Every passing day brings us closer to Antonio Conte’s first season in charge of Chelsea, but how will the Italian do at the club that has expectations so few have managed to meet?
His first season is likely to go rather well. Chelsea currently sit in tenth place on 44 points, sandwiched between by far the most boring team the world has ever seen in Tony Pulis’ West Brom, and the anything-but-boring, bi-polar, frantically good and comically bad Liverpool side that Jurgen Klopp is being paid a lot of money to gesticulate at.
What this means is that although it’s still mathematically possible, Chelsea are unlikely to have the distraction of European competition next season. That is absolutely perfect for their new manager. Conte is a motivator, an aggressive, passionate man who demands of his players an extremely high tempo game and maximum effort. He loves pace, he loves running and he’ll have a very clear idea of how he wants his team to play.
Potential summer signings aside, the current Chelsea squad is thin, and the players in it that one can envisage thriving in such a system are few and far between. Willian, Costa, Oscar, Azpilicueta and Rahman might enjoy themselves. Perhaps Zouma. Certainly Bertrand Traore if he stays. But for many players Conte’s relatively extreme physical demands are going to be something new, and tough going. However, they’ll have more chance of adapting to their new manager and recovering physically with only one game a week and plenty of time on the training field.
For Conte, not being in the Champions League will also buy him more time in charge of Chelsea. As swashbuckling as his Juventus side were in Seria A – winning three consecutive Scudetti – their performance in the Champions League over two seasons left a lot to be desired, reaching the quarter finals in the first, and failing to make it out of the group stage in the second.
These failings wouldn’t now appear so bad were it not for Conte’s excuses, and Max Allegri’s successes. Of his side’s performance in the Champions League, Conte said:
“It makes me laugh when I hear that with just two or three new signings we can win the Champions League. Italian football has come to a standstill and that should be a concern for everyone.”
He also managed this gem:
“This Juve side is good enough to reach the last 16 of the Champions League or the quarter-finals at best.”
At the time he said them, few would have argued.The problem came the following season when Massimilliano Allegri took a largely-unchanged Juventus team to the Champions League final beating Dortmund, Monaco and Real Madrid on the way and giving a fairly good account of themselves in the final against Barcelona. Allegri not only succeeded where Conte had failed, but proved Conte’s excuses invalid.
None of this is to say that Chelsea’s new manager cannot improve and succeed in Europe in the future, but it is likely to take time, and require opportunities to develop and refine his managerial repertoire. Time and opportunities are not particularly forthcoming at Chelsea and so a year out of the European limelight will be healthy for Conte and provide him with a season to lay his foundations, improve his English and shape the squad to his liking.
Mourinho’s abhorrent start to the 2015/16 season may just afford Chelsea and their new boss some breathing space. Not being in European competition gives Conte a better chance of securing a top-four spot in the Premier League next season and thus retaining his job. It also means he can’t fail in Europe for at least a year, again giving him a greater chance of retaining his job.
When Conte takes over he will talk – because he must – of the need to swiftly return Chelsea to the Champions League, but in private he may be thankful of a little time away from the most glamorous of trap-doors.