It is unsurprising that Antonio Conte is reportedly facing problems at Chelsea. They are the same problems that every permanent Chelsea manager ends up facing.
They are the same collection of problems that every manager of a big club tackles, it just seems that it happens at a quicker pace than their peers.
There is a reason for this, and it doesn’t appear to cause them any more difficulties than their more patient peers.
Humans like novelty. For the brain, it stimulates new parts of the brain to learn new activities and methods, and learning keeps the brain healthier for longer – if you speak more than one language, or complete cryptic crosswords regularly, the chances of you suffering from Alzheimer’s later in life is meaningