In the Roman Abramovich ownership era, the one constant at Chelsea is the team being in a constant state of flux. To manage the Blues comes with a very simple directive: Win big trophies from the onset, then continue to win more big trophies or you’ll be sent packing, with another big-name manager placed in your stead. It’s how Chelsea—following a successful three-year run under José Mourinho from 2004 to 2007—employed 10 managers over the next 11 years, plus a second stint by Mourinho. Heading into the 2018-19 Premier League season, they’ll have an 11th.
While the club has yet to make an official announcement, multiple outlets are reporting that Antonio Conte has been sacked after two seasons in charge. Waiting in the wings is former Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri, who is expected to join the team along with ex-Napoli midfielder Jorginho in a deal worth around €50 million. Chelsea, Napoli, Sarri, and Conte were all at an impasse for most of the summer—an amalgamation of contract negotiations, holdouts, and potential buyouts meant that Conte actually spent the past few days still in charge of Chelsea at their Cobham training ground getting ready for the preseason. For Chelsea, the whole fiasco has been pitifully on-brand.
As a lifelong Chelsea supporter, I know it’d be unfair to describe our fan base as a suffering one—five titles in the Premier League era is more than every club except Manchester United’s 13. But all the euphoric highs—those EPL titles, and winning the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 2012—have run parallel to embarassing lows. Mourinho’s prophetic return in 2013, highlighted by his third Premier League title with the club in his first year back in charge, was followed by a necessary sacking after the club barely hovered above the relegation zone halfway through the 2014-15 season. Roberto Di Matteo was let go six months after that 2012 Champions League win—the improbable run, including a miraculous second-leg win over Barcelona, masked the Italian’s tactical deficiencies.
Every managerial change comes with hope restored; maybe this guy will create a legacy and stick around longer than the lifespan of a guinea pig. Upon his hire in April 2016, Antonio Conte had the pedigree—a blistering spell at Juventus and a convincing run with the Italian national team—and the roster, with his arrival coinciding with that of unrelenting workhorse midfielder N’Golo Kanté from Leicester City. Following a mediocre beginning to Conte’s inaugural EPL season, a successful switch to a 3-4-3 formation inspired a 13-match winning streak that sealed another league title. Conte managed to his own strengths. He preferred playing with three center backs during his time with Juve; at Chelsea, the trio of David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and César Azpilicueta proved difficult to break down—provided teams could even get past Kanté—and the whole team thrived. Cesc Fàbregas was utilized as a supersub, and dished through balls like a quarterback given a clean pocket. Eden Hazard returned to his world-class form. Even Victor Moses, no longer a maddeningly inconsistent winger, looked the part of a capable right wingback.
But though the team was successful domestically, a lack of European football masked a thin roster in Conte’s first year. The impetus last summer for the Blues, with a renewed focus on the Champions League coming in 2018, was to find the necessary pieces to complement the likes of Kanté, Eden Hazard, and Diego Costa. Yeah, about that.
The marquee signings of last summer’s transfer window were all under 25: striker Álvaro Morata (then 24), center back Antonio Rüdiger (then 24), and defensive midfielder Tiémoué Bakayoko (then 22). Costa, who reportedly clashed with Conte on several occasions, was unceremoniously dropped from the team until a midseason move to Atlético Madrid. Aside from Morata being installed as the starting striker, the Blues’ signings demonstrated the team’s priority was investing in its near future more than competing in the present. Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City amended their leaky backline, and got a proper sweeper-keeper. As City set a record for EPL points in a single season, Chelsea limped to fifth place—3-0 losses to Bournemouth and Newcastle, plus a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Watford, served as humiliating low points.
All the while, Conte was very vocal about his displeasure with Chelsea’s transfer policy—the same issue that led to the Italian’s dramatic falling-out with Juventus. In particular, losing out on Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United was a fractious blow between club and manager. It’s hard not to sympathize with Conte’s thinking. For years, Chelsea served as the EPL equivalent to Real Madrid: Barring a couple of exceptions, the Blues’ foundation was outspending other teams, the youth system—which developed, then spit out out-on-loan players such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Baba Rahman, Tammy Abraham, and Kurt Zouma—be damned. (That is also how you lose the likes of Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne in the first place, but I digress.) However, with City lining their pockets with money from Abu Dhabi United Group and Manchester United being, well, Manchester United, the Abramovich well began to run dry. Ultimately, United Arab Emirates oil money trumps Russian oil money.
At the same time, Conte’s pessimism this past season festered like an open wound. Instead of giddily hugging his assistant coaches after the club scored a goal and generally losing his shit—a common occurrence in that title-winning first year—the Italian moped around the sidelines, and sometimes didn’t wear tailored suits. (When certain managers with a penchant for theater show up in an unassuming tracksuit, you know shit has gone south.) He implored the team to “suffer,” the phrase itself becoming a mini-meme. Kanté and Hazard continued to thrive, but the supporting cast—namely, Bakayoko, fellow newcomer Davide Zappacosta, and a washed Gary Cahill—faltered, and Victor Moses became Victor Moses again.
Conte’s second season wasn’t an unrequited disaster—we won the FA Cup, hooray?—but with rumors swirling that Hazard and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois could be lured away to more lucrative pastures by the Real Madrid, this offseason was Chelsea’s crucial inflection point. Courtois, Hazard, and Willian preached clarity so they could consider their future. Instead, with Conte’s own future continuously in doubt and Napoli holding Sarri hostage, we got the rare Extremely Accurate Daily Mail Headline.
Sometimes The Daily Mail just....gets it pic.twitter.com/us4kpMGN5V— Miles Surrey (@HKSurrey) June 29, 2018
Conte’s beleaguered exit, however, doesn’t feel aligned with Chelsea’s managerial failures of previous seasons. All told, Conte won 51 of his 76 Premier League matches over two seasons, and held the highest winning percentage for a Chelsea manager since [checks notes, can’t believe this is true] Avram Grant. Last season, nobody was going to stop Manchester City. In other words, Conte wasn’t nearly as bad as the fired Chelsea managers who preceded him.
Since becoming Chelsea boss, Antonio Conte was the first manager to:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 12, 2018
Complete a league double over Pep Guardiola
Win 30 Premier League games in a single season
Beat Jose Mourinho in an English domestic cup final
This is, of course, the typical state of affairs for Chelsea: A team I love that seems like it can only exist in perpetual chaos. (On the bright side, a Jorginho-Kanté midfield is the stuff of dreams, and if the rapid passing of Sarri’s system can turn Dries Mertens into Discount Diego Maradona, imagine how Hazard might fare if he sticks around.) But there are only so many times the Blues can hit reset with yet another big-time manager, and expect trophies in short order. For a club that only seems to thrive in constant disarray, perhaps the ever-volatile Antonio Conte was a perfect manager.