Antonio Conte’s position as Chelsea manager is growing increasingly fractious with close friends questioning whether the Italian will remain in situ until the end of a season that has only just begun.
Despite signing a new contract less than one month ago, Conte remains in conflict with his employers over a number of matters he considers central to the task he is charged with – of defending the Premier League title won in his debut campaign, while attempting to win the Champions League.
That conflict is most pointed over Chelsea’s transfer-market business, yet also extends to the organisation and utilisation of the club academy, and the manager’s access to board and owner.
A number of individuals privy to Conte’s thinking as he prepared for the coming campaign say they were surprised that the 48-year-old agreed a new deal, albeit that the structure of that revised contract increased the Italian’s pay without extending his written commitment to Chelsea beyond 2019. One source says that at a certain point “there seemed no doubt he was going to leave Chelsea”.
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Although Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and key executive Marina Granovskaia’s efforts proved sufficient to avoid the embarrassment of losing a title winning coach in the immediate aftermath of that triumph, the Russian duo has not come close to assuaging Conte’s concerns over the strengthening of a squad he considers short on both “quality and quantity.”
The Italian is unhappy with the way in which Chelsea have operated in the transfer market, failing to provide him with first-choice recruits in any position to date, and leaving him to start the season with a squad he feels remains short of at least two full backs, a centre back, a central midfielder, a forward and a striker.
Although Conte rates Alvaro Morata – signed from Real Madrid for a club-record initial transfer fee of €65million – it is understood that Conte thinks Chelsea both overpaid for the Spain striker and wasted too much time concluding the deal. As a result, Morata’s pre-season preparation was curtailed and Chelsea caught up in an aggressively inflating transfer market.
Like Morata, newly acquired central defender Antonio Rudiger was left out of Chelsea’s starting line-up for the Community Shield meeting with Arsenal. There are questions within the squad as to whether the Germany international offers an upgrade on last season’s starting centre backs.
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While Conte was not opposed to moving Nemanja Matic on in the current window, he wanted two new central midfielders brought in to replace the Serbia international and did not approve of the sale to a direct rival in Manchester United. “For sure this a gross loss, a great loss for us,” said Conte last week.
Conte’s conflict with Chelsea over working conditions for a second season in English football also led the Italian to miss out on hiring his preferred choice as assistant manager.
Conte offered the post to Cristian Stellini, a member of his coaching staff at Juventus, but uncertainty over the manager’s own future in London resulted in Stellini taking up an alternative proposal to lead Lega Pro club Alessandria in June.
Utterly obsessive about winning, Conte’s mental state has not been helped by a poor start to the campaign in competitive fixtures. Chelsea were defeated in their Community Shield meeting with Arsenal, went 3-0 down and lost at home to Burnley in their opening Premier League fixture, and on Sunday return to Wembley to face Tottenham Hotspur, facing the prospect of three successive defeats at England’s national stadium.
“This is the kind of situation Antonio cannot cope with,” a source told Yahoo Sport. “When he starts losing matches that is when he gets really crazy.
“It’s impossible to assess what it will take to calm him down. When Antonio is in such a state of mind he makes himself hard to cope with everyone, and everything. He starts getting angry at staff, players, and others.”
Chelsea do not have a history of tolerating what they perceive to be problem managers for long periods.
In which context it is telling that club has begun briefing that it never expected the Italian’s tenure at Stamford Bridge to be a long one. Many who know Conte well are currently of the same opinion.