The Rise And Fall Of Antonio Conte – From Title Winner To The Exit Door
Allowing his players bottles of beer after wins, crashing the staff Christmas party and finding a formula for greatness in 3-4-3, Antonio Conte won the Premier League in style.
Now, he is the title winner on his way out, and someone in danger of being remembered more for rowing with Jose Mourinho and his board than for his brilliant debut season.
The man taking over the trophy, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, believes Conte will only be appreciated as a tactical master once he has left Chelsea. That time is approaching fast. The Italian’s exit at the end of the season is expected even if he wins the FA Cup and here, Sportsmail examines Conte’s fallen empire.
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PLAYERS… Do they like him? Don’t they like him? Who is he close to?
Chelsea’s players know the game – when asked in media interviews whether their manager still has their backing, they toe the party line. ‘Of course we’re behind him,’ they say.
But they have their own minds and more than a few are frustrated with the man in charge.
It started with the Diego Costa fallout, which disintegrated the trust. Then there was the row with David Luiz and now rumours of a strained relationship with Eden Hazard.
These are all popular players who can dictate the mood towards a manager. At present, it is one of annoyance between both parties after seeing how their Premier League title defence fell flat.
Some of the squad – not all, but a core group – have grown tired of Conte’s training sessions. So much nitpicking, so much endless criticism. It isn’t enjoyable.
Training under Conte is highly tactical and recorded so the footage can be studied for mistakes and replayed to Chelsea’s stars during video sessions later.
It’s like being back at school with an ill-tempered teacher. Conte has become well known for his strops, some of which can often be witnessed on the Stamford Bridge touchline.
Several times this season Hazard has asked for the leash to be taken off, with his coach’s safety-first tactics holding him back. His frustration is obvious and if Conte stays, Chelsea run the risk of losing their superstar. That £300,000-a-week contract offer is still unsigned, after all.
Conte does have his sympathisers, such as Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill, yet the list of those on his side has seriously diminished this season.
In his final weeks with Chelsea, the players will still do as they are told because they are well-paid professionals, but they aren’t oblivious to the stories coming out of the club.
They know as well as us that it is highly likely they will not be under Conte’s command this time next season, though they have been told nothing official. Not yet.
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE BOARD… Who does he talk to? Who has filled Michael Emenalo’s void?
In January, Conte upset his bosses by claiming he has no say on Chelsea transfers. In February, he asked for a public vote of confidence (which never came) and said his bags were packed.
Earlier in March, he accused the board of failing to match his ambition. Even before the international break, he moaned about how he was failed in the transfer market.
Conte has increasingly used his press conferences to send messages to Chelsea’s chiefs when it is something he should be sorting privately. Part of that reason is the Italian may feel the proper channels are not there.
Making accusations against the board is something ‘peacemaker’ Michael Emenalo might have had a word in his ear about.
Not now. Emenalo’s exit as technical director in November led to further differences between the Italian and the board down the line, with a lack of communication a continual issue.
Emenalo has not been replaced and Marina Granovskaia has assumed more responsibility at Chelsea, though Conte continues to use assistant Carlo Cudicini as his unofficial go-between and sounding board.
When Conte wants to vent about something, he goes to Cudicini or his backroom staff, not his bosses.
Granovskaia and Conte do speak occasionally – usually while the transfer window is open – and it is said to be amicable. However, the head coach’s claim of having no say in transfers has not been forgotten.
They have different objectives. One has gotten rid of owner Roman Abramovich’s blank cheque policy, while the other spent all of January calling for Chelsea to splash the cash.
Abramovich’s business interests around the world mean he cannot run Chelsea on a day-to-day basis. The Russian leaves it to his right-hand woman.
An end-of-season meeting will be scheduled to assess 2017-18, one which Abramovich will attend. He will find it did not meet his high standards, and that usually only means one thing for the manager.
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE FANS… Do they still like him? Do they want someone new?
Former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique is the frontrunner to take over from Conte – a big name who is out of work and believed to be open to trying his luck in England.
Enrique is bound to excite Chelsea supporters, though Conte is still well liked. He won the title in his first season in England and speaks the truth, as far as the fans are concerned. They too think a fair share of the blame should be placed at the feet of the club’s board, not only him.
Do not forget, Manchester City are doing astounding things this season, and even the most eager Chelsea fan can understand why they have struggled to compete to be champions.
Yet failing to finish in the Premier League’s top four would fall far short of expectations. Failing to finish above Tottenham, even worse.
For now, at Stamford Bridge, they continue to sing his name – ‘Antonio, Antonio’ – to which he responds by applauding them back. Conte appreciates all the support he can get at the moment.
His lively performances on the Bridge touchline helps. Supporters like to see that. Who wants a coach who stays sat down all game, showing little-to-no passion?
Yet while the majority of supporters’ vocally show their support, there are a few rumblings of frustration in the stands. For some, it started with the Costa situation. For others, it is the way they have went into big games this season.
Their 1-0 loss to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium was criminal, for example. And Chelsea have failed to beat Arsenal in five attempts this season – also criminal by their standards.
Plus, to hear Hazard say he wants to play on the wing then see him stranded in the centre can only worry a fanbase who already know he is liked by Real Madrid.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW? Where do Conte and Chelsea go from here?
Carlo Ancelotti knew his departure was coming in 2011 and that was said to have ended in a corridor of Everton’s Goodison Park on the final day of the season.
It came a year after he led Chelsea to the Premier League and the FA Cup but his failure to mount a challenge in England and in Europe cost him his job. Sound familiar?
Conte will continue to be asked about his future during press conferences as the rumours intensify with only seven games to go. And the Italian will continue to stare back with those intense eyes and avoid answering the question.
He knows even an FA Cup triumph and a top-four finish will not make the board forget all that has been said. It will be interesting to see if he continues to poke them with a stick publicly, as he has done for the last three months.
Chelsea, meanwhile, will no doubt begin making plans.
They want to be Premier League title challengers next season and will require the right man for the job. They know if Conte goes, then so does his backroom staff. It will take a big overhaul.
Conte’s contract runs until 2019 and, should he be sacked once this season is over, it will cost the club around £9m in compensation.
For now, they will go about business as usual. Conte will continue to do his job until told otherwise, the players will continue to train, play and wonder what the situation is, and the board will monitor matters from afar.
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