The new Chelsea manager is in way over his head, and his own stubbornness is his worst enemy. And ours. Abramovich should give him one week to demonstrate that he’s willing to adapt.
No, Conte doesn’t have the players he needs to run his preferred system, which is predicated on a rock-solid center back tandem. His CBs are David Luiz (entertaining and good in attacking out of the back, but not exactly Ricardo Carvalho), Gary Cahill (regressing rapidly and lately the leading playmaker for Chelsea’s opponents), John Terry (old and injured), and Kurt Zouma (brilliant in all phases but currently recovering from injury). His best option in the middle at the moment is probably Branislav Ivanovic, but even he is on the back 9 of his career.
When a talented manager finds himself without the assets he needs, he sets about adapting to the reality in front of him and builds a system around what he has. As it turns out, Conte actually has quite a lot at his disposal. In Cesar Azpilicueta, Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante, Willian, and Diego Costa he has several legitimately world-class players. With Oscar, Cesc Fabregas, Victor Moses, and Nemanja Matic he has strong support players who, used properly, can be important contributors to a winning formula. (And when I say “used properly,” I mean things like Matic is a great defensive midfielder, but deploying him at what can only be described as a “holding 10” is absolute madness.) And with Michy Batshuayi he has a dynamic young developing star for the future who’s ready to be a major attacking force right now.
No, the Blues are not yet ready to win the Premier League or the Champions League, but they have a foundation to build on. They ought to be a top three team this year and a serious contender for every cup competition in which they’re entered next year.
But they won’t be, because Antonio Conte has No. Fucking. Clue. Even in two of the three wins at the outset of the season we saw hints of the debacle to come, as he waited almost too long to make the changes needed to spark comeback wins (*cough*Batshuayi*cough*). Last weekend he didn’t bring Batman on at all, instead preferring … Pedro?
And today, really, we saw who Conte is in all his clusterfucking glory. Down by three early in the second have he makes a move: he pulls the 10, Fabregas, and brings on … another defender? It appeared that from then on Chelsea was attempting to play with a three-man back – which is certainly understandable – but it was also clear that the players on the field had about as much idea what they were supposed to be doing as did the Rocky Mountain Blues assembled at the British Bulldog. Was Sideshow playing midfield? Was Cahill? I mean, sure, the further up the pitch you push him the less damage his newly evolving MLS first touch is likely to do, but if he’s that kind of liability maybe you could, you know, substitute him?
I think this is what I saw happening, although honestly I could be wrong. I’m still as baffled as Willian looked when he was subbed out.
In the past I have been very critical of Roman Abramovich for his quickness in sacking managers – sometimes quite capable managers. It damages the continuity of the team and it makes it harder to recruit other managers in the future (don’t kid yourself, this is a big part of why Pep Guardiola has never been willing to sign on at the Bridge, for better or worse).
But in this case I’m going to make an exception. Abramovich needs to summon Conte tomorrow and make clear that he has one week to demonstrate a willingness to recognize reality and adapt to it appropriately. This means put a team on the pitch that can consistently create offensive opportunities. It means acknowledging that Batshuayi and Costa have a real chemistry when they play alongside each other in a two-man attack. It means acknowledging that Matic is about as much of an attacking threat as Begovic (his assist last week was a nice play, but it was the exception and not the rule). It means acknowledging that when you’re down three goals defensive substitutions might be counterproductive. It means acknowledging that when you’re down a couple goals, maybe you should think about bringing on attacking replacements with more than a couple minutes left in the match.
You know, really nuanced, advanced things that a manager at one of the world’s premier clubs should be expected to know.
If not, Abramovich should make clear that the Conte Era will be done after seven matches.
I don’t know who’s floating around out there as a potential replacement (there’s always Hiddink, I guess), but the stakes are higher than just a few games. If Chelsea misses the Champions League again this season our top players will move on, we’ll have an extremely difficult time luring quality replacements, and we might find ourselves languishing in the lower reaches of the mid-table for years – or longer. We are not entitled to a spot in the top four.
Remember, Liverpool used to be the best in the league, too.