For Chelsea fans, the summer of 2017 must have a remarkably similar feeling to that of their previous post-title winning summer of 2015. Unfortunately, this feeling can only be described as underwhelming and led to their worst league finish since 1996.
If Chelsea fail to back Antonio Conte this summer they run the risk of not only stagnating and allowing their rivals to make advances in squad depth but more crucially they are playing devil’s advocate with the Italian’s future at the club.
Conte has passionate but rash tendencies as his 2014 split from boyhood side Juventus showed. With the club unwilling to turn down big money offers for Chilean Arturo Vidal and without sufficient reinforcements incoming, the Italian took the bold step of resigning as manager out of principle. Something that could be increasingly on the cards at Cobham if his frustration at transfer policy is mirrored.
Back in 2015 then under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, Chelsea captured the Premier League trophy in much the same circumstances as last season. Comparable winning margins (8pts in 2015/7pts in 2017) along with almost identical defensive records (32GA in 2015/33GA in 2017) with the only tangible differences being drawing six more games in 2015 and scoring twelve more goals in 2017.
That summer saw the departures of Feilipe Luis, Petr Cech, Mohamed Salah, Didier Drogba and Juan Cuadardo. Granted at the time they had a replacement for Cech in Courtois, Drogba was a shadow of his former self at 37 and the other three had been squad players under Mourinho at best. But when you look at the quality of replacement acquired by the Chelsea board that summer, the mystery as to why they failed to sparkle the following season becomes clearer.
In came Asmir Begovic, Baba Rahman, Pedro, Falcao, Marco Amelia and Papy Djilobodji along with youth players Michael Hector, Kenedy, Nathan and Danilo Pantic for a total outlay of €85.9m. To the naked eye this seems like a significant spend but when you consider that they recouped €59m of that through player sales and of that expenditure, only 54% was spent on players who would challenge for first team places the following season, it is clear to see that Mourinho was not backed to a level where he felt he could sustain their place atop the table the following season.
The most telling statistic of that summer window is that only Pedro has been remotely successful after his move with the rest of the senior players signed either sold on or loaned out and only Kenedy has made a first team appearance from this crop of youth signings.
Evidently it was not a well thought out window for the Blues and although there’s a long way to go this summer, it feels like they need to get to the negotiating table or else we could be talking about a summer of missed opportunities in a couple of years’ time.
Antonio Conte must be feeling not to dissimilar to Mourinho in 2015. He delivered the Premier League trophy in his first full season in England with a squad that was not of his building. He expected to then be backed in his overhaul of Chelsea’s playing squad and backroom team but both appear to be at a crossroads.
The Italian let Diego Costa know he was no longer required with the foresight that his identified replacement, Romelu Lukaku would be tied down by the club. He subsequently joined rivals Manchester United amid reports that one of the major hitches was Chelsea’s refusal to pay agent Mino Raiola his fee. This follows on from failure thus far to land another high valued target in Alex Sandro and a very protracted move for Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko.
The signing of Antonio Rudiger is a small win but he and reserve keeper Willy Caballero are the only two players through the Stamford Bridge door as of yet and with pre-season training beginning yesterday, Conte must have itchy fingers wondering what is transpiring at boardroom level to make these negotiations so difficult.
These struggles are not limited to the pitch as he also looks to expand Chelsea’s already bloated backroom team. With Steve Holland now departed, Conte has looked for expanded roles for assistants Gianluca Conte and Angelo Alessio as well as adding new technical analyst David Mazzotta and approaching Paulo Vanoli about a role within the youth set up at Cobham, which he wants more influence over.
The latter is viewed as unnecessary with Joe Edwards having just been appointed successor to Adi Viveash as head of the development squads and any further change is considered overkill. This insistence of having “their own men” in charge as such, can only lead to further dissention between Conte and the board and the parallels between 2015 and 2017 continue from there.
Following a successful 2016/17 season and with European football returning to Stamford Bridge, this would have been a summer where Antonio Conte wanted to expand the squad for the rigours of challenging on four fronts. Yet as of now he has only 17 outfield players including academy promotion Charly Musonda and untrusted Michy Batshuayi as the only Striker. Hardly the ideal make up for an expanded fixture list.
Pressure is flooding in from fans across social media in support of Conte’s wishes and should the worst-case scenario happen and he leaves the club at some point because of a mishandled transfer window, the board and particularly owner Roman Abramovich will be under severe scrutiny having overseen the dismissal of some of the best managers in world football during his stewardship. This summer could turn out to be the most crucial in the East London club’s recent history. Time will tell.