It feels like quite a while since the Premier League took centre stage of football’s traveling circus.
When Chelsea drew with Burnley at Turf Moor, Sean Dyche was lauded as one of the best young mangers in English football. Since then, his Clarets have crashed out of the FA Cup to non-league Lincoln City, whilst Chelsea have been drawn with Manchester United in the quarter-finals.
Manchester City have also been busy. Cutting the gap at the top of the Premier League table to eight points before their own FA Cup tie and a pulsating Champions League game with Monaco. Life seems to have happened quickly over the last few days.
So quickly, in fact, that in the intervening period, there have been rumours over Antonio Conte’s contract at Chelsea. Whether he’ll be offered one or has indeed signed a new one – as some of the rumours suggest – few could argue that Conte deserves it for the job he’s done in his first season in English football.
But what Conte deserves and what’s best for the club may be different things.
After only a few months, very few people would expect a new contract in their jobs. Granted Antonio Conte is no normal person, and granted football is an exceptional business, it does seem odd that a manager would be rewarded without actually achieving anything. If he is to get a new deal at the end of the season, after winning the Premier League at the first time of asking, that would make more sense, but it would still be something of a shock.
You’d presume that the Italian manager has been brought into the club and been tasked with bringing success. That means winning trophies, both of foreign and domestic, of cup and league varieties. Surely that’s not a brief that’s changed. Have Chelsea’s expectations changed? Did they expect to win the league this season? Probably not. Did they expect Conte to deliver a Premier League title at some point? Certainly, yes.
And so a new contract at the end of this season is basically a reward for completing a task he was set.
You understand the need to reward deserving people around the club when they perform well. But you’d also think that Chelsea, of all clubs in the recent past, would know better than to go too far too soon delivering this type of largesse: the debacle last season which cost Jose Mourinho his job was preceded by a new contract awarded to the Portuguese boss for winning the league and the League Cup the previous season.
At the time, talk around Chelsea seemed to be centred around one word, ‘dynasty’. Jose Mourinho’s side marched so irresistibly to the title that it was nigh-on impossible to see anyone else win it the next season. They were so dominant, the rest, so weak.
At it turned out, dynasty wouldn’t have been so difficult to build had Mourinho not lose the dressing room. Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham all collapsed in their title bids last season, whilst Manchester United and Liverpool were never really in it. Leicester City took advantage, but you get the feeling that Mourinho’s Chelsea could have won the league playing at 80% of their previous season’s best. In the end, they could barely muster 50%.
This year, Chelsea are more or less a team of champions who have found their form, seemingly marching to the title with the same ruthless, unstoppable nature as under Mourinho two seasons ago.
And so the question arises: what exactly do Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea board want from Conte? Other than they seem to be for winning and against anyone else winning, what do they see as the long-term plan? Will they sack the Italian just as they sacked Mourinho if things start to go wrong last season? (Admittedly, things went so wrong that they probably had no choice but to sack Mourinho). Or will a trophyless season next year after a possible Premier League and FA Cup double this season be put down to the rigours of competing at the top level two seasons in a row, the second time with European games to contend with?
It’s hard to know with Chelsea given how frequently they change manager. But as the Premier League comes back again this weekend, we’re reminded that the Blues are only eight points ahead of Manchester City, and they’ll know all to well that things can change quickly in football.