“The pundit has to use the head to understand when you speak about tactics.”
Antonio Conte was in bullish mood. After watching his side fail to register a shot on Manchester City’s goal on Sunday, his gameplan has been lambasted throughout the media. His players were ‘mannequins’, whilst his conservative tactics were deemed ‘anti-football’.
It’s all a far cry from the scenes of a year ago when Chelsea ran away with the league title during Conte’s thrilling debut year in England. Chelsea were unquestionably the best team in the country back then, an innovative 3-4-2-1 obliterating weak challenges from media favourites Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho.
Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, workmanlike squad players during their career until that point, were transformed into braying masters on the wing, whilst Eden Hazard looked to have finally put the indifference of the previous campaign behind him.
Now, after the shortest of honeymoons, Conte’s time in West London looks to be up. His side are clinging on for a Champions League place next season, with progression in this years’ campaign looking precarious after a needling 1-1 draw at home to Barcelona two weeks ago.
With a departure seemingly inevitable, then, how should Conte’s legacy be viewed?
As the Independent’s Mark Critchley pointed out, 17 of the 20 Premier League clubs mimicked Conte’s three-man defence at some point last season. The switch was pivotal to the Italian’s success, but his time in West London had been characterised by a departure from the tactic that had served him so well in Serie A.
Perhaps mindful that Gary Cahill and David Luiz were less able than Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Conte had abandoned the three-man foundation in favour of a two-man pairing.
It didn’t work out. After losing at home to Liverpool the week before, Conte watched his side get annihilated by a rampant Arsenal side in October 2016.
A mistake from Gary Cahill, leading to remarks about the absence of 35-year-old John Terry from the team, convinced Conte that drastic action was needed. The switch was made at half-time and Chelsea went on a run that carried them all the way to the title.
Not just a formation
The formation wasn’t the only cause of the upturn in form, however. Diego Costa was irrepressible up front, a tornado of arms and elbows combining simmering malice with lethal finishing.
The Spaniard wrought results often through force of will alone, even if his attitude left his coach gritting his teeth. On his manager’s first day, he had skulked into his office demanding that he be allowed to return to Atlético Madrid. Rebuffed, he went about scoring a hatful of goals, but the tone was set for a simpering relationship that would eventually deteriorate into outright war.
Sagely, Conte kept his reservations to himself whilst the team was winning. As his side marched to the title, however, he made his first mis-calculation. Costa was informed by text that his services were no longer required.
The move was deemed disrespectful, not just by the player himself but to several members of the squad. Conte, believing himself to be in a position of maximum strength, overplayed his hand.
The brutal treatment of his most talented forward was not, however, a lethal blow. Conte made those remarks on the assumption that his angsty target man was about to be replaced.
Marina Granovskaia, the Chelsea director widely believed to be responsible for recruitment, had been given a list of preferred transfer targets that summer. Romelu Lukaku and Alex Sandro were the must-haves but neither arrived.
Conte was forced to make do and mend, a trend that continued in January as Virgil van Dijk and Alexis Sánchez remained un-captured.
The players that Conte managed to land haven’t performed, either. Alvaro Morata enjoyed a bright start to life in London but his form has tailed off badly in recent months. Danny Drinkwater is an able squad player but nothing more. The less said about Tiemoué Bakayoko, meanwhile, the better.
Belief in the manager’s methods has collapsed, too. David Luiz was dropped from the squad after a bust-up with Conte in October, playing just three times in the next two months. The Brazilian had been criticised for a lack of effort, a cardinal sin for a man whose rigorous training sessions had him compared to a “police sergeant” by his former charge Chiellini.
Luiz wasn’t the only one who’d fallen off the pace, however. Victor Moses has been a shadow of himself this year, whilst Marcos Alonso paid for a lack of competition by appearing in too many games. Exhausted, he was withdrawn for February’s visit to Watford as a ‘precautionary’ measure.
His team promptly lost 4-1, with Bakayoko hounded for an early red card. By October, Chelsea’s players were complaining about the Italian’s militaristic methods. Conte, facing a burgeoning mutiny, chose to double down on the stick rather than offering the carrot.
Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City has been characterised as the defining point in Conte’s failure this year.
In truth, however, his strategy to try to limit Guardiola’s uproarious side was entirely justified. His tactics were stymied only be the collective failure of his forwards, with Willian managing a grand total of four passes throughout the entire game.
Conte, like every other manager this season, has been powerless to resist the City surge. Defeats to Manchester United, Bournemouth and West Ham are much harder to justify, however.
Conte’s legacy, then, will be defined as much for its failures than its early successes. A brief hegemony followed by a perilous collapse, one that might have been avoidable with more joined-up thinking and more prudent player management.
The Italian shouldn’t get all the blame, but a large percentage rests on his shoulders.
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