Antonio Conte: Why did Italian’s Chelsea reign turn sour?
t has taken far longer for Antonio Conte and Chelsea to part company than initially thought likely, mainly because of the compensation issues that needed to be resolved.
However, for the seventh time in a decade, Chelsea are changing their manager.
Conte delivered two trophies in two seasons. The former Italy boss guided the Blues to the Premier League title in his first campaign but the FA Cup was considered a poor return last season.
Conte’s 65% win percentage was higher than anyone who spent more than 40 games in charge of the club since Avram Grant left in 2009 – but a premature exit for the 48-year-old former Italy and Juventus boss was always likely, explains BBC Sport’s Simon Stone.
The warnings started coming even before Conte had defied expectations to win the title in his debut season.
A posse of Italian journalists had attached themselves to the former national coach to chronicle his time at Stamford Bridge for an expectant public back home.
They had been startled by Conte’s smiling, jovial demeanour.
This was a man known for his short fuse, who resigned at Juventus a month before the start of the 2014-15 season, furious at the club’s botched transfer policy, annoyed at their pre-season schedule and irritated by those exerting influence behind the scenes.
In that brilliant first campaign in London, Conte’s only significant issue came with former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who was angered by what he perceived to be the Italian’s excessive celebrations at the end of a 4-0 home win over Manchester United.
Insiders at Chelsea were told by the Italian contingent that, with a combustible figure like Conte at the helm, the serenity could not last. It was not long before they were proved right.
Where did it start to go wrong?
Nearly everyone at Chelsea acknowledges that, as manager, Conte was within his rights to decide he could manage perfectly well without Diego Costa.
The Spain international may have scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances over a three-year spell in which the Blues won two titles.
He may also have been one of the most feared forwards in the English game.
But Costa was notoriously difficult to control and it was reasonable that Conte had no wish to extend their working relationship beyond a single season.
What astonished and infuriated the Blues hierarchy was the method by which the manager told his player his services were no longer required: a text message, which Costa made public in June while on international duty with Spain.
As well as any damage inflicted in terms of Chelsea’s standing, financially it was a disaster because Costa made it clear he would not go anywhere apart from his former club Atletico Madrid.
Chelsea’s negotiating position had been stripped away. The player went on strike as the clubs haggled, and it was September before a £57m deal was concluded.
In between, Conte had signed a contract of his own – an increased salary a reward for his title success. Strangely though, it did not extend beyond the two years remaining on his initial deal.
These two factors ensured the early weeks of Chelsea’s Premier League defence were played against a backdrop of negativity regarding the manager’s future and his frosty relationship with senior players.
Conte’s relationship with the rest of the dressing room?
The row with Costa was only the start of Conte’s downturn in relations with his squad. Midfielder Willian is acknowledged to be one of the most popular, easy-going and laid-back members of the Chelsea squad.
When the 29-year-old Brazilian marked Chelsea’s FA Cup final victory on 19 May on social media, he did so by posting a picture of the entire Blues squad and backroom team on the Wembley pitch with the trophy – but completely covered the image of Conte with three cup emojis, one on top of the other.
In public, Chelsea did not respond. Privately, they felt if relations between Willian – the Chelsea players’ player of the year last season – and Conte had broken down to such an extent, how bad must they be with other, more intense figures within the squad?
Although ruled out by knee and ankle injuries for the past three months of the season, Willian’s compatriot David Luiz started only four games in three months after questioning Conte’s team selection before the Champions League hammering by Roma on 31 October.
Forward Eden Hazard, a player Chelsea are desperate to keep, has had his commitment questioned.
Then there is the training, with Conte insisting on driving his players hard through their most physically demanding period of the season, when it was felt all they actually needed was to be kept ticking over. Decisions were not explained.
Even during Mourinho’s two spells in charge at Stamford Bridge, there was the knowledge that while the Portuguese had a routinely stern face when on media duty, behind the scenes he was often very different and had a funny side that kept coming to the surface, routinely playing pranks on staff members.
Conte had none of this. On occasion he did not even speak to his own coaches, and hardly ever with his players. There were no arms around the shoulder or words of comfort in times of professional trouble.
There has to be distance between a manager and his players. This has been more like a schism.