Antonio Conte’s extended animation sessions on the side lines last season, as Chelsea rolled towards their second title in three years, was fun to watch. The Italian gesticulated, jumped, screamed and ran, as his Blues went on a win-streak after recovering from a shaky start. A new golden boy arrived Stamford Bridge, and the old one was forgotten. But all seem to be going pear-shaped for the former Azurri manager. The 2017-18 season has not started well for Conte, and the odds are that it may not end well either…
Remember that title Conte won? The 2nd in three seasons? Well, the man that won the other one had a season to forget just a year after he won. And it all started to unravel as innocuously as this. Conte’s second season started unravelling with that text he sent to Diego Costa. The Brazilian may be a disruptive figure in the dressing room, but the text, just like the public humiliation of that doctor, was a managerial mistake. This is simply because Conte had no idea how such a seemingly small matter of flipping out an employee will affect the club structure.
Conte wanted Romelu Lukaku as Costa’s replacement, and if he had succeeded, the impact of the acrimony between manager and player would have been mitigated, but he didn’t succeed. The Costa matter is simmering, Chelsea lost (a ‘sure’) first game of the season to a team that had no business defeating them. Now the club, and the dressing room, is divided: Chelsea have ordered the player dismissed by text back to London; the other players are backing the estranged star. The effects will test the team in two ways:
The first is: who sanctioned the recall of Costa? Was it with the approval of Conte? If it is without the approval of the fiery Italian, his authority has been undermined. If he sanctioned it, he has backed off in a duel with a player. It’s a no-win situation. Chelsea have proved to be a team bigger than its managers; even title wining ones. The events following the (horrible) Mourinho season underlined that, and shows that Conte is on a slippery slope.
The second effect is also in motion already. Players are reportedly backing Costa, because they know they could be the next in line for a dismissal-by-text. Worse, they are openly complaining; Caesar Azpiculieta complained that the players they lost (Costa, Matic) are superior to the ones they brought in. It is always a bad sign when players openly criticize the team or the manager. Unfortunately, anytime that happens in Chelsea, the manager (Jose Mourinho, Roberto di Matteo) is the one that ends up carrying the can.
Then there is the English press. They love nothing more than a new story, and Conte is new. The English press know how to rake up mud, sensationalize stories and throw pegs in cracks. Unfortunately for Conte and Chelsea, they have opened the door to that. The press will milk every noise, every expression out of Stamford Bridge. The pressure on Chelsea will mount, and of course, the manager will suffer the consequences.