Conte’s Biggest Challenge at Chelsea Is Yet to Come
There is no such thing as perfection in football, but Antonio Conte has come pretty close to it in his debut Premier League season. The Italian’s arrival at Chelsea was understated and not befitting of a man with his credentials, mainly because the big news came about 200 miles north, where Pep Guardiola was taking over at Manchester City.
Arriving in the Shadow
There was definitely more ‘Hollywood’ factor about Guardiola, given the winning machines he’d created at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, with his irrepressible philosophy and stylish, slim-fit suit. But the watered-down welcome from the wider media for Conte at Stamford Bridge definitely did him a disservice.
It was probably the way he’d have liked it, but there is no doubt who has proven to be more of a tactical visionary over the course of the campaign. Conte has led the Blues to the brink of the league title before April, thanks in no small part to the 3-4-3 formation he employs.
Chelsea have looked unstoppable, without being particularly spectacular. Conte has instilled the defensive organisation and intensity, which helped him win three Serie A titles with Juventus, between 2011 and 2014, and guide Italy to the quarter finals of Euro 2016 last summer.
There are so many factors behind the club’s rapid rise back to the top, which has come after an even more dramatic fall last season. As champions, they were 16th in December, with Jose Mourinho sacked and replaced by Guus Hiddink who, on an interim basis, guided the club to tenth place.
Conte Has Turned it Around
Signing midfielder N’Golo Kante after he helped Leicester win the Premier League was a huge coup, but the upturn in form of both Diego Costa and Eden Hazard is particularly interesting.
Costa has scored 17 goals this season, five more than all of last term, while Hazard has netted 11, seven more than under Mourinho and Hiddink. Conte has done so much for the players, the team and the club as a whole, but he looks set to face his biggest challenge as boss after sewing up the Premier League title.
Chelsea have established themselves as an elite club in world football since Roman Abramovich bought the club back in 2003. Though the Russian tycoon has often played fast and loose with the term loyal when it comes to managers, Conte is the tenth different man to work under him permanently, Stamford Bridge is usually viewed as one of the top places to play in the game.
As such, transfer windows have focussed on which world-class star will arrive, rather than will depart. This year, of all years, when Conte has built one of their best teams in recent history, could see that change. Since Chelsea hit their stride this season, only once has their lofty position been threatened. In January, a matter of days after Oscar joined Shanghai SIPG for £60million, Costa was the subject of interest from elsewhere in China, resulting in an argument and him being dropped by Conte.
The Spaniard soon recovered his place and his best form. Everything seems to be back to normal, but still doubts linger. Money is no object in the Chinese Super League, neither in transfer fees nor wages; the offer on the table for was reportedly a £30million-per-year, a sum big enough to turn anyone’s head.
Transfer Speculation is Rife
But the Far East is the least of Chelsea’s worries. In a number of interviews recently, Costa has made himself available, admitting he attempted to rejoin Atletico Madrid last summer and, just this week, supposedly claiming he could be interested in a move to France in the future. Attempts to reassure fans of his commitment often look and feel distinctly scripted, and despite, in his own words, being loved more by the Blues faithful than he was at Atletico, you can’t help but feel his days in West London are numbered.
Hazard, too, is in a situation that could cause Conte, Abramovich and the supporters to twitch in their seats this summer. The Belgian winger is no stranger to attention, from plaudits to opposition scouts. So many clubs would love to sign him and would be prepared to pay astronomical amounts to so, but he has always maintained his desire to stay at the champions-elect. When Real Madrid come calling, though, resolves will be tested, and Los Blancos are said to be interested, with the 26-year-old understandably receptive to the move.
Speculation over Conte’s future has been rife, too. Inter are constantly rumoured to be interested in luring the Italian back to his homeland, and as unlikely as a money-spinning switch to the San Siro is, Chelsea are finding themselves in uncharted territory despite looking set for a second league triumph in three years and a fifth in the Premier League era.
In the past, if Chelsea sold a player, it would be done on their terms. Rarely would anyone demand to leave for sporting reasons, because the potential at the club is huge, even with the dugout resembling a revolving door over the years. This isn’t the first time either Costa or Hazard have been linked with departures, but the tone of the reports, and quotes, suggest there could be some nails being bitten by those of a blue persuasion over the summer.
Antonio Conte has worked miracles at Chelsea this season, almost overnight. The turnaround has been incredible; both Diego Costa and Eden Hazard have been huge factors, just as they were in the club’s shocking demise last season. It doesn’t take a genius to work out keeping them is imperative, but doing so could be the heroic manager’s biggest challenge yet.