Even by Chelsea’s usual standards, the now increasingly likely departure of Antonio Conte is bordering on the ridiculous. This time last season his team were romping towards the title, while even now he still boasts the joint-best win rate of any manager in Premier League history (70.3%) alongside Pep Guardiola.
Yet something has gone seriously wrong. His team lack cohesion, their attacking venom has been diluted all season and now the defence has fallen apart too – so much so that they conceded seven goals in back-to-back matches against teams fighting against relegation.
Behind the scenes there are mutterings of unrest within both the squad and the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge.
Conte is a man under pressure, but many of the issues he now faces have been born out of his own errors…
Conte would have you believe that Chelsea are incapable of competing in a transfer market that has become severely inflated since Neymar’s £198m move to PSG.
He intimated that the club were blown out of the water by Liverpool in their pursuit of world’s most expensive defender Virgil van Dijk, and that they were unable to match the salary package offered to Alexis Sanchez by Manchester United.
Yet, in his 18 months in west London, Conte has spent £353 million and significantly overhauled his squad. He bought the Premier League’s best midfielder in N’Golo Kante, while Eden Hazard’s new deal is expected to give him parity with the likes of Paul Pogba.
Conte may not believe so, but Chelsea have, unequivocally, backed their manager – even when his desires are a little unconventional. Chelsea’s most expensive signings under Antonio Conte Alvaro Morata £58m Tiemoue Bakayoko £40m Danny Drinkwater £35m Michy Batshuayi £33m N’Golo Kante £32m Conte spent most of January looking for an experienced, physical striker, so they signed Olivier Giroud.
It did not feel like a priority – especially with Michy Batshuayi grabbing a brace on debut for Borussia Dortmund – but few of Conte’s signings do. Despite the form of Marcos Alonso, he spent most of the summer craving Alex Sandro. All the while, his targets – usually mid-peak, seasoned campaigners – feel at odds with Chelsea’s strategy of signing young, emerging talents.
It would be a stretch to say Conte has been found out this season, but the effectiveness of the back three that dominated the Premier League last season has certainly been reduced. They have already lost more matches than they did in the entirety of last season, while their goal difference was +13 higher at the same stage of their title-winning campaign. Burnley, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Bournemouth and Watford have all beaten them.
One of the factors behind that has been how stubbornly Conte has stuck to the back three. It was the formation that saved him last season, but now it feels like a weight around Chelsea’s neck. He has tinkered with it only slightly, sometimes playing a 3-5-2 that leaves the side too dependent on Hazard and Alvaro Morata up front – the Belgian even pleaded with his manager to play Willian alongside him more often.
Frequently Hazard has been used as a false No.9, with Conte overly keen on retaining solidity; that early loss to Burnley left its mark. But in removing Chelsea’s attacking fangs, he has reduced their fear factor.
Opponents are no longer scared of attacking them. His attachment to the back three also comes at a time when many of the rivals who copied him last season have now reverted to a back four once again, with great success.
One of the keys to Chelsea’s success last season was their lack of European football – something frequently pointed out by a definitely-not-bitter Jose Mourinho. It allowed Conte to stick with a settled and well-drilled starting XI, and at the point at which they won the title they had used fewer players than anyone else in the league.
Although Conte’s squad has expanded, the sense that he only trusts a select few remains. With more matches to play, and Conte reluctant to rotate, that has hampered Chelsea across all competitions. Although he has given his players three days off after losing to Watford, Conte has maintained much the same routine as last season despite the added games.
That intensity has produced both performances riddled with fatigue and a growing injury list, particularly muscle-related. If Conte was sending a message to the club’s transfer decision-makers, it has come at the cost of his players’ fitness.
As the season has continued, Conte’s unnecessarily cruel decision to axe Diego Costa via text message has felt more and more like his Eva Carneiro moment. Mourinho’s attack on the Chelsea doctor sent their season spiralling out of control quickly, but Conte’s text has been a slightly slower burn.
Initially, he is thought to have been reprimanded by the club’s bosses, and particularly director Marina Granovskaia, due to the transfer fee they missed out on. It felt like a power play that backfired, a manager over asserting himself after a title win, but as the season has continued the resentment it fostered has reemerged, and the divisions it created have widened. That was exacerbated at the end of October when Chelsea visited Rome.
David Luiz – both a popular member of the squad and one of owner Roman Abramovich’s few favourites – asked for a tweak to the setup of the back three. They lost 3-0. Diego Costa on Antonio Conte ending his Chelsea career by text ‘Conte’s text? It was a moment of madness. It can happen, but I thought it was disrespectful.
I always asked to speak face to face with the coach and the board. I never sent [them] text messages, so it shows what kind of person he is.’ A furious, dressing-room row followed, and Luiz lost his place in the side. He started his first Premier League match since then on Monday night, and conceded four times.
Although players have stated publically that they still support their manager, they will be conscious that his methods are no longer getting the best out of them and factions are developing. And when the players turn at Chelsea, it doesn’t take long for the manager to pay the price.
GOING TO WAR WITH MOURINHO & THE BOARD
Perhaps Conte’s most fatal error has been his very obvious, and very public, disagreements with the Chelsea board. Although the Blues have spent a lot under the Italian, he will say that very few of the players brought in have been his targets.
‘I don’t have a big impact on the transfer market,’ he explained recently.
‘I think the club decide our transfer market.’ Conte has wanted the final say, but instead he can only make suggestions.
Michael Emenalo’s departure – someone generally regarded as a pacifier between Conte and the Chelsea board – heightened tensions, with some reports even claiming that he is not on speaking terms with Granovskaia at all.
Conte wanted more power, instead he got more problems. Meanwhile, he also chose to pick a fight with Mourinho in the media, taking the United manager’s bait.
Their back-and-forth squabble covered a variety of topics from hair loss to dementia to match fixing, and neither came out of it particularly well. But while United solidified their position in second spot, Chelsea’s form has fallen away.
Some fans think Mourinho has got inside his counterpart’s head, rattled him, and at the very least the pettiness of it all has changed the mood at Chelsea – perhaps irreversibly so.