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Have you ever known a couple that live at each other’s throats?
It doesn’t matter where they are, what time of day or what the social situation is, they’ll start pull an argument out of nowhere the same way a magician pulls rabbits out of hats. When Johnny and Sarah are coming to dinner, you know there’ll be fireworks.
And as you pick away at the remnants the rotisserie chicken that your wife so lovingly prepared, you cast an eye toward Johnny and Sarah. Sarah is gesticulating towards your wife, explaining just why all men are worthless, with one hand tightly gripping Johnny’s ear, while Johnny takes the moral high ground by trying to drown out his wife with a chant of ‘blah blah blah’.
Surveying the madness before you, you wonder what attracted them to each other and how they’ve lasted this long. But at the same time, the realisation dawns that in truth, they are perfect for each other.
Who else could go to bed with Sarah, knowing that at any point your ear might end up in a human vice? Who else could wake up next to Johnny, trying (for the 8th day in a row) fart the national anthem?
Neither is perfect and that is what makes them perfect, for each other. And that is the way I feel about Antonio Conte and Chelsea.
After overseeing Italy’s European Championship campaign, Antonio Conte arrived in England a little late and right up to the end of the summer transfer window there were faint hints of a crisis as Chelsea failed to bring in players of sufficient quality to make Chelsea contenders.
The arrival of David Luiz from PSG was initially considered a step backwards, signing a defender who had his frailties during his first spell at Chelsea and who, it was felt, had only got worse on his sojourn in France.
But that season Conte manufactured something spectacular.
After a 3-0 defeat by Arsenal, Conte decided that it was time for something drastic. Out went his 4-man defence and in came the 3 at the back that has been adopted by everyone from Arsene Wenger to Sam Allardyce following suit.
In short, Conte’s tactics have seen the biggest shift in British tactics since the 4-2-3-1 that came in around 2010.
Not only did Conte make Luiz look like one of the best defenders in Europe, he plucked Victor Moses from the wilderness and turned him into one of the league’s best players. That season Chelsea won the title at a canter, amassing a record number of wins.
It also secured Conte his fourth consecutive domestic title. Of his managerial ability, there can be no doubt.
But that isn’t what makes him perfect for Chelsea. What makes him perfect for Chelsea is the almost comical way that in his second season he is washing his hands of his team and trying to get himself sacked.
In many ways, the problems that are being so publicly played out between Conte and Chelsea began last summer, but particularly this season the Italian has been vocal in his criticism of the club’s transfer policy.
The failure to sign Fernando Llorente in the summer, to act as a backup to Morata, left the Chelsea inquiring about everyone from Olivier Giroud to Peter Crouch (they went with Giroud naturally). Just as the absence of truly world class signings has left Conte bemoaning the lack of depth he has in his squad.
Likewise, the players that have arrived haven’t gone down too well either with Conte suggesting that Ross Barkley might not possess the mental capacity to make it at Chelsea. Michy Batshuayi was seemingly written off as soon as he touched down at Heathrow, while for all of his heroics last season, David Luiz appears to have already been dispensed with this.
The result is that Chelsea haven’t won in 5 games. Their two most recent defeats saw them lose 3-0 to Bournemouth and 4-1 to Watford.
But does Conte care? Does he ever. In his post Watford press conference, he effectively dared the Chelsea board to sack him saying ‘I am not worried about my job. I work every day and I give 120%. If this is good enough, okay. Otherwise the club can take a different decision. But I am not worried.”
Conte then went onto state that if the press wanted to find excuses, that “they could find everything”.
The Chelsea Supporters Club apparently believe Conte has gone mad. But personally, I find it refreshing to see a manager wash his hands of the drama that surrounds modern managers.
Conte is an elite manager, so why would he care if he gets sacked? He’ll get his compensation money and end up at PSG or Bayern Munich before he gets his next credit card statement.
I find it refreshing to see a manager so publicly back himself that he instantly casts off any responsibility for substandard players featuring in his team. At a club where every manager sooner or later ‘loses the dressing room’ falling foul of ‘player power’, Conte hasn’t got the time for it. He has elevated himself above the nonsense, even if commentators will chastise him for being unprofessional.
At a club that regenerates new managers like Doctor Who, Conte has made no effort to hide the fact that he feels nothing but contempt for the furore surrounding him, a contempt which matches that seemingly felt by Chelsea towards its managers.
In the last 12 years Chelsea have had 12 managers and the cycle is a similar one. Big name manager comes in, makes some signings, makes an impact, loses a couple of games, loses the dressing room, loses his job.
In fact, so a-tune to this process have Chelsea become that they appear to be creating a structure whereby managers can be switched in and out of the first team as seamlessly as getting a new paint job on GTA.
When Jose Mourinho won the League title in 2015, there was no great financial support of him the following season. In came Pedro, but a Pedro cast off by Barcelona, a good player but by no means a world class one. The next biggest signing that summer was Baba Rahman… yeah, exactly.
Recovering from the crisis that ensued, Chelsea did bolster their side, most notably with N’Golo Kante even if there remained areas that Conte would have liked improving. But this season in particular it has become clear just how little say Conte has in Chelsea’s transfer dealings. The players are brought in by the club, the manager had just better get used to them.
Of course, it is tempting to attribute the relative frugality of Chelsea over the past few years with the implementation of Financial Fair Play and it does appear that Abramovich has entered a new phase in his ownership, leaving behind the days of breaking transfer records left right and centre. In each of the previous 4 seasons, the club’s outgoings have broadly matched the incomings (this season around £230m was spent on players, while roughly £180m was recouped).
But Chelsea’s policy is also an indication of their approach to managers, namely their utter contempt of them. A trophy can buy you a decade in charge at Arsenal, but it might not even buy you 12 months at Chelsea, as Carlo Ancelotti famously found out. Again, and again the club has sided with its players, tossing aside managers and bringing in something shiny and new.
And now it appears that the Club is being set up to run on autopilot. A manager can come in and steer the ship, but it’s far from necessary and if he doesn’t do it well enough, then the club can just get someone else in without having to worry about the caretaker that is going to have to have sit in the big seat for the next month. 80% of the work will already be done, the manager only adding the gloss.
And that is why Conte and Chelsea are perfect for each other. The manager has no respect for his club, just as his club has no respect for him. Both recognise that they are bigger than the situations they are in and both will survive just fine.
Neither is making any great effort to diffuse the situation, because neither care enough to try. Chelsea apparently have Luis Enrique primed and ready to take over and Conte apparently has his sights set on a top European job.
For all the injustice, Ancelotti will remain the one who got away, but when the Conte situation is said and done, he will be the one who the club cast a rueful eye over, not quite sure if they missed out on something special, or avoided something terrible. Perhaps they’re just too similar. Either way, the relationship between Chelsea and Conte is a thing of beauty and long may it continue.
(It might not last a week).
Written by Scott Pope
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