Three times after Monday’s defeat at Watford, Antonio Conte said he was “not worried” about his Chelsea future. “Life will go on,” he said. The Italian clearly saw little point in feeling anxious about the inevitable.
When, in April 2016, he agreed to move to London and the Premier League, he would have known that managers don’t go quietly from Chelsea. Instead, they crash and burn. For 4-1 at Vicarage Road, read 3-1 at Leicester, the scoreline in December 2015 that did for Jose Mourinho? It seems more than likely.
Mourinho had won three league titles at Stamford Bridge over two spells. Both soured spectacularly before he was shown the door. Carlo Ancelotti was told his services were no longer required in the Goodison Park tunnel, just 12 months after collecting a Premier League and FA Cup double. Roberto di Matteo barely lasted six months after winning the Champions League.
World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked in the February of his first season, and so was Andre Villas-Boas. It would now be a huge surprise if Conte was not sacked in the same month of his second season. As those examples of Mourinho, Ancelotti and Di Matteo displayed, previous success provides no form of protection. Each case study shows that taking the manager’s job at Chelsea ends in the sack.
The writing has been on the wall for Conte since he signed a new contract last summer. His wages were increased, but the length of tenure was not. The best before date was kept at 2019, though he looks certain to be binned way before that. When last week he floated the idea of another contract, and said he’d ”like the club to prepare a statement for me to say they trust me in my work and my job,” he was being mischievous.
“I know this never happened in the past, so why should I hope for something different?” he continued, his open-eyed realism a challenge to Chelsea’s hierarchy. Conte knows he will not be short of offers back home in Italy, and Real Madrid’s slump under Zinedine Zidane may soon give rise to a vacancy at the grandest club of all.
Losing a job at Chelsea was no bar to Mourinho or Rafa Benitez landing the big one at the Bernabeu.
If Conte knew what he was getting into when he became Chelsea manager, then Chelsea knew what they were getting into when they appointed Conte as their manager. It would not have taken much in the way of forensic due diligence to discover that the meek, friendly character the public catch sight of in TV interviews and press conferences is nothing like the autocratic firebrand found behind closed doors. Conte implores that things are done his way and his departure from Juventus, the club he revived with three Serie A titles, came after a long-running dispute over transfers.
On the second day of pre-season ahead of the 2014-15 campaign, Conte jumped ship, frustration boiling over at a club that could not afford to support his goal of challenging for the Champions League. It appears now that he might even lose his Chelsea position before their challenge for that competition is even concluded. Barcelona, unbeaten in La Liga, visit the Bridge in a fortnight, to take on a team that has crashed in quality, despite having roughly £200 million spent on it since last summer.
Chelsea, unable to compete with the Manchester clubs for the top-grade talent in the market, have shown the false economy of bargain hunting – if £40m for the hapless Tiemoue Bakayoko, red-carded at Watford after thirty minutes of ineptitude, can be called that. That deal, in any case, was funded by the sale of Nemanja Matic for the same price.
Conte wanted Alex Sandro, Romelu Lukaku and Leonardo Bonucci. He ended up with Emerson Palmieri, Alvaro Morata and Antonio Rudiger. He also appears mystified by the presence of Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater within his squad.
“Maybe I made the mistakes with the starting XI today,” he said at Watford. But only Bakayoko and Davide Zappacosta of that selection had arrived since last season, the latest example of him failing to endorse the recruitment work done by Marina Granovskaia, the director closest to Roman Abramovich.
If that appears a dangerous game to play, then Conte does not appear remotely afraid of its consequences.
And on the flip side of that, neither will Chelsea be afraid of taking a decision on him. Sacking managers has been no barrier to success. The word is that a replacement in Luis Enrique, winner of a treble in 2015 with Barcelona, has been lined up.
Should he arrive, then Enrique will already know the fate that eventually awaits him.