Throughout the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea’s stability has laid in instability, a unique sense of ruthlessness that claims significant casualties whenever success seems to be slipping out of reach.
That may seem paradoxical, but there’s certainly something to argue for Chelsea’s short-termism; in the last 14 years, it has provided five Premier League titles, two European cups, four FA Cups and three League Cups. In the process, Abramovich has gone through 12 different managers, many of whom have chopped and changed the first team squad accordingly. The only consistency has been quite simply, the guarantee of punishment for anything less than absolute success.
Even then, absolute success assures nothing. A year after winning the double, Carlo Ancelotti was sacked. Six months after bringing a third Premier League title to Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho got the bullet. Even when Claudio Ranieri came second during Abramovich’s first season in charge, to Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles no less, he was quietly moved on to make room for the Special One.
And now we have the Chelsea career of manager Antonio Conte, whose introduction of 3-4-3 not only transformed last season’s 10th-placed side back into Premier League champions but also created a tactical shift throughout English top flight, hanging by the most delicate of threads.
There appears to be several factors at play here; Conte’s alleged desire to be reunited with his family in Italy, the often-uneasy relationship between the man in the Chelsea dugout and seemingly less accountable technical director Michael Emenalo, the fact the Blues boss will reportedly have to sell before he can buy this summer and the subsequent text relieving Diego Costa of his duties – a move which appears to have angered the club’s hierarchy.
The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel expertly points out how expendable managers are at Chelsea, in comparison to people like Emenalo working behind the scenes, and consequently, that Abramovich won’t hesitate to part with Conte if he refuses to toe the party line.
Once again, the stability lays in instability – the Russian’s abrupt cold-heartedness has a knack of keeping everybody on their toes. The fact Conte guided Chelsea to last season’s Premier League title is largely irrelevant, and certainly doesn’t make him immune from managerial liquidation.
This time, however, the situation is a little different. Whereas Abramovich’s prior employees all walked themselves onto the plank with results that failed to meet expectations, only for the Chelsea owner to push them off often prematurely, Conte has done no such thing – in fact, quite the opposite. Yet, amid the murmurings of discontent, a situation where four defeats after the first ten games of Chelsea’s title defence leads to the Italian’s abrupt dismissal is already completely imaginable. It’s probably worthy of a little flutter.
Whilst, on paper, that may not deviate from the norm at Stamford Bridge, Abramovich and his hierarchy can only have themselves to blame should such a situation occur, not least because they’re allowing for a repetition of the catastrophic circumstances and events that lead to the implosion of Mourinho’s second Chelsea regime just two seasons ago, starting with their interpretation of what’s required in the transfer market.
Chelsea’s summer 2015 provided a warning sign of what was about to occur, Premier League champions from a particularly despised club everybody would be out to get, not only failing to strengthen a starting XI that had looked increasingly jaded during the final stages of its title campaign but furthermore weakening the fringes of a squad Mourinho had already shown an untrusting reluctance to use. Asmir Begovic replaced Petr Cech; Baba Rahman replaced Felipe Luis; an out-of-form-and-fitness Radamel Falcao replaced Didier Drogba. In all cases, the former is a shadow of the latter – and then there’s the small matter of Papy Djilibodji.
Of course, there were other factors at work than simply poor recruitment that lead to Chelsea lingering just above the relegation zone by the time Mourinho was axed on 17th December 2015. But the Portuguese was clearly frustrated by his club’s manoeuvres in the transfer market before the season had started – his main targets were Paul Pogba and John Stones – and it only took a poor performance against Swansea and Eva Carniero’s understanding of duty of care for those frustrations to morph into something more sinister that eventually engulfed the club.
Conte is a similarly passionate man to Mourinho, similarly determined to win to similarly Machiavellian proportions, facing a similar problem of needing to strengthen a title winning squad. The Blues need more options up front, especially if Diego Costa is leaving, someone who can help fill the inevitable void John Terry will leave behind in terms of leadership, another central midfielder of box-to-box capacity, backup to Marcos Alonso at left wing-back and an upgrade on Victor Moses on the opposite flank.
Considering Manchester City and Manchester United are almost guaranteed to jump up a level next season and Chelsea will be fighting on a fourth front in the Champions League, a marquee signing of the Alexis Sanchez variety wouldn’t go amiss either.
With one of the most talented managers in Europe, a new way of playing that has already proved to be effective and some of the best players in the Premier League – not least including star entity Eden Hazard – Chelsea should be using this summer to push themselves to a higher level, where the Premier League becomes almost a foregone conclusion and the club begin to challenge the Spanish dominance in the Champions League.
But instead, Abramovich, Emenalo and co. are telling Conte to scrimp and save, to self-finance his own summer spending and to keep the books balanced. After winning last season’s title, Conte will feel he deserves more backing and, just like with Mourinho, the frustrations of not receiving it may soon boil over.
No doubt, Abramovich and Chelsea will move on, as they always have. But whereas history tells us the Russian is always ruthless when he needs to be, this situation is entirely self-created by a lack of ambition in the transfer market. The clinical, unrelenting assassin of eleven permanent managers is about to shoot himself in the foot.