If Antonio Conte knows his history, he will be aware that time is not a luxury his predecessors at Chelsea have enjoyed in recent years. Patience has rarely been a virtue in Roman Abramovich’s world and at 3.45pm last Saturday, when Chelsea found themselves a man and 3-0 down to Burnley, it is unlikely that the owner was thinking about the bigger picture.
That farcical first half will be stored in Abramovich’s memory, a reference point should he develop a burning desire to show Conte his new shark tank. Winning the Premier League in his first year in England will not save the Italian if he does not respond to Chelsea’s slow start and the situation continues to deteriorate. Ask Carlo Ancelotti, who was sacked a year after winning the double in his first season. Or José Mourinho, who twice lost his job after poor runs. You do not lose your opening game 3-2 to Burnley at home and get away with it. Not without a very good excuse.
Everything could be solved with a splurge in the transfer market, of course. Yet Conte might have hit on something when he spent much of his press conference talking about the need for Chelsea to develop a long-term vision, even if it sounded strange to hear him say he wants them to be more like Tottenham Hotspur, who host the champions at Wembley . Chelsea have won the title five times in the Abramovich era and they are the only team in London with a European Cup. Tottenham last won the league in 1961.
Yet Conte looks at their progress under Mauricio Pochettino since 2014 and he sees stability, informing his argument that consistent success for Chelsea depends on their willingness to build for the future. He stressed they won the league in spite of their small squad and praised Tottenham for sticking by Pochettino despite the Argentinian’s failure to win a trophy in his first three seasons at White Hart Lane.
“This is the fourth year and Pochettino has had the possibility to work for three years with the same players and have the possibility every season to improve his foundations,” Conte said. “For every coach it’s important to give continuity to the club because when you arrive you don’t know what you’ll find.
“When you understand your basis you have to try to work step by step, year by year to improve this basis. Last season we started to build this foundation and we won so it means we built something. But it’s not enough, so we have to improve. Sometimes you can win and you are preparing to disrupt yourself. Sometimes you don’t win but you are preparing yourself to be better.”
Conte believes Chelsea are in a transitional period, insisting he always knew this would be a tough season, and he referenced the departures of experienced players such as Didier Drogba, Branislav Ivanovic, John Obi Mikel and John Terry. Yet as he discussed his desire to create a new identity, saying it might take four years before Chelsea are ready to become the best team in the world, he was asked why he improved his contract only to 2019 earlier this summer, rather than extending it.
“But I have still two years,” he said. “I don’t see any problems about the future. If we have the same vision we can continue to work together. I think I stay in the right club at this point of my career. But if you ask me how long this path is, my answer is we need time. Last season we started a difficult path. Despite this we won in my first season.”
It has been a fraught summer. The Diego Costa saga continues to fester with no sign of a resolution and Chelsea still need to strengthen despite signing Tiémoué Bakayako, Willy Caballero, Álvaro Morata and Antonio Rüdiger. Their inexperienced bench against Burnley spoke volumes. “There are people working very hard to try to improve the situation,” Conte said. “They are working for the best of the club.”
Conte did his best to transmit positivity. He has not looked happy recently, bristling when the subject of Nemanja Matic’s sale to Manchester United has come up. On Friday he tried to inject humour into his comments, laughing before saying that Costa has no future at the club.
But there was snark bubbling under the surface. Gary Cahill and Cesc Fàbregas are suspended for Sunday Eden Hazard is injured and Pedro is a doubt. Chelsea are stretched in central midfield, where it is unclear who will partner N’Golo Kanté. Nathaniel Chalobah has joined Watford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek is on loan at Crystal Palace. “I can put a goalkeeper in midfield,” Conte joked. “That is an option.” He admitted he might be forced to rush Bakayoko back from a knee injury.
These are uncertain times. Lose to Tottenham and the pressure on Conte will rise to suffocating levels. “No one put a gun to my head and said: ‘You win or you go away’,” he said. Maybe not, but when has Abramovich ever been shy to pull the trigger?
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