Chelsea: Does the managerial cycle mean the end of the road for Antonio?

With a dressing room in apparent divide could this be Antonio Conte’s swansong at Stamford Bridge, but based on past episodes that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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(Photo credit: Ben Sutherland)

I understand not playing with a striker and being difficult to beat, but you must have some intent. They’ve got good players – it was like they didn’t want to go forward at all.

Chelsea’s performance against Manchester City on Sunday looked far from the same dynamic, clinical team rejuvenated under Antonio Conte last season. In fact, they looked more like the alienated Chelsea team he was left with after the departure of his predecessor – a certain Jose Mourinho. 

That night at the King Power Stadium two seasons ago they were abject, underwhelming and defeated drawing many parallels to Sunday’s performance.

The Italian job failed

In his scathing criticism in the wake of the defeat, Sky’s Jamie Redknapp described the performance as “a crime against football”. Gary Neville hit a similar tone describing it as “painful” and “unacceptable” for a Premier League game. It’s hard to argue any differently. 

Yes, they were playing against a side that spends far greater sums of money than themselves but this is Chelsea we’re talking about; one of the ‘top six’, not an inferior team languishing down the bottom. 

For the talent they had on display the performance was shocking, and they looked defeated before they even stepped on the pitch. It’s a sad state of affairs in the English game if a top side admits defeat so easily to a title rival and turns it into a procession.

Playing under uncertainty

Despite a fantastic season for the club following their all-conquering 2016/17 campaign, dark clouds have hung over Conte’s head since the back end of last year. 

His future has been the source of constant speculation and his fractured relationship with star players like Diego Costa has appeared to create a disillusioned dressing room under the Italian, harking back to the final days of Mourinho’s reign at Stamford Bridge.

But this performance was not down to his future. His tactics were negative and although much is said of Mourinho’s conservative and methodical style of play, the Portuguese’s ability to grind out results against European heavyweights is one of his greatest assets. This Chelsea performance lacked any intent whatsoever.

Not a Hazard in sight

The Blues have struggled frequently this season, for example heavy losses to Bournemouth and Watford,  deploying the 4-3-3 formation with Eden Hazard playing as a ‘false nine’. Your best player must play in his best position; he is your match winner. 

This formation doesn’t maximise the qualities of Hazard, Willian or Pedro but to play against arguably the best team in the world without a focal point up front is criminal.

The problem Chelsea had, like many teams, is that they didn’t have the composure on the ball to suit the tactics Conte deployed. That front three need the ball played into their feet but City’s pressing forced Chelsea to hit the ball long leaving them little chance against Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi. 

Worryingly Hazard, who has been linked with big money moves to Real Madrid and PSG, looks as alienated as he did at the end of Mourinho’s reign at Stamford Bridge. The Belgian looked frustrated and even embarrassed with the team’s performance as he was hooked off by Conte against Manchester City. 

Like many he couldn’t understand why one of the top club’s in the world played in the defeated manner the Blues did and world class players like Hazard don’t stick around for mediocrity. He even said after the game: “We could have played for three hours, and I [still] wouldn’t touch the ball”.

Is that Conte at fault for his ignorance in thinking his players could deal with City’s high press? Could he could get away without someone to hold the ball up? Or did his players fail to execute his game plan?

Trouble in paradise

It’s expected Conte will depart Chelsea at the end of the season. He clearly has a fractious relationship with the Chelsea hierarchy, precisely what saw him leave Juventus, over several issues most notably transfers with his controversial comments in the public eye not going down well in the boardroom. 

His relationship with the players has sure to have been dented with popular members of the squad like Costa and David Luiz frozen out of the first team picture and as he constantly laments the lack of transfer activity. 

Some have labelled Conte’s potential sacking as ‘disrespectful’ for a man that transformed a broken side that finished 10th place into title winners in the space of a year. 

This situation isn’t uncommon at Stamford Bridge; Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo and Jose Mourinho (twice) all won titles in their time at the club only to be dismissed a short while later. 

An unethical, but successful philosophy?

In fact, since Roman Abramovich came to power in 2004 he has hired (and then fired) 11 mangers as Chelsea have employed a never-ending cycle of success and unceremonious sackings. The debate rumbles on about giving mangers a fair chance which hasn’t happened in many cases at the club. 

But 14 trophies in that same period is hard to argue with and in terms of silverware Chelsea have been the most successful English side during that time. It’s a formula that works and perhaps Conte has reached the end of the cycle.

Best for both parties

It will be sad to see a man with such unflappable charisma leave the Premier League. There’s something that English fans and the media love about Italian managers and although he didn’t have the cheeky chappy persona of Claudio Ranieri, Conte was loved for the passion he displayed on the touchline.

It could be the best thing for both Chelsea and Conte, who won’t be short of potential options. One thing for sure is that, as always, Chelsea will come out the other side a stronger team under a new direction. That has been their recipe for success for so many years and there’s no reason why that should change now.

There isn’t a plethora of world class managers available right now but a left-field appointment like Thomas Tuchel could be the man that finally brings Chelsea’s all-conquering youth system into the first team. 

Whoever takes on the role will have an enviable task working with a squad full of talent but in desperate need of cohesion, from the pitch to the boardroom.

Should Conte go? Let us know in the comments section below.

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