of goal. It is early days for judgement of course, but all of this may be a transition too far for the squad. If you throw in the fact that Eden Hazard will be sidelined for at least a month into the new season with an ankle injury, then the situation starts to look very precarious indeed.
Of course, this is nothing new for Chelsea – we’ve been here before. During Mourinho’s second tenure at Stamford Bridge, similar signs of discontent were evident. In June 2015, despite protestations from Mourinho, Roman Abramovich allowed Petr Cech to sign for title rivals Arsenal as a ‘favour’ for his service to the club. Three months later, and less than a year after Chelsea had cruised to the title, Mourinho ‘parted company’ with the club.
Conte’s disenfranchisement, unlike previous managers at the Bridge, has come at a time when the clubs around them have strengthened their squads to unprecedented levels. As salt in the wounds for poaching Lukaku under their noses, Mourinho also pilfered Nemanja Matić from his former club, seemingly without Conte’s consent. Matić made 35 league appearances for the champions last season, forming a harmonious partnership with Premier League Player of the Season, N’Golo Kanté. Upon being questioned about the supposed wisdom of allowing players to sign for close rivals, Conte replied bluntly, “You must ask the club about this.”
There has been a feeling of unrest bubbling away at Stamford Bridge all summer. Don’t be too surprised if Conte leaves his post before the Premier League season finishes.
Chris Henderson – follow me on Twitter here