Before last season, the only other manager not named José Mourinho to win the Premier League title for Chelsea was Carlo Ancelotti in 2009–10. From Luiz Felipe Scolari to André Villas Boas, a string of others have tried and failed. Antonio Conte bucked that wider trend and emulated both Mourinho’s first tenure and Ancelotti’s spell by landing the main prize in his debut season.
His job was far from straightforward: He had to find a way to reinvigorate a team that had put up the worst title defense in living memory during 2015–16 by finishing 31 points off the top—at least until Leicester immediately one-upped them by finishing 49 points back. A 13-game win streak from October to January put the team in a position they long refused to relinquish. Despite his switch to a 3-4-3 formation coinciding with the start of that run, the truth was that Chelsea’s defense was stoic and hard to play against from the start.
Conte’s side finished seven points clear of second-place Tottenham, but this lofty position is going to be tough to maintain. The old adage is that the league table never lies, and in relation to handing out prizes after 38 games, it doesn’t. However, it doesn’t always project well for the following season. Based on the underlying metric of expected goals, Chelsea were broadly equal to the rest of their top-six rivals, but they built up their advantage by edging a series of close games and conceding just four goals during that win streak. They were an effective unit, but the numbers hinted that they were marrying defensive stability to a slice of good fortune, which built the foundation for their title.
Managing Chelsea is a job with a simple remit: You either win trophies, or someone else will be brought in to replace you. For Conte, the deal is no different, and it just got even harder. This past summer has given his rivals a head start.
Coming into this season, Chelsea are not the favorites—and neither are Tottenham. Instead, the bookies tip Manchester City as most likely to top the table come next May. City had the best expected goals number in the league last season, and after replacing their keeper and their fullback corps—their two biggest problems—they’re in good shape to dominate the competition.
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s transfer strategy provides a contradiction. Chelsea has long been criticized for hoarding young talent and not offering a route to the first team; look no further than former players like Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku and City’s Kevin De Bruyne playing for Chelsea’s direct competitors. Yet with a specific strategy rivaled perhaps at the top tier of football by only Real Madrid, Chelsea have frequently used the transfer market to get younger players and replace talent at the wrong end of the age curve. This summer, they did it again.
Diego Costa has been abandoned via text message and Nemanja Matic sold. Both will spend most of the coming season in their 30th year. Joining the outs list was club legend John Terry (36). The replacements: striker Álvaro Morata (24) from Real Madrid, central midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko (soon to be 23) from Monaco, and Antonio Rüdiger (24) from Roma. That’s the spine of the team strengthened with promising talent all at the front end of their peak years.
However, Chelsea’s title winners were a tight unit, and Conte rarely rotated. Of teams in the Premier League in the last four seasons, only Leicester’s 2015–16 side used a smaller core. Ten of their outfielders played more than three-quarters of available minutes compared with Chelsea’s nine. Without having to worry about European football and the extra six games shoehorned into the autumn schedule, the last two champions have each played out the season with little need for rotation, buoyed by some injury luck and a fairly fixed starting 11.
Conte, though, doesn’t seem happy with the summer business. The fallout with Diego Costa looked to be Conte’s doing, and for much of the offseason he appeared unsettled. There was speculation that he was frustrated with the club’s sale of Matic and its inability to re-sign Lukaku. The front-office logic of turning over the squad seems clear, but two players who started 30-plus games last season have already been easily discarded.
Central midfield looks particularly understaffed. Bakayoko is currently recovering from knee surgery, and he might not feature at all this month. With Matic gone, Cesc Fàbregas started the Charity Shield against Arsenal. With 12 assists in just 13 league starts, he’s capable of pulling the attacking strings for Chelsea, but he’s less suited to complementing N’Golo Kanté in the center of the now familiar 3-4-3. He lacks the innate defensive mind-set that underpins everything Chelsea do, and we can surmise that Conte thinks the same, as last season he subbed him in more often than he started.
On top of that, Chelsea’s new signings might not even make the team better—at least in the near term. The biggest question surrounds Morata replacing Costa. Everyone’s favorite Brazilian Spaniard brought a new dimension of gamesmanship to the front line, and alongside his nuisance factor, he was an extremely versatile and dangerous finisher. He enjoyed two incredible bursts of finishing form during his time at the club, each of which underpinned a successful title bid. Before New Year’s during the 2014–15 season, he notched 13 goals, and during the same period in 2016-17, he scored 14. Later in each season, the goal rate slowed up, but his contributions were pivotal in giving Chelsea a platform to build on. With 16 wins from 19 games, Chelsea’s 2017 started with 49 points and a six-point lead that they would not relinquish.
While Costa’s credentials remain rock solid, Morata now faces a challenge to make the starting role his own. He has long projected to be a top-class striker, and when he gets on the pitch he tends to score goals. Last season his rate in La Liga of 1.01 goals per 90 minutes played was top class, but he started only 14 games and has yet to nail down a first-choice slot in any of his seasons as a pro. For a 24-year-old who just transferred for £58 million, that’s an odd thing to be able to say. He shoots slightly more frequently than Costa does, but until a bravura run of league form in 2017 (when he scored 10 goals as part of Real Madrid’s rotational “B” team that took the slack for a busy Champions League–filled schedule), he hadn’t consistently been shooting from the most dangerous central areas. Now he could pick up right where he left off, but it’s not guaranteed.
If you watch a collection of his goals, Morata looks like he can do it all: right foot, left foot, and a slew of headers. But during the two seasons before last, his domestic goal rate at Juventus was less impressive: 0.4 per 90 in 2015–16 and 0.5 in 2014–15. Plus, Real Madrid cue up a ton of high-quality chances for their strikers. Chelsea aren’t attacking juggernauts, and Conte’s defense-first focus may mean Morata is required to be more active in the forward line to carve out added chances, much like Costa did.
With Eden Hazard sidelined, Chelsea will start this season with their two most reliable attackers from the last three years absent. Michy Batshuayi, who signed for £33 million from Marseille last summer, will benefit from the added games in the schedule and compete with Morata for starting time. He’s good enough to feature—17 league goals for Marseille in 2015–16 earned him his move—but Conte was still reluctant to use him last season, even as Costa cooled as the weather got warmer.
It’s probable that Conte, like any manager, wants to sign players at their peak now for his team now, while the club is painting with broader strokes and ensuring that personnel are lined up for the long term. A couple of more transfers look necessary with not much beyond Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso at fullback and not much cover in central midfield. Additions in both spots would allow some breathing space in the short term and add in the depth required for an added European campaign. But it’s also possible that in the hierarchy of transfer decisions at the club, Conte’s influence is not at the top of the list. Technical director Michael Emenalo has been in his role for six years, and five managers have come and gone under his watch.
The underlying tension at the club may be the presumption that Conte’s time is limited. He signed a new contract in July, but it covers only the next two seasons. With success measured in trophies, Conte might have to win something again in order to keep his job. During Roman Abramovich’s stint as owner, only Mourinho (in both his spells) and Ancelotti have lasted longer than Conte.
It seems improbable that Conte hasn’t bought himself more time. Still, his fellow countryman Ancelotti once led the team to a barn-storming first season, too. Then, a year after lifting the trophy, he was gone.