Having passed the milestone of 18 months, the average reign of permanent Chelsea managers under Roman Abramovich, it comes as no surprise to anyone with a vague recollection of the Blues’ recent history that Antonio Conte’s job is currently under serious threat.
This is just how Chelsea operate. Few clubs go through quite as many peaks and troughs but while their methods are not to everyone’s taste, it hard to argue when the club has won all there is to win under the Russian oligarch.
Almost right on cue, with reports suggesting Chelsea are looking towards a change in the summer, the players’ performances suggest some of them feel they have already served their time under this manager. So the natural next step would be for the Blues to replace him more urgently, most likely at the end of the season when they would make all the right noises about long-term planning before the cycle starts again.
This time, though, the issues at Chelsea appear to run deeper than at any point since Abramovic dispensed with Jose Mourinho the first time around, just over a decade ago.
Before, the appointment of a new manager would pacify the players under him and the hierarchy above. Everyone engages once more, reinvigorated by a fresh voice and figurehead. That is most true of the first-team squad. The fact some players appear weary of Conte, just eight months after he inspired them to a title triumph no-one fancied them for, is a sad indictment of the group, but entirely typical of the modern game.
A quarter of Conte’s squad was part of those who appeared to down tools under Mourinho, while Carlo Ancelotti suffered similar a similar fate to the current boss after delivering the title. The faces in the dressing room are different but the short-term attention span remains.
This is not a problem specific to Chelsea. Unless the circumstances are more unique, management at most clubs is viewed as a two-term role, because of the results-driven measure of success and failure, and the intricacies of motivating groups of often pampered, inward-looking millionaires for anything longer than a single season. So when a team’s performance and motivation levels are visibly waning, rather than change the players, who appear more untouchable with the passing of time, the simplest solution is to replace the manager. Ancelotti, Mourinho and Conte – the three managers who have won Premier League titles for Abramovich – have all came off second best when Chelsea players failed – or refused – to maintain their standards.
Now, even though their title triumph is as fresh in the memory as it is, those heights seem even more distant in the rear view mirror than at any point in the last decade. The development of their rivals, primarily the Manchester clubs, plays a part in that, but the management of the first-team squad and those who coach them appears to highlight a lack of vision and football experience in the hierarchy between Conte and Abramovich.
Conte has not bothered to hide his displeasure at Chelsea’s transfer business in the past year and the Italian has done everything to ensure no-one outside the club holds him accountable for their recruitment. If, indeed, he does hold as little sway as he suggests, then you cannot blame him for distancing himself from the deals that have been struck at Stamford Bridge.
Conte, when he arrived in July 2016, was presented with over £60million of talent in N’Golo Kante and Michy Batshuayi. Then Marcos Alonso and David Luiz arrived on deadline day and Conte had the tools to challenge for last season’s title. Having won it, Chelsea failed miserably to build from a position of strength. They forked out £186million last summer and theirs was the third-highest net spend of the window, but Conte found himself no better equipped to carry the club forward.
Antonio Rudiger, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Alvaro Morata, Davide Zappacosta and Danny Drinkwater all came in, while John Terry’s presence was lost and Diego Costa and Nemaja Matcic were sold. Morata initially made a decent fist of replacing Costa but the £60m striker seems to have been shorn of all his confidence, while replacing Matic with Bakayoko and selling the Serbia midfielder to Mourinho at Manchester United appears a worse decision with each passing week.
Probably, the most pivotal departure came in November, when Michael Emenalo left Stamford Bridge after a decade at the club. The Nigerian served for the last seven years as technical director, which is a critical role within a club with the structure and turnover of managers that Chelsea has. His absence in January was keenly felt.
With the technical director gone and the coach holding no sway when it comes to transfers, where is the leadership coming from? Who is making the decisions?
Chelsea were always insulated from the turmoil that could come with a high turnover of managers by their structure. They have operated for much of Abramovich’s ownership with a Plc board alongside a football board, upon which sat a technical director – either Frank Arnesen or Emenalo. Reportedly, Emenalo expressed his desire to quit last summer but held on until November at the club’s request. One transfer window later, he has still not been replaced.
The football board, who we have to assume are making the decisions that directly affect Conte, currently consists of chairman Bruce Buck and directors Marina Granovskaia and Eugene Tenenbaum – the trio make up the Plc board – plus secretary David Barnard. All four are close allies of Abramovich and between them, they have served the club with distinction for over 50 years. But there is a gaping hole for a sporting director or director of football, as the January transfer window proved.
Granovskaia has taken on many of Emenalo’s duties since his departure and, according to the club’s website, the Russian-Canadian advisor to Abramovich is ‘mainly responsible for player transactions’. It was Granovskaia who was photographed with January signings Ross Barkley and Emerson Palmieri upon their unveiling.
The club are said to reviewing their management structure and cannot draw their conclusions quickly enough. While there remains a gaping hole on the football board, the appointment of a new manager is unlikely to bring with it anything more than a short-term bounce. Until they reinforce the hierarchy above the manager with someone with a track record within the game and someone who can command the trust of whomever the coach may be, the same issues will continue to come to the fore, but the playing squad will be too weak to paper over the structural cracks. Especially with a summer approaching during which Chelsea face a battle to retain their best players.