Antonio Conte’s heart hasn’t been in it for a while. Compare his demeanour on the touchline to this time last season, or even during the first half of the current campaign.
Compare the proactivity of his substitutions. Compare his willingness to give game-time to new signings. Compare Chelsea’s performances. Compare Chelsea’s results. The contrast is so drastic and severe that an apathetic Antonio is the only logical conclusion.
The idea of the Italian actively pursuing the sack is difficult to subscribe to – both as a player and a manager, this is a ruthless, relentless competitor we’re talking about – but it’s become increasingly clear that Conte’s determination, commitment and belief in his role at Stamford Bridge isn’t what it was a year ago, or even four months ago.
That’s been obvious for some time now, and it’s clearly affected Chelsea’s players. Conte wrote off Chelsea’s chances of retaining the Premier League title back in December and even if it hasn’t been made explicitly public, there has been a longstanding expectation that this will be his last season at Stamford Bridge.
So, what has there really been for Chelsea’s stars to play for this season, at least during its second half? There’s no title on the line, and the opinions of the manager they’re paid to impress will be irrelevant come the summer.
With their silverware opportunities now whittled down to a potential FA Cup win, that lack of motivation really stood out on Sunday as Chelsea went ahead against West Ham but somehow allowed the Hammers back into the match to draw 1-1. Compared to last season, there was a decisive lack of killer instinct; Chelsea were a goal up and in full control yet failed to find the desire to finish off a side battling for Premier League survival.
Some will question the players, and rightly so. It hasn’t been as catastrophic as under Jose Mourinho in 2015/16, but Chelsea’s players have once again let their personal and collective standards slip after winning the Premier League title.
The players involved are a little different this time around, and the squad lacks the same level of leadership with John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa all moving on. Clearly though, those representing the Blues on the pitch have a few tough questions over their own professionalism to answer.
And yet, there are questions for those above Conte too, particularly why they’ve suddenly shied away from a model that has been the foundation for the club’s success under Roman Abramovich. Like it or loathe it, the trigger-happy, hire-and-fire culture in west London has lead to unprecedented glory for Chelsea, to the extent that it’s now what we see at practically every club in the Premier League if not the whole of Europe – as soon as the results dry up, the manager is sacked and a fresh face is brought in, usually with ruthless punctuality and routine.
Of course, there are almost countless sound criticisms of such short-termist thinking, but the approach has undoubtedly worked for Chelsea, partly because it so relentlessly keeps the players on their toes, and partly because it maintains the idea that there is a certain unwavering standard of success at the club.
That’s why the build up to their Champions League meetings with Barcelona, when strong rumours of Conte dwindling under the sacking axe re-emerged, now looks like the perfect moment to have parted with a manager who still seems unsure of whether he really wants to be there.
That’s not to suggest it would have given Chelsea a better chance of progressing to the next round of Europe’s top competition, but it would have nonetheless changed the emphasis at Stamford Bridge. Even an interim appointment of the Guus Hiddink or Rafa Benitez variety would have given a new sense of motivation to certain players and increased competitiveness amongst the squad.
And look at what’s happened at Chelsea from the point of their first meeting with Barcelona; the Blues have lost half their games, including defeats to key divisional rivals in Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham, suffered elimination from the Champions League and all-but mathematically confirmed their failure to qualify for next season’s tournament as well. In fact, they’re now just three points above Arsenal – back at the end of February, the gap was eight points with Chelsea in fourth.
No doubt, there have been other key factors too – particularly the calibre of opposition Chelsea have faced during that time. But after a slow start to 2018, winning only four games across all competitions before facing Barcelona, it was clear the Blues needed a shakeup – the whole club needed a gesture to remind everybody of the standards it should be striving towards and has largely maintained during the Abramovich era.
That should have been replacing a manager whose own standards had clearly fallen. But it didn’t come and Chelsea are now finishing the season outside of the top four, potentially without silverware, and with a whimper. It may have seemed ruthless to sack a manager mere months after guiding Chelsea to the title, but that ruthlessness – especially with those in the dugout – is exactly what’s made the west Londoners such a force in English football. And the performance against West Ham on Sunday showed how the sudden absence of ruthlessness is resonating amongst the players as well.
As much as the players do for their downturn in performances and Conte for his seemingly waning motivation, Abramovich and his right-hand woman Marina Granovskaia need to answer for why they’ve allowed this season to become a dead rubber, why they’ve failed to inject new incentives into the club through a change in management, and why they’ve so uncharacteristically shied away from a strategy that has been at the epicentre of their success.
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