When Antonio Conte arrived in the Premier League last summer, one could have easily mistaken him for being a little shy. Speaking limited English in a hushed tone, he didn’t exactly entice the limelight or protrude an attention-absorbing persona like his predecessor Jose Mourinho. In fact, during the first half of last season we had to rely as much on the idea of Conte from his time at Juventus as what we learned about the Italian from his interactions with the press. Amid a time in which the focus in the Premier League was firmly set on Pep Guardiola and Mourinho’s long-standing rivalry and its insertion into the Manchester derby, that undoubtedly worked in Chelsea’s favour.
“Two years ago Chelsea finished 10th; that cannot happen again. We know the difficulty and for sure we want to avoid the Mourinho season with Chelsea. The coaches of the previous two champions [Chelsea and Leicester] both lost their jobs [the next season] and we are working very well to find the best solutions and use them.”
But fast forward twelve months and we are seeing a very different Conte, one who has taken swipes at his predecessor by claiming he doesn’t want another ‘Mourinho season’, talked up the ability of the star striker of Chelsea’s closest rivals last season in Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, questioned the north London outfit’s status in the Premier League and consistently urged his own club to make more signings before the summer window slams shut. Conte’s gone from being almost impossible to get an answer out of – whether due to his poor English, genuine reluctance to speak candidly or both – to telling everyone exactly what he thinks about a variety of subjects, in some cases without them even being wiggled under his nose.
“My question is this: What are Tottenham’s expectations? If they don’t win the title, it’s not a tragedy. If they don’t arrive in the Champions League, its not a tragedy. If they go out in the first round of the Champions League its not a tragedy. If they go out after the first game that they play in the Europa League and go down against Gent, it is not a tragedy. Maybe for Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and – I don’t know – Liverpool, it is a tragedy. You must understand this. You must understand the status of the team.”
Perhaps it’s gullible to believe that’s exactly what he thinks – how many managers in the Premier League give honest answers nowadays? There’s clearly a political element to many of Conte’s latest quips, most particularly his analysis of Kane as one of the best strikers in the world worth in excess of £100million. Nonetheless, the fact Conte has felt compelled to make these remarks, especially at this point in the summer, begs one to read between the lines – to ask why there’s such a drastic difference to 12 months ago and what it tells us about the Chelsea manager’s mindset ahead of the new season.
In that regard, the ‘Mourinho season’ swipe particularly resonates. It would still be making a humongous leap to suggest Chelsea’s title defence is due to go as disastrously as the last, but the summer has provided worrying warning signs and concerning similarities. Chelsea suffered incredibly underwhelming defeats to Bayern Munich and Inter during the International Champions Cup, a tournament they failed to win in under Mourinho two years ago, and now face Arsenal in another Community Shield final.
More pertinently, Chelsea’s transfer window has been questionable to say the least, that question being whether Chelsea are actually stronger now than at the start of it. Although Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko add more pace and fluidity to the team, changing dynamics that will make Chelsea less predictable to the opposition this season, whether they actually improve upon Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic remains an ongoing debate. Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen, meanwhile, for all their much-hyped potential, simply can’t replace the experience and leadership of John Terry.
Willy Caballero coming in for Asmir Begovic is a downgrade too and with less than two weeks to go until the Premier League’s opening weekend, Chelsea have at this time just 22 players in their first-team squad, three of which are goalkeepers, five of which didn’t kick a ball for them in any capacity last season and three of which will miss the start of the new campaign through injury – including Bakayoko and the talismanic Eden Hazard. It’s not the kind of squad that suggests a resilient title defence, especially amid a season in which Chelsea will re-enter the Champions League, and it’s not the kind of situation that suggests Chelsea will start the new season with a bang.
At the same time, we know Conte’s relationship with his paymasters isn’t exactly a completely amicable one. During his year at Stamford Bridge, the Azzurri coach has admitted he misses his family in Italy, remained coy on Inter Milan’s interest in his services, reportedly requested a direct line to Roman Abramovich, suggesting there wasn’t one already in place, and considered walking out over the club’s strategy for the new season. Perhaps most tellingly, despite signing an improved contract last month, the former midfielder’s terms are still due to expire in 2019. Clearly, Conte, the club or both don’t feel comfortable enough to commit to longer.
Combined with his unexpectedly provocative pre-season comments, it all creates the image of a manager feeling the pressure, not convinced by his own players and by his own employers, trying to shift that pressure onto someone else. Coincidentally, it’s Chelsea who have one of the toughest starts to the season, facing four of last term’s top seven before the end of September. Maybe Conte believes the potential reactions to his remarks will balance out the playing field; maybe he’s starting the mind-games early; maybe he’s hoping the comments can convince Abramovich to take more drastic action in the transfer market.
But the motivation for each reason is essentially the same; a concerned manager who, in stark contrast to last season, believes he has to start using his interaction with the press as a weapon for whatever means. Perhaps that’s a compliment to the sheer competitiveness of the Premier League ahead of what looks set to be a particularly close-fought season; perhaps it’s an indictment of how ill-prepared Chelsea are for a title defence once again.