Even in the crazy, cut-throat world of modern football it was inconceivable that we’d see Antonio Conte get sacked as Chelsea manager.
The Italian had been under pressure at the end of last month following back-to-back losses against Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as a disappointing draw against Swansea.
At this point it looked as though the Blues would struggle to make the top four, let alone challenge for the title. Even a 2-0 win away at Hull seemed to do little to help Conte’s position as the odds of him being sacked were slashed over the international break.
While it was later revealed that the bookies’ actions were decided after a series of bets from punters rather than speculation over his future, it still brought the idea of a Chelsea crisis into the public eye.
Fast forward a few days and the Blues are just three points off the title after beating champions Leicester City 3-0 at Stamford Bridge.
Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Victor Moses all found the net in the rout while Manchester City and Tottenham both dropped points, putting Chelsea firmly back into the title race. On top of that, it was a second clean sheet for Conte’s side since changing to a 3-4-3 formation.
So why all the talk of a crisis?
After their shockingly dismal title defence under Jose Mourinho – the Portuguese was sacked before Christmas with his side in 16th place – Guus Hiddink seemed to have steadied the ship.
The Dutchman led Chelsea on a 14-match unbeaten run (although eight of those were draws) as they finished in 10th, while star players like Hazard and Costa seemed to be getting back to form as well.
Things were looking rosy for Conte at the start of this season too as they managed three wins from their first three games to set the pace along with City, with Hazard and Costa again the catalysts.
Murmurs of discontent started to be heard however, after a collapse at Swansea and unconvincing performances against Liverpool and Arsenal.
Suddenly they were looking like Chelsea under Mourinho. They were struggling to keep sides out and Hazard went absent again. People questioned the easy start Conte had enjoyed – neither West Ham or Burnley away have been particularly challenge thus far, while Watford have been inconsistent – and it looked as though the Italian might be in trouble.
Considering the nightmare Mourinho had and the fact that Hiddink only really mustered the results of good mid-table side under no pressure and you start to wonder what some Chelsea fans were expecting.
You would imagine Abramovich’s target is top four rather than a title challenge and – despite an outlay of over £100m – that would satisfy most fans after labouring to 10th last year.
Conte had come in and admitted he was finding the best system for his players as he toyed with a 4-2-4 formation in pre-season. If anything, the Italian was a victim of his own success as they started so well before being outrun by Klopp’s Liverpool and outclassed by the Gunners.
Neither of those should be particularly surprising however considering Klopp has had a year to get Liverpool playing his way, while Arsenal are now enjoying six wins on the bounce.
A lot of the criticism for Conte seemed to stem from the fact that he was expected to use the three-man backline that brought him so much success at Juventus and Italy.
The Italian didn’t seem to think he had the players for this and so, to his credit, tried to mould the system to his players. After seeing this didn’t work, Conte invested £50m for bring in the players for a wing-back system (David Luiz and Marcus Alonso) and attracted more criticism for panic-buying.
Since then Conte has moved to a 3-4-3 formation and it seems to be bringing success. Two wins, five goals scored and none conceded reads a lot more like what you’d expect from the Italian. David Luiz has looked more assured than he did in his last Chelsea stint – indeed you could argue he’s been the best of Chelsea’s defenders compared to the underwhelming Cesar Azpilicueta and panicky Gary Cahill – while Marcos Alonso has also looked a marauding presence down their left flank.
Now the Blues are a mere three points off the top and if they become a side that can grind out results where others – notably the in-transition Manchester City and notorious “bottlers” Tottenham – may begin to drop them, they will definitely stand a chance of competing for the title.
Even if they fall short of a title challenge, credit should still be given to the Italian for instilling some of his fighting spirit into what seemed a lethargic side and getting them back amongst the top sides.
Anything else would be inconceivable.