Everything seems to be going wrong for Antonio Conte despite the fact that this time last year his team were on the cusp of winning the title and even right now he has the joint-best win rate of any Premier League manager in history (70.3%) together with Pep Guardiola.
— César Azpilicueta (@CesarAzpi) February 7, 2018
However, despite these impressive feats, it is possible to see the roots of his problems as far back as last May when the team were celebrating their title win at West Bromwich Albion. Now it has reached the point where it seems likely that club owner Roman Abamovich is wondering if it is time to change manager for the twelfth time in just fifteen years.
While celebrating the title win last year Diego Costa was already causing problems for the club’s management having fallen out with Conte despite being the team’s top scorer last season. Things went from bad to worse for their relationship but it soon became clear that he was not the only player that Conte was struggling with.
While Conte will likely hang on to his job for at least the next few days if not weeks, he is known to feel as if he has a lack of power despite being theoretically in charge and believes that this has undermined the team all season.
This is not the first time that Chelsea has suffered this kind of problem. Jose Mourinho lead the team to the title in 2015 but within seven months things had deteriorated so much that he was sacked.
However, many claim that much of Conte’s predicament is entirely his own fault. He has repeatedly suggested that the team is incapable of competing in the transfer market where prices have risen steeply in recent years. He hinted that Chelsea couldn’t match Liverpool in the battle for the world’s most expensive defender Virgil van Dijk and that they couldn’t match the salary offered to Alexis Sanchez by Manchester United.
However, a closer look at the figures reveals that Conte has spend £353 million on players in the last eighteen month. He bought the midfielder N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard’s new deal is expected to give him terms similar to those enjoyed by Paul Pogba. Whatever Conte claims, it seems that the team has backed the manager.
Last May Conte asked for greater control over the team’s transfer policy as a reward for winning the title. The request is thought to have gone down badly with the club’s upper echelons but there is ample evidence that they relented.
In terms of on-field performance it seems as if Conte’s reluctance to change tactics may be the cause of the team’s current problems. Last season he had a back three that dominated the Premier League. This season they have already lost more matches than they did in the whole of last season and at this point last year their goal difference was 13 higher.
This season Conte has been sticking with the back three despite the disappointing results. He has only changed it slightly on occasion, sometimes playing a 3-5-2 formation that has left the team too dependent on Hazard and Alvaro Morata. It reached the point where the Belgian was even pleading with Conte to play Willian alongside him more regularly.
On many occasions Hazards has been used as a No. 9 as Conte seeks to maintain solidity. However, by removing some of Chelsea’s most impressive attack they are less able to intimidate their opponents. Furthermore, many of Chelsea’s rivals imitated Conte’s back three formation but have now returned to a back four with a great deal of success.
One of the reasons that Chelsea was able to dominate the league last season was down to their lack of European football, something that Jose Mourinho has been keen to point out on a few occasions. As a result, Conte was able to stay with a settled and well prepared starting XI and when they won the title they had used fewer players than any other team in the league. While the squad has since expanded, there is the feeling that he only trusts a select few of his players.
This season the team have significantly more matches to play and with Conte reluctant to rotate between players there have been obvious signs of fatigue. While he has given the players three days off after their defeat to Watford, on the whole he has maintained the same training regime as last season despite the increased games. Not only has this resulted in tiredness, but also a sharp increase in injuries, particularly those related to muscles.
Adding to the sense that Conte has little regard for his players is the hangover from his decision to fire Diego Costa via text message. Conte is thought to have been reprimanded by his bosses for the text, in particular by director Marina Granovskaia, because of the transfer fee the team missed out on.
At the time it felt like Conte had over played his hand in trying to assert his power after winning the title. However, as this season has progressed, the resentment it caused has failed to dissipate and it is still creating divisions. This was made worse at the end of last October when Chelsea visited Rome. David Luiz, a popular player and one of Roman Abramovich’s favourites, asked for a change to the setup of the back three and the team went on to lose 3 – 0.
Following the game there was a heated argument in the dressing-room and Luiz lost his place in the side. He didn’t start a Premier League match again until last Monday and he then conceded four times. While the players have publically said that they support their manager, they will be aware that they are no longer producing their best and this is causing resentment to grow. As history has shown, once the players turn at Chelsea it isn’t long before the manager pays the price.
Costa’s own response to the text gives an insight into what players may be thinking about the manager, “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.”
All of this is part of what is probably Conte’s biggest mistake, his own very public arguments with the team’s board. While, as mentioned, the team has spent a great deal of money since he arrived, he says that very few of the players signed have been his targets. Speaking recently he said, “I don’t have a big impact on the transfer market. I think the club decide our transfer market.” Clearly Conte does not feel he is being given enough control over transfers, but to make his feelings public is extremely unwise.
Things got worse with the departure of Michael Emenalo, someone who was widely thought to be a calming influence on Conte’s relationship with the board. There were reports claiming that things had reached the point where he was not on speaking terms with Granovskaia.
At the same time, Conte decided to pick a fight with Mourinho in the press. Their back-and-forth arguments have been going on for sometime and cover a variety of topics from hair loss to dementia to match fixing. Neither manager came out of the arguments looking particularly good. However, while United has managed to solidify their position in the table, Chelsea’s form has been dropping.
Despite all of this, for now Conte is hanging on to his job. There was no board meeting this week to discuss his future, despite intense speculation that there would be. Conte has refused to resign and it is possible that he has not yet been sacked as the team don’t have many options for a caretaker manager.
However, there are conflicting reports about whether the team has started looking for a new manager. Much of the press claimed that they have not started talking to any potential candidates but reports emerged in Spain that they have begun negotiations with Luis Enrique and offered him a two-and-a-half year contract. Furthermore, the reports also say that Enrique is planning to make Luiz Suarez his first signing for the Blues.
Chelsea players will return to training on Friday ahead of their home match against West Bromwich Albion on February 12th. Conte is certain to be in charge for the game but many are speculating it could be his last. In the meantime, Conte has remained defiant saying, “I’m not worried about my job” following the team’s defeat against Watford.