The Conte Conundrum

In April 2016, Chelsea confirmed that Antonio Conte would be the team’s new manager, signing a three-year deal. Roughly one year later, in May 2017, Chelsea were crowned Champions of England. There is no question that this was a considerable achievement, so one would assume, a year on from their first title under Conte, it would be inconceivable that there would be fans calling for his head and talk in the media of him having to fight for his job for just having failed to compete for the title a second time in two years, right? Unfortunately, Chelsea, in recent years, have been quite unique in their approach to managerial recruitment and so this is the case in some circumstances, it is worth noting that many fans have not already given up on Conte, but the fact that a fair amount of these fans do exist is a baffling enough premise to compel me to write about it, so let’s dive in:

So what’s the problem?

Chelsea currently sit 5th in the Premier League table and based on current form, it seems likely that they may very well finish the season there. Having exited the Champions League in the round of 16, this would mean that Chelsea will have to go without Champions League football next season, instead dropping into the Europa League, which can often be a difficult competition to get fans excited for. However, Chelsea are still in the FA cup, only four teams remain and considering they have drawn Southampton in the next round, they will be favourites to progress to the final and potentially lift the trophy, although, having lost last season’s final, going into the game as favourites, there are no certainties.

The FA cup final last year, in my opinion, really was the turning point for Antonio Conte’s team, up until that point, everything was going well, Chelsea had won the league, Conte had decided not to prioritise the league cup, which is very common and due to the poor league performance from the previous season, they were not in the Champions League, which had nothing to do with Conte. So, at this point Chelsea fans had no grievances, but when the teams arrived at Wembley, given the rather contrasting nature of the two team’s seasons, Chelsea were expected by most to sweep Arsenal aside, this did not happen. Instead, Arsenal won the game and Chelsea put in quite a poor performance, they never really looked like winning the game and despite controversy over Arsenal’s first goal, it would still be quite difficult to argue that Chelsea should have won the game.

Chelsea started the 2017/18 season off with a 3-2 loss at home to Burnley, this was followed by some decent form, until they played Manchester City on the 30th September, where they were simply outplayed; the score suggested that it was closer than it was on the pitch. City’s form was frightening and it clearly left an impression on the players as they went on to lost their next game to Crystal Palace, who had the worst start to a Premier League season ever, scoring no goals and collecting no points in 7 games, so to beat the Champions 2-1 was a massive shock. Chelsea haven’t really looked to challenge for the title at all this season, however, no one really has come close to City, which brings me to my next point:

Is that really a problem?

Fans of most clubs in the country would jump at the chance of a 5th place finish and a potential FA Cup trophy, not to mention exiting the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona is nothing to be ashamed of, however, Chelsea have become one of the heavy hitters in the Premier League over the past two decades and so there is a certain level expected of them, which is one of the reasons why this is a problem. The difference is that I believe, if this were to happen at another of the “Top 6” clubs in England, there would probably be a different reaction, perhaps more faith in the manager, the fact that Conte and Chelsea won the league last year is enough for him to stay in his job, more of a “it just wasn’t their year, prep for next season and move on” approach because of such recent success. I personally feel that what Conte achieved last year should be enough for him to have another crack next year, he clearly has what it takes to win a league title and this year is quite an extreme case, City have been phenomenal and that will be one of the largest factors in the decision, should Conte remain.

So why are some Chelsea fans calling for change?

In June 2003, Roman Abramovich acquired the companies that control Chelsea, he changed pretty much everything. Abramovich wanted to turn Chelsea in to a global brand, much like Manchester United, Real Madrid and possibly PSG if they get their way, for Abramovich, this meant that he required the absolute best from Chelsea as a football club. He brought with him heavy investment, the likes of Hernan Crespo, Damien Duff and Claude Makelele were brought in as just a few of the signings made in Abramovich’s first season. This wasn’t all though, Abramovich invested off the pitch too; he immediately submitted planning permission for a brand new training complex, which in my opinion was really a show of his intent, he understood more than a lot of owners, he wanted nothing but the best if he was going to get the best out of his investment and that was never more evident than at the end of his first full season as owner.

Incredibly, after finishing second from fourth in the league the previous year and making it to the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they were knocked out by the eventual winners of the competition, Porto; Claudio Ranieri was replaced as manager by the man who knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League, José Mourinho. This was a bold move, many would see Ranieri’s achievements to be considerable progress and he would likely keep his job at most clubs in the world, but Abramovich saw someone who he believed would deliver greater success, so he got him and it is hard to argue that he didn’t make the correct decision, Mourinho would lead the club to back-to-back league titles, two league cups and an FA Cup in his first spell with the club. However, Mourinho’s first spell at Chelsea would only last 3 full seasons as he was replaced by Avram Grant, who it was reported Abramovich saw as a better fit to work with record signing Andriy Shevchenko. Since Grant’s departure at the end of that same season, Chelsea have had 9 different managers, including interim spells, the return of Mourinho and that is only counting Guus Hiddink once, with not even Roberto Di Matteo lifting the Champions League trophy enough for him to keep his job for longer than 8 months.

The shocking fact is that Chelsea have obtained a further 8 major honours to add to the 5 won during Mourinho’s first spell. Knowing that, has this policy become feasible? I think in Chelsea’s case, yes it is, they have seen a reasonably continuous stream of success and in most cases, the managers Abramovich let go have not done anything to suggest he made the wrong decision, with the possible exceptions of Carlo Ancelotti, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid since leaving, but has also been sacked from two high profile positions and Mourinho who even came back and won the league with Chelsea again during this time.

Conte’s Future

In my opinion, the attitude and approach that the club have taken in recent years has been incredibly risky but has produced great levels of success and so if Conte were to be sacked come the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised, Abramovich has made significant changes for smaller reasons in the past and if I were a Chelsea fan, I can’t say I’d be particularly worried because if Abramovich were to seek a change in management, he’d certainly have a replacement already picked out and at this point, you’d pretty  much have to get behind his choice.

Having said that, I do not think Conte should be sacked, the fact that he’s held a win percentage of around 70% in the Premier League and obviously, he won the league not even a year ago would be enough for me to let him keep his job. Also, who really could replace him? Given the current climate in world football, there doesn’t appear to be any manager that would guarantee improvement for Chelsea and because of that I also don’t think he’ll be replaced.

But to be honest, who knows? Abramovich is mad.

 

 

 

photo credit: NazionaleCalcio <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/97466658@N06/14718072797″>ANTONIO CONTE E’ IL NUOVO ALLENATORE DELLA NAZIONALE ITALIANA – I DETTAGLI DELL’ACCORDO</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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