In this first instalment of a three part series Joe Tweedie takes a look at the state of play that greets Antonio Conte when he arrives at Cobham in the summer. Equally, there some thoughts on how we have arrived at a situation like this season. Conte has his work cut out for him.
The confirmation of Antonio Conte as Chelsea’s next manager has somewhat galvanised a set of fans exhausted by this season. While many have seen infinitely worse than a mid-table finish, expectations have evolved as the standing of the club has changed. It is not just where the club finds itself that disappoints, but the lack of fortitude that has underpinned this rapid decline. Even in less successful periods there was an element of fight within the team. Chelsea must take lessons from a season they ultimately need to forget. Do you trust the club to get things right?
How does Antonio Conte imbue change within a group so bereft of professionalism, confidence and direction? At Juventus he catalysed a squad who had begun to languish. Yet, the reality that will greet the Italian upon his arrival at Cobham is undoubtedly more challenging. No one quite knows where Chelsea stand. Are we genuinely a poor team in need of serious investment? Or are we simply underperforming and in need of a different direction? How deep is the rut and are the abject performances of key individuals salvageable?
For such a complex matter, much of which remains behind closed doors, we can opine on at least two factors during this malaise. Poor individual performances (take your pick) and a transfer strategy that has considerably weakened the squad (take your pick) are salient even to the casual observer. We are in a peculiar situation where we have spent a serious amount of money with little quality in the squad to show for it. I estimate Chelsea have spent £390m since winning the Champions League (net spend of £143.4m, but I will be evaluating the numbers in a separate article). Chelsea would rather spend £300m on fifteen middling players than five or six world class talents. The question remains why this is?
Pedro (£21.4m) + Cuadrado (£23.3m) + Salah (£11m) = £55.7m
Neymar (£46m) (admittedly this was probably not what was paid… but you get the point). It would also probably buy you Antoine Griezmann.
I am not a huge believer in the Arsenalification of football, but a very basic point on net spend needs to be made (“don’t talk about spend, talk about net spend™”). Over the past two seasons, where the quality in Chelsea’s squad has declined, Chelsea have a total net spend of £20m. That is less than Stoke (£20.5m), Arsenal (£78.6m), Manchester City (£162m), Crystal Palace (£39.1m), Everton (£64.2m), Liverpool (£66.3m), West Ham (£54.4m), Watford (£35.6m), Sunderland (£40.6m), Newcastle (£90.3m), Leicester (£49.1m), West Bromwich Albion (£45.3m) and Manchester United (£132.3m).
The only “rivals” of Chelsea in a significantly better position are Southampton (£22m profit) and Tottenham (£9.1m profit). Both are extremely well run teams, with Tottenham in particular turning a profit while adding a lot of quality to their squad. The overall point being that while we are spending a lot, we are selling quality players to finance moves.
The Premier League is an arms race, one which we now seem reticent to partake in. Our sell-to-buy strategy may balance the books, but it means we are not adding to a talented group. If you sell someone decent and replace them with a player who does not work out, you are immediately short of talent. Chelsea used to retain their quality and add to it – it reflected in our league position and how competitive we were in Europe.
We sell good players and reinvest poorly or buy for the short-term. People will point to the Premier League title as justification to the means, but I would equally suggest the natural follow-on is what we have seen this season. It might be that our definition of a good strategy, i.e. make the team better, does not align to what the board want. They seem more concerned with doing agents favours.
There is a natural tipping point when you have taken so much quality out of the squad to buy jigsaw pieces that solve an immediate need. When those pieces fall away (Nemanja Matić, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fàbregas, Thibaut Courtois, Diego Costa et al.) the rest crumbles dramatically. That is the Chelsea of today – just enough to wear themselves down to win a league title, but nowhere near enough once the effects of that title push remained in the legs and minds of players: short-term gain, long-term pain.
When Roman Abramovich first arrived at Chelsea we could blow every team out of the water. Ultimately, how difficult is it to assemble a squad when operating in a quasi-monopoly? However, as other owners of similar (and even more) wealth started to enter the market our spending power diminished. We have needed to be smarter than our competitors. While we certainly make the best use of the loan system to generate capital, have we reinvested well enough? Do those running the club have the same interests as us? Namely that the strength of the squad and its supporting infrastructure is the best it possibly can be. Or are we intent on some other goal?
Ask yourself could we have spent £200m better? For all the debate on Michael Emenalo my concerns are away from the he said/she said concerning signings. My quandary is essentially whether he is the best person money can buy to perform his function. Ignore all the politicking for one moment and your feelings towards Emenalo or Mourinho. If you could pick any Technical Director, where does Emenalo stand on your list? I do not see what value he brings to the club and his background lends itself to a position nowhere near as influential as the one he holds.
We are still spending £100m a season on mediocre players. If we are spending £100m then we can easily afford a Pogba calibre purchase every single season: our fealty to Financial Fair Play, while others do not bat an eyelid, is crippling. Nonetheless, if these are the parameters under which the club must operate we have to be more intelligent than those around us; we patently are not. The question we keep returning to is whether our interests align with the club. How can a group of intelligent people (the Football Board are all intelligent people, despite my misgivings) have allowed things to get this bad?
