LONDON. — No club does boom and bust quite like Chelsea. Up one minute, down the next, with a succession of managers usually paying the price for any hint of a downturn with their jobs.
So, after an opening day 3-2 defeat to lowly Burnley with nine men, there should be enough warnings from history for Antonio Conte to feel slightly uneasy about his position at Stamford Bridge as the English Premier League soccer champions prepare to visit Wembley this weekend for what has become a crucial clash against last season’s runners-up, Tottenham.
It will only be 121 days on Sunday since Chelsea last faced Spurs at Wembley, in last season’s FA Cup semi-final, and the altered landscape at the club since Conte guided his team to a 4-2 victory over Mauricio Pochettino’s men is remarkable.
Back in April, when Chelsea booked their place in the FA Cup final, Conte was riding the crest of the wave, having taken the team to within touching distance of the Premier League title.
He had imposed his own tactical blueprint on the team, successfully switching to a three-man defence after a dismal start to the campaign saw them hammered 3-0 by Arsenal in September and his man-management restored harmony to a dressing-room which had become almost mutinous under Jose Mourinho just months earlier.
Mourinho’s malcontents rediscovered their form and commitment under Conte, so when Inter Milan made it clear they were prepared to offer the Italian a five-year contract to return to Italian Serie A this summer, he used it to his advantage to keep Chelsea sweating on his future until a new contract was offered and signed in July (though notably it only extended his wages and not his two years left at the club.)
Yet in the space of just a couple of months, Conte has seen his position of strength crumble and he only has himself to blame for the situation he now finds himself in, with pressure unquestionably mounting to get the club back on track.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who sacked Carlo Ancelotti and Mourinho less than 12 months after winning the title and Roberto Di Matteo just six months after guiding the club to Champions League glory, will already be demanding more from Conte. The season may just be one-game old, but the Burnley defeat last Saturday will not have gone down well with the Russian billionaire if the experience of Ancelotti is anything to go by.
“We won the first game of the new season 6-0 (against West Bromwich Albion), but I was still summoned to Abramovich’s house that night to receive a ‘dressing down,’ as they say in England, for the performance,” Ancelotti recalled in his book, Quiet Leadership. “A red flag — and only one game into the season.”
Ancelotti refers to other “red flags” from Abramovich in his book, such as his habit of arriving at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground to address players and staff after disappointing results, so Conte is unlikely to expect an easy ride from his boss in the coming weeks. By using interest from Inter to strengthen his hand at Chelsea, Conte has already challenged Abramovich and won, but the downside is that he will now be held to account if he struggles to deliver this season.
Last Saturday’s defeat against Burnley followed on from the penalty shootout loss to Arsenal in the Community Shield, which was a second Wembley defeat in the space of three months after the 2-1 FA Cup final loss against the Gunners.
The form guide is not looking good for Conte, just at a time when the manager also has the problem of an AWOL striker (Diego Costa) to deal with, having voiced his own frustration at the club’s transfer dealings this summer.
Chelsea failed to sign Everton striker Romelu Lukaku and sold key midfielder Nemanja Matic to Manchester United for £40 million — a player Conte described last week as a “great loss” — and, with Atletico Madrid under a transfer ban until January, they have yet to find a buyer for Costa, who Conte told by text message at the end of the season he was no longer in his plans.
On top of that, as is seemingly the club policy, a succession of the club’s emerging youngsters have been loaned out or sold, leaving Conte with a substitutes’ bench consisting largely of unknown kids against Burnley. With Eden Hazard and summer signing Tiemoue Bakayoko sidelined until after the international break due to injury, surely it would have been wise for Conte to halt the sale of Nathaniel Chalobah to Watford and block the loan moves of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kurt Zouma? But it’s too late now.
Chelsea must negotiate a Champions League campaign this season, having had no European commitments last year, yet their squad has shrunk, with only Bakayoko, Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and reserve goalkeeper Willy Caballero arriving and the youngsters who could have filled the gaps sent away.
Just to hammer home the issues the club currently face, they will take on Spurs this weekend without the suspended Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, following the pair’s red cards against Burnley.
Conte could have prevented the manpower shortage by retaining the youngsters, he could have been more pragmatic with Costa and kept the Spain forward in his plans until a buyer had been found and, crucially, he should have considered the dangers of challenging Abramovich during his contract stand-off.
None of the above would be a problem if Chelsea were winning, but results are going against them and Conte’s recent mistakes will return to haunt him if his team fail to find some form quickly. — ESPN.