I remember being in Antonio Conte’s press-conference after Chelsea’s second home game under his management. His side had played excellent football, beating Burnley convincingly, and he had spent a baking August afternoon pointing, dancing and hollering from his technical area. He was exhausted afterwards; he was flushed in the face and his voice was horse.
He had something though – maybe a magnetism – which made you believe wholeheartedly in his appointment. It was an easy conclusion to draw at the time, he had just won his first three games, but it’s one which still seems right in hindsight. Conte’s charisma and his obsession over detail seemed perfect for his new club; marrying Chelsea’s resources with someone who could communicate well and effectively had, in previous eras, proved a winning combination.
So it proved. The success of 2016-17 came via the instructive blip which was soon to follow, the twin losses to Liverpool and Arsenal, but it was a debut managerial season for the ages. Up north, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola were also trying to bend new teams to their will, failing to different degrees in the process. At Stamford Bridge though, Conte succeeded: he conquered a notoriously political dressing-room, won the league title, and did so with a squad which was inferior to that of either Manchester club.
Two years later, he’s gone. Chelsea dismissed him on Thursday after almost two years in charge and will follow shortly by announcing that Maurizio Sarri has taken his place. It’s an interesting appointment, Sarri is an intriguing coach, but that’s a conversation for later. For now, it’s worth dwelling on the how the club reached this point: the relationship between Conte and his employer had long been untenable, but you wonder what might have been achieved if that hadn’t been allowed to happen. If concessions had been made and the greater good was kept within the crosshairs.
Conte was really perfect for this side. His brand of football may not always have been the most flamboyant. He may also have been culpable in the Diego Costa affair, which inarguably weakened the team and left it short on power. Nevertheless, the club find themselves at a point in their history when they no longer enjoy financial supremacy. Even without Roman Abramovich’s nebulous visa situation, they are at a disadvantage to those who they’re competing with. In that context, Conte’s style of management was of great value. Having shown himself capable of over-achieving and extracting great value from players who, in some cases, aren’t quite of the right standard, he was the ideal candidate to remain in charge.
By the end, of course, he wasn’t. The running battles over transfer policy essentially sabotaged the 2017-18 season and, despite the FA Cup win, he seemed almost comically under-invested at times. Yes, he had to go. But, really, that was a problem of Chelsea’s making. Having won the Premier League, Conte was entitled to seek greater control over future planning – or to at least have been appeased with some sort of compromise over that direction.
He needed players who complemented his work, who actually improved his team. Instead, he got a motley band of reserves. Antonio Rudiger may be the exception to that and Davide Zappacosta had encouraging moments, but none of the players who have arrived over the past twelve months actually made Chelsea stronger. Ross Barkley? Conte actually has a vague case for constructive dismissal.
Some supporters will disagree, I’m sure. It’s really incidental now, though, and the conclusion worth drawing is that, often, Chelsea have shown a maddening tendency to limit the effect of their managers. The modern trend in the game is for idealogues and technicians, for fundamentalists with distinct and rigid ideas. The sort of managers, ultimately, who depend on strategic harmony. It may not be imperative for one person to pick the team, train the players and sign the transfer targets, but it is essential that everybody involved in those processes agrees on a common objective. If not, the only result is inefficiency – underwhelming performances and mis-spent funds.
That was 2017-18. In a sense – yes – Conte is culpable for finishing outside the Champions League places. A broader perspective, though, casts the club’s unbending infrastructure as at least an equal villain. It’s something which has to change. Sarri will bring something different – and also some fun, ambitious football – but if lessons are learnt from the past year then Chelsea will find themselves back in exactly the same place.
Once again, they will have partially benefitted from a fine appointment, but not to nearly the extent that they could and should have done.