Restoring key players to former glories is going to be pivotal in Conte’s reclamation project. Theories concerning fitness, club strategy and “palpable discord” etc. have all been blamed for this slide towards mediocrity. There are going to be parts of the equation that have had more of an impact than others. However, Hiddink’s laissez faire attitude to the players is really not helping the situation. This season has possibly been on the horizon for some time – many would suggest Chelsea’s unsustainable model of success would implode at some point. Who would have known the fall would be so spectacular?
Eden Hazard is central to any redevelopment plans. There is almost an equal split concerning him and Chelsea supporters. One camp sees this as a single poor campaign for a player who has been at the top of his game for many years. Others see his attitude and demeanour as disgusting and this alone is cause for him to be sold immediately to the highest bidder with no afterthought. Antonio Conte is probably reticent to jettison his best player, but much of this depends on Eden Hazard. Chelsea will see Hazard as either their most saleable asset or someone to build around.
Systematically Chelsea have set-up in a similar manner since the glorious André Villas-Boas days. A noticeable shift away from powerhouse footballers to smaller technicians prompted a change of shape. Gone were midfield diamonds and the joys of 4-3-3 and in their place a de rigueur 4-2-3-1 system was implemented. While success has followed (European Cup, Europa League, Premier League and League Cup) the version we have witnessed for the past 18 months has ground to a halt.
Chelsea have collapsed into a fragmentary style that lacks purpose or tenacity. Our ill-fated pursuit of tiki-taka now thankfully confined to the history books. In its place we see a tippy-tappy, insipid, slow and directionless group of players wandering aimlessly through ninety minutes on a weekly basis. The pace and power that typified a Chelsea side who feared nobody replaced by a set of players who are consistently brushed aside by average teams. This is something Antonio Conte must address with the Board: their utopian vision of what Chelsea should be is now an inexcusable mess.
A schism between Chelsea’s back six and front four has exacerbated over the course of the season. The combination of John Obi Mikel and post-injury Nemanja Matić meant dawdling ball circulation and tempo. Introducing Cesc Fàbregas made Chelsea porous, with the Spaniard actually playing entire matches without making a single tackle. No combination of players Chelsea deployed had a workable balance. The linear fashion of our build-up makes it easy to defend and counter. As soon as teams figured out how to stop the Matić/Fàbregas pivot things took a turn for the worse. If you want to threaten Chelsea, just run at their midfield.
José Mourinho’s insistence in using a suffoco/advanced destroyer as a number ten obfuscates matters further. It essentially shifts the number ten’s responsibility from being the chief creator to our main defensive reference. Partly it explains why Oscar never really hit the heights his early potential suggested was inevitable. He is great without the ball, but this has almost exclusively come at the cost of his attacking play. Tactically strong and with great spatial awareness, an in form Oscar certainly makes Chelsea play better. However, a lack of consistency (performances/goals/assists/creativity) and extreme dips in form leave questions as to whether Oscar is even worth retaining.
Using a formation that realistically creates opportunities for a number ten to freelance in a destructive manner is problematic. The creative and goal scoring burden increases upon the shoulders of our wide attacking midfielders and striker. When you remove Eden Hazard’s individual brilliance and Diego Costa’s goals this slump looks all the more predictable. In fact with 8 out of our starting 11 being picked exclusively for their defensive attributes, it really is unsurprising that it took so little to cause such a big fall. This mentality is something that has crept into our fans – we seemingly value defensive robots over actual footballers.
We do not have a prolific goal scoring threat outside of the combustible belligerence that is number nineteen. No second striker who can score 15-20 a season. No midfielder capable of 15 goals. No wide player seemingly capable of double figures in the league. We are a team where goals seem difficult to come by. This is naturally compounded by fielding a back four led by Gary Cahill on a weekly basis.
Every mention of Antonio Conte seemingly weds him to a 3-5-2 system. Whereas the reality underpins him as a pragmatic manager who fits square pegs into square holes. We will only play three at the back if we have the players to do so. Juventus’ and Italy’s fortune is that in Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini they have the best three central defenders as a unit on the planet. Without those three, Conte probably never plays three at the back. I can therefore see Conte using a back four; the variation ahead of him will be where the innovation starts.
A moot point right now but Chelsea have players with the potential to play as a three. They are arguably either too young (Clarke-Salter), on loan (Andreas Christensen) or injured (Kurt Zouma). Conte likes his defenders to have both a technical skill set (something Kurt Zouma will need to continue to refine) as well as physical prowess. Seeing Branislav Ivanović in a three is an option, but the thought of Gary Cahill playing regularly next season is worrying.
Full-backs are inherently important to Antonio Conte. Whether he deploys a diamond or a narrow midfield shape, he likes his full-back to be a technically proficient footballer who can provide width and pace. In Baba Rahman, César Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanović we have a clear contrast of abilities and styles. Moreover, there is no obvious choice as to who would best suit playing in a modern system. Do we therefore go three at the back? Or can Conte reconvert Azpilicueta into a right back and turn Rahman into a competent defender?
Moving into midfield is where the biggest area of improvement must happen. The classic characterisation of midfielders is something I anticipate we see less of under Conte. A return to multifunctional box-to-box types, who are athletic, can pass, tackle and shoot is almost inevitable. Less of the definitive holding player and more of a move towards guys who can rotate and sit when required. Fàbregas recently stated he feels he could play the role of Andrea Pirlo on Monday Night Football. However, I would be reticent to build the team around someone who requires every element of the starting XI to cater to his deficiencies and strengths.
We may never have a Lampard-esque 20+ goal a season man again, but we can certainly field three midfielders capable of 10-15 goals each. Adopting a fluid rotational style that fits into #ConteBall is needed. As things stand our midfield is pretty basic – Fàbregas and Obi Mikel being the best combination. Whether we play a four in midfield (as a diamond or with the two wide players as functional wingbacks), or a rotating three, the composition of our engine room must change.
Perhaps the most galling part of this season is the repetitiveness of our own self destruction. Watching teams run through our midfield untouched time and time again. There is little question that our defence has been poor, but what help have they had ahead of them? Watching noted speedster (!) Kevin De Bruyne “explode” away from Cesc Fàbregas on Saturday was a microcosm of everything wrong with our midfield. A lack of athleticism and power in the Premier League is killing us.
Ahead of a midfield we are most likely going to see a front three (possibly two strikers). With that in mind Diego Costa may very well be the most Conte-ish player within the current squad and simply must stay. A consistent Diego Costa playing under a manager who can truly get the best out of him is a frightening prospect. There are still people who bemoan his lack of technical quality, but he is a devastating goal scorer who is uniquely positioned to thrive under the Italian. Costa understands tempo and space. Slow the game down and you remove him as a threat. Play with pace and an incisiveness and he is absolutely deadly.
Even in what is largely perceived as a poor season by his standards Costa has still scored 15 and has 10 assists in all competitions. He averages a goal scoring action (assist or goal) every 124 minutes. While not up there with the Aubameyang’s of this world, all things considered it is impressive. Costa is playing in a poor Chelsea side and also does not take penalties. Given the level of spending I think we require to push back towards Europe’s top table, he would be the last person I want to see go.
Tougher Times Ahead
If you took anything from Cesc Fàbregas’ words from Monday Night Football it should be regarding Antonio Conte’s mentality:
From what I’ve heard and it’s probably proved by so many professionals talking about him, he’s disciplined, he’s a winner and he’s a competitor. That’s what we need. Someone that will always be on our back to push us and make us work hard, teaching us new things; the things he wants to do and achieve.
All I know is that he wants to win straight away. No more transition, no more excuses. He wants to win and for that we’ll have to be prepared from day one.
I love football and I’ve been studying a little bit what he does with his previous teams. I played against his Italy recently and it’s really interesting. You can see that he loves offensive football and you can see that tactically his teams are so well organised.
While Conte unquestionably has the perfect attitude, the same cannot be said of this team. Whether you believe Cesc Fàbregas’ words regarding José Mourinho’s departure or not, they are certainly interesting:
I think his biggest problem was that he trusted us too much. He gave us more holidays because we were champions, he believed in us more, trusted us more, and we let him down: the whole team, all the players. That was the main reason why at the end he had to go. And for that, myself and all the team, will feel bad for him.
The task at hand is far greater than many envisage and it starts with giving the manager both the resources and time to effect change. I recently read The Coaching Process: Principles and Practice for Sport (1999) by Neville Cross and John Lyle. While an interesting overall text, I noted the consistent correlation of longevity and change. While their data or observations may be 15+ years old, I feel the central tenet remains very true. They observe that in high level sports it takes 2-4 years to implement a coaching philosophy – with 2 years being a coach walking into an ideal scenario and 4 years being an environment where a seismic shift from one culture to another is required.
With the average Premier League manager not making it to their third season, you can see the difficulty that Conte is likely to face upon arrival. There are several key components already in place for him to leverage, but the gravity of the task at hand is going to require time that he does not have. We are looking at a meticulous coach who values footballers but does not tolerate strollers. A coach who desperately wants to attack and control the proceedings; who understands the ebb and flow; rise and fall; when to be aggressive and when launching the ball out for a throw-in is appropriate.
I remain absolutely convinced of Antonio Conte’s ability as a manager and coach, but my fear is that the club’s priorities lie elsewhere. We as fans want to see the best possible team competing on all fronts for as long as possible: more often than not we are successful. However, with a raft of speculative deals (Djilobodji, Pato, Falcao etc.) which seem agent/commission driven, are our interests aligned with the club? These are unchartered waters for Chelsea in the Roman era. How we navigate them over this summer will determine whether Chelsea are back on a path to greatness or doomed to repeat mid-table obscurity.