When Antonio Conte took over at Chelsea, no-one expected very much of him in his first season in the job.
The Blues had finished 10th the season previously after a traumatic season which started under Jose Mourinho and finished under Guus Hiddink. So to go from that to league champions in under a year is astonishing.
They didn’t just win the league either, but they obliterated it. Not to the extent that Manchester City have seemingly run away with the Premier League title this year, of course, but the outcome still means it feels quite similar: at the same point last season, it seemed as though no-one would match Chelsea’s level just as it does with City now.
As has been said by almost every observer, Chelsea’s season changed course at half-time at the Emirates Stadium when Conte’s side were losing 3-0 to Arsenal at the end of September. This season, there has been no such tactical switch to speak of, and Chelsea’s struggles don’t seem so easily fixed.
And yet, the reason for their decline – if, indeed, this is to be seen as a decline – is the sheer number of personnel changes made by the manager this season. Out went Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic, John Terry and even, to a lesser extent, David Luiz. In have come Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Andreas Christiansen. The spine of the team has been transplanted and replaced, Chelsea’s old guard is changing.
So after the first half of the season, we’ve probably only seen the first phase of the Blues’ transition into being a truly Antonio Conte side. For one thing, the Italian coach has had to deal with being the manager of a club who compete in both the Premier League and the Champions League, and that’s left no time on the training pitch for him to carry across his very meticulous message to his players – his new players. You get the feeling that if he was to overhaul the squad, last season would have been a better time to do it than this one.
Off the pitch there has also been speculation about the Blues’ manager’s future at the club beyond the end of this campaign, and it could well be a new manager taking over this newer group of players.
On it, though, and whatever setbacks they’ve had so far have been reasonably minor, if inconvenient. They are 14 points adrift of the Premier League leaders Manchester City, but that’s hardly the point anymore. Instead, they are five points clear of fifth place, as consolidation of their top four spot is surely the biggest priority for the rest of this Premier League season. Outside of the league, the Blues are still alive in all the cup competitions, though drawing Barcelona in the Champions League means progress there is still very much in the balance.
What that means is that the rest of the season for Chelsea will be measured by how far they can go in the cup competitions. Conte hasn’t won the League Cup or FA Cup in England, and if he’s to leave the club at the end of the season, this could well be his final chance. He also needs to mastermind a win over Barcelona if he’s to put the view that he’s a failure in the Champions League out of sight.
That means Chelsea’s 2018 will be decided by a mix of personal ambition and team goals. For the club, it may end up mattering less whether Antonio Conte can mastermind cup success between now and the end of the year, whilst for the manager, picking up as many trophies as he can this season could be key to his career success if he’s to leave England in the summer.
That’s not to say he’ll definitely leave the club, but there have been some rumblings, and between now and the rest of the season, we’ll see just how serious they really are.
But after Premier League title success last season with a squad he felt the need to overhaul in the summer, it surely wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Conte managed to scheme his way to another trophy in the next few months.