Antonio Conte’s departure appears a fait accompli. The hallmarks are in place for the latest swing of the Chelsea revolving door. As well as a slide in results, Conte’s shrugs at questions over his future. His non-committal yet pointed answers on the club’s transfer policy are much the same responses that Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti supplied as decline set in. Both departed Stamford Bridge the season after lifting a Premier League title.
Roberto di Matteo was given his cards barely six months of winning the Champions League in May 2012. And yet, Chelsea have continued to be successful. A state of permanent tension has delivered glory to Roman Abramovich. The club’s haul since the Russian assumed control in 2003 has outstripped those of its rivals in English football – five Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, the Europa League in 2013, and that triumph in Munich, the night Abramovich achieved his heart’s desire.
Success and then the sack is the accepted rhythm of a Chelsea manager. Each of the aforementioned quartet took the assignment with that knowledge in mind. Even Mourinho back in 2004 watched Claudio Ranieri feel the axe. Whichever of Max Allegri, Diego Simeone, Luis Enrique, a returning Ancelotti or whoever else comes in knows the sketch.
That cut-throat policy, and Abramovich’s autocratic control of the club is probably what stopped Pep Guardiola looking towards West London as his first post-Barcelona job. And after three years in Munich, Manchester City was a club bespoke to his needs, give or take the spending that continues apace with Aymeric Laporte set to arrive from Athletic Bilbao this week for a sum of £57 million.
It is that level of finance, both from City and Manchester United, that endanger the continued success of the Abramovich model. Only City have spent more than Chelsea since Guardiola arrived in English football in the summer of 2016, but in net spend terms, comparing £93 million to £283m, then Chelsea trail distantly behind.
Within football’s billionaire era, Chelsea are in danger of becoming the poor little rich kid. Abramovich’s personal wealth of an estimated £8 billion is dwarfed by the £20 billion City owner Sheikh Mansour has to play with, as part of a family fortune approaching £1 trillion. Having spent almost £1 billion net on transfers and then paid wages estimated at £2.4 billion overall by May 2017, then Chelsea represents a significant proportion of the petrodollars that Abramovich has to hand. He also has £1 billion to find to pay for a new Stamford Bridge, which will not be up and running until the 2024-25 season, and appears to be spiralling in cost as time and logistics pile up.
Of course, Chelsea still spend. They have lavished £200m on this season alone after Ross Barkley joined for a cut-price £15m. Problematically for Conte, none of the players added to last season’s league champions appears to have made his team any better,
Alvaro Morata is probably more manageable than Diego Costa, but demonstrates nothing like his predecessor’s strength of purpose. Tiemoue Bakayoko is struggling to replace Nemanja Matic, Antonio Rudiger has struggled, Davide Zappacosta is no improvement on Victor Moses at right wing-back and £35m on Danny Drinkwater seems a hefty premium to fit a homegrown quota. Barkley’s presence, meanwhile, appears mysterious to Conte.
In today’s transfer market, £200m can go pretty quickly, and be no guarantee of quality, either. A measure of Chelsea’s dealing is that of those players they did get in, only Morata and Bakayoko were linked to their Premier League peers. In both cases, Manchester United are probably relieved they opted for Romelu Lukaku and Matic instead. The rest look like cheapish deals that were done because they were possible, rather than unmissable. Alex Sandro, for example, did not come from Juventus to supplant Marcos Alonso on the left side of defence.
Though Conte is believed to have been behind the signings of Morata and Zappacosta in particular, he does not appear to be willing to accept responsibility for the squad he works with. Now that Michael Emenalo is sporting director at Monaco, Marina Granovskaia controls recruitment policy at the club, and is said to be at loggerheads with the current manager, with Carlo Cudicini, the former goalkeeper who gives Conte moral support and translation help in press conferences, acting as ersatz peace envoy.
If such tensions are nothing new at Chelsea, then they may cause something even more unwelcome than the loss of Conte. The rumour mill is beginning to grind on Eden Hazard – Chelsea’s one true star – from talk of fulfilling Real Madrid ambitions to Guardiola wanting the Belgian in Manchester. Perhaps the most worrying thing for Chelsea and Abramovich is that such chatter does not seem in any way implausible.