In-fighting and shattered confidence: Why Antonio Conte might not last the season at Chelsea
- 2nd February 2018
We’ve been here before. Back in October 2015 Chelsea slumped to a 3-1 defeat against Southampton at Stamford Bridge to leave them 10 points off the pace just eight games into the season and all-but confirm the inevitable.
It was in the 72nd minute - as Grazianno Pelle scored Southampton’s third 12 minutes after Sadio Mane had strolled through a disinterested Chelsea defence to give the visitors the lead - that Jose Mourinho’s position became untenable.
There was no way back for the Portuguese, and two-and-a-half years later Antonio Conte is finding himself in a very similar position. This is the beginning of the end for the Italian.
Chelsea certainly haven’t collapsed in the spectacular manner of Mourinho’s third season, but the 3-0 defeat to Bournemouth on Wednesday was more than just an off day.
Chelsea looked bereft; exasperated; unmotivated, carrying the psychological scars that reflect the club’s fractious management structure and the head coach’s irritability. From Tiemoue Bakayoko’s nervousness to the timidity of the back three, Chelsea are playing like frightened children caught in the in the chaos and confusion of their parents’ messy divorce.
Wednesday’s collapse on the pitch was a direct consequence of Conte’s antics in the days leading up to the game. His grumblings regarding the “disaster” of preparing for the contest with Michy Batshuayi up front, only to lose him on deadline day, were designed to antagonise the board but instead read like a pre-emptive excuse for defeat.
The result, then, was no surprise; Conte’s incessant whinging regarding the quality of his players, and his diminished role in transfer recruitment, has shattered the squad’s self-esteem. The conflict is becoming as toxic as in the death throes of the Mourinho era, with a run of two wins from nine confirming that the hostility has affected his players. The relationship between coach and board is surely at breaking point.
Some of Conte’s complaints are reasonable enough. Chelsea have failed to adequately update the squad with first-team players and are seemingly no longer on the same level as the Manchester clubs financially, while it is also true most of Conte’s preferred targets were not approached. Michael Emenalo’s recent departure appears to have cut off the mediating line between coach and board, leaving Conte with a collection of squad players he doesn’t particularly trust.
But the Chelsea hierarchy would argue Conte has spent heavily compared to most Premier League sides and is at least partly to blame for their failure to build upon last year’s success: Bakayoko, Alvaro Morata, Davide Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater, and Batshuayi – signed for a combined total of £190 million - were all recommended by the Italian and each one has flopped. Conte’s distrust of his squad players means rotation is rare, leading to Chelsea’s increasingly jaded performances and the stagnation of, among others, Drinkwater and Pedro.
The idea of Conte seeing out the final year of his contract is unthinkable, but of more immediate concern for Chelsea fans is how things will unfold in the next few months. A difficult trip to Watford on Monday night could see their grip on the top four loosen, and after a home tie against West Brom the Blues then face Barcelona, Manchester United, and Manchester City.
A series of poor results, followed by a Champions League exit, might be enough for the board to end the toxic relationship and clear the air before the 2018/19 summer window begins.
Conte is currently the second favourite to leave his post next in the Premier League, behind Saints boss Mauricio Pellegrino, but Chelsea’s next four weeks are considerably tougher than Southampton's.
The relationship between Conte and the Chelsea board is rapidly deteriorating - and is made all the worse by it unfolding in the public domain, reflecting badly on all involved while clearly hurting the Chelsea players. Nobody would blame Roman Abramovic should he lose patience and pull the trigger in Spring.