Chelsea are the 2016/17 Premier League champions, but the hard work is only just beginning for Antonio Conte. Only one foreign manager has successfully retained the English title before – Jose Mourinho – and no club has managed it in the last eight attempts, harking back to Manchester United in 2009. Conte may have adapted to the Premier League with surprising ease, but next season will be the real challenge – the greatest and most difficult of his managerial career.
Silverware can only be enjoyed until the first game of next season; just ask Jose Mourinho – one of the most decorated and gifted managers of the Premier League era, who left Chelsea in disgrace and just above the relegation zone seven months after guiding them to the English crown for the third time. Circumstances, momentum, form and fortune change at an incredible pace in the Premier League, but even more so at the division’s summit. When things go wrong at a top club, they can quickly spiral into disaster – once again, something Mourinho can pay direct testament to. The only remedy is pre-emptive ruthlessness.
Concerningly for Conte, he now faces many of the challenges his predecessor failed to overcome, that lead to arguably the most infamous sacking and statistically the worst title defence in Premier League history. Choruses of ‘Don Tonio’ may ring around Stamford Bridge after every Blues win, but Roman Abramovich is an unforgiving paymaster and there’s always somebody waiting in line to take a job at a club of Chelsea’s stature.
Another Chelsea collapse of 2015/16 magnitude seems improbable, even in world football’s most predictable top flight. But there is already the danger of Conte becoming a victim of his own early successes if the Blues don’t start the season strongly and remain in the title race until the latter stages of next season. Intertwined with Conte’s mission to successfully defend England’s domestic honour, or at the very least mastermind a convincing attempt, is his own survival. That, however, that will hinge upon succeeding where Mourinho spectacularly faltered.
The largest, most visible and immediate obstacle is summer recruitment, one of the underlying factors behind Mourinho’s disastrous 2015/16 that not only impacted Chelsea’s performances on the pitch but seemingly fractured relationships behind the scenes, particularly with technical director Michael Emenalo. There were unquestionably other forces at work, but a failure to improve Chelsea’s starting XI coupled with a poor pre-season created a feeling of underwhelm from the very start of the campaign. From there, matters seemed to snowball out of control.
Perhaps more instrumentally, it didn’t increase Mourinho’s faith in a squad he’d rotated reluctantly en route to the title, it left Chelsea’s tactics worryingly predictable and it didn’t increase competition within the squad – neither Chelsea’s increasingly apathetic regular starters nor the opposition were kept on their toes. Furthermore, when Mourinho did begrudgingly bring in the squad additions signed in the summer, they didn’t have the quality or experience to lift Chelsea out of their malaise.
Conte has used more players than Mourinho did in his bid for the crown and has selected the right players for the right occasion smartly – particularly his utilisation of Cesc Fabregas – but the Italian finds himself facing similar dilemmas. Teams will be more prepared for the 3-4-3 game-plan next season and this Chelsea side has already shown a willingness to rest on its laurels. The big question, of course, is how to improve a starting XI that has proved so balanced and effective as a collective unit. Mourinho failed to find an answer as Chelsea’s recruitment department went for squad options instead, but just like in summer 2015, that simply won’t be enough for Conte to carry momentum over into next season.
If Conte is to fare better than Mourinho, Chelsea’s transfer policy this summer must be nothing short of ruthless – both on the inward and outward fronts. Fan favourites like Willian, Pedro, Nemanja Matic and even Gary Cahill may have to be sacrificed to bring in younger, hungrier alternatives who can push for key roles in the starting XI. Alexis Sanchez instantly comes to mind; although a deal with Arsenal may seem unrealistic, that’s exactly the kind of business Chelsea will have to pull off this summer – not only improving their own first team but also weakening a direct divisional rival.
Likewise, Chelsea need a striker who can truly compete with Diego Costa, if not overtake him in Conte’s plans. The Spaniard is world-class when in top form, but such spells are erratic and he can’t be depended on for a full season. It can certainly be argued Costa’s barren spell from January to March would have been much shorter if an understudy was truly pressuring him for a starting spot. Michy Batshuayi failed to provide that competition. The other obvious department requiring attention is right wing-back – for all Victor Moses’ servitude this season, Chelsea need a specialist if they’re to jump up to the next level.
Additionally, Conte needs to find a genuine Plan B. The switch to 3-4-3 has proved the difference in this season’s title race, the Italian unearthing a balanced, winning formula while the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mourinho were still getting to grips with the squads they inherited, but the rest of the league will know what to expect from the Blues by the time 2017/18 comes around. Mourinho stuck by his 4-2-3-1 principles with an almost painful stubbornness, as if to vindicate himself and condemn his players, and Conte needs options to make sure he doesn’t fall into the same trap.
Similarly, tactical variation is becoming the name of the game in the Premier League and particularly for the six-point affairs at the division’s summit, which have become almost clashes of philosophies and ideas more than anything else. Chelsea’s record against top six sides this term is actually poor in comparison to their champions status and in a league where the difference between the big six and the rest of the pack is widening, that could well be their undoing next year. Conte needs signings who can spring a surprise on his Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City and United counterparts.
But perhaps a less obvious yet equally pivotal problem shared with Mourinho in summer 2015 is the impending departure of a dressing room leader. John Terry’s last Premier League start came in September and in terms of performances, Chelsea have coped well without him – in fact, the other options at Conte’s disposal are far better suited to his three-man defensive setup. Nonetheless, the Chelsea captain still has an intrinsic impact behind the scenes and Conte will need to find a way of replacing that.
Chelsea’s last Premier League title was Petr Cech and Didier Drogba’s curtain call and their subsequent exits in the summer had as big an effect on Chelsea’s collapse the season after as any other factor. It took away an abundance of experience from Chelsea’s squad and former team-mates failed to adequately fill their voids, something which made Mourinho’s job all the more harder as players turned to him, rather than those who lead the dressing room, for all the answers.
Whilst Chelsea’s players may have grown in stature since then, Gary Cahill particularly has excelled in the role of matchday captain, it remains to be seen if they’ve truly learned their lessons from last time or still attach the lion’s share of blame to Mourinho – are they ready to take responsibility upon themselves, or do they still need a character like Mourinho or Conte to be the driving force? Terry has shown he can provide that throughout his career and his ability to lead is as strong as Cech and Drogba’s combined. That’s a massive presence Chelsea will be losing; once again, one that Conte may have to address via the transfer market.
Of course, it’s not all simply about splashing the cash in the summer and Conte is clearly an exceptionally talented coach, but staying power is increasingly waning in the Premier League – even Claudio Ranieri got the bullet after pulling off the greatest feat in the history of English football at Leicester City – and the level of competition at the top of the division is nothing short of unprecedented. It was probably underestimated by Chelsea’s hierarchy the last time the title was in their possession.
If Conte is to remain Don Tonio, he must make sure the club doesn’t stand still. Achieving that, however, will require overcoming the challenges Mourinho couldn’t – and making some incredibly tough, incredibly bold decisions during the summer.