As we speak Antonio Conte has got to be the most admired, successful but short term pawn at any football club in Europe.
We have come to appreciate, given the way the modern day game has developed, that managers, no matter how successful they are, have relatively short life spans.
Conte though is a particularly unique case. He will have come into the job at Stamford Bridge knowing the track record of the club and no doubt will have said to himself “okay I’ve got three, maybe four years to build something here.” Much like the way Jose Mourinho did on two separate occasions for example.
Yet despite delivering what turned out to be a record breaking title in his first season, Conte already looks like he is being prepped for an early exit. Now regardless of whether tensions at the club are as frosty as reports may believe, it remains plain and clear that Conte does not have the level of control he wants in West London.
And the reality is he never will have the control he wants. Managing Chelsea is an art, Mourinho seemed to understand it more than most. It’s an appreciation that you work with limited control. Both he and the club, effectively Roman Abramovich, want the same thing – sustained success. At present however it seems like they have very different views on how they obtain that.
No doubt, Chelsea’s starting XI on Saturday will impress. Man for man it could be argued it’s a better side than last year. Despite his penalty miss at Wembley Alvaro Morata looks a more rounded player than the Maverick Diego Costa and looks built more in Conte’s mould. Tiémoué Bakayoko looks set to start in the place of the now departed Nemanaja Matic. The former Monaco man looks ready made for the Premier League and his exploits in Europe last year prove he has the skill set to succeed in England.
Conte may also give a debut to summer import Antonio Rudiger, but it remains to be seen whether he chooses to oust one of Marcos Alonso or Victor Moses given their performances last season.
What that XI does however is effectively paper over cracks Conte has tried so hard to address. For all Chelsea’s brilliance last year, Lady Luck did shine on them and more importantly their injury list. 10 players made 28 appearances or more last season thus allowing the Italian an immense level of continuity.
This was paramount given the way he implemented his now revered 3-4-3 system that has swept English tactic boards. This year however injuries will tell on his paper thin squad. The return of Champions League football adds another dimension with the burden that comes with playing three times a week and accumulating over 3,000 miles on a return trip to Eastern Europe.
The club’s resources will be stretched and Conte won’t enjoy the luxury of an uninterrupted week spent with his players. Additions have been few and far between and the Blues actually have a smaller squad this year than was the case 12 months ago.
Morata and Michy Batshuayi remain the club’s only two strikers whilst, beyond Bakayoko, N’Golo Kanté and Cesc Fabregas, Conte is short of a central midfielder. The cracks may begin to unravel even sooner than some of us anticipate and how Conte deal with those tumultuous scenarios could prove the making of him.
It was believed relations between him and the club’s hierarchy were close to breaking point earlier in the summer. The arrival of key targets acts only as mild collateral for a summer that has failed to match the Italian’s expectations.
The sale of Matic to rivals Manchester United only served to highlight how far apart the club and Conte are when it comes to the management of key assets. The ideal scenario is to add Bakayoko to an already title winning midfield thus improving Conte’s options. But a figure of £40 million for a 29-year-old was deemed too good to rebuff by the club.
Similarly strange was the decision to let a quartet of promising youth products to leave the club, whether permanently or on loan. Dominic Solanke, fresh from his exploits with England’s U20 side, looks an excellent acquisition for Liverpool whilst Nathaniel Chalobah has moved on to Watford.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham have both penned loan deals at Premier League sides Crystal Palace and Swansea City respectively. The duo will return to Stamford Bridge far better for the experience, but the question is whether Conte will be the man fortunate enough to utilise that improved talent.
For the first time since Abramovich purchased the club in 2003 Chelsea look content to build for the future if it means one season has to be the cost. Of course the club will not publicly state such desires, but the noises coming out of the champions are not aligning themselves with their business as usual approach.
Success over the last decade or so has elevated Chelsea’s stature as a club. The Champions are bigger than Conte and, whether he would chose to believe it, are also bigger than Abramovich – just about. Although his millions have made them what they are today.
Abramovich may be trigger happy and lack patience but he is not stupid. He has a business model that has proved successful even if several world class managers have been regarded as largely insignificant in that process.
The Russian knows that given Conte’s success last year even he cannot justify dismissing the Italian. But perhaps the owner has subtly put the foundations in place to hinder Conte in the short term, thus allowing the next man in the hotseat to succeed in the long term.
Abramovich has got his blue Chelsea machine moving and Conte, in the grand scheme of things, is little more than a spoke on the wheel. The wheel will continue to turn, but it doesn’t seem to be turning in a direction that Conte can follow Abramovich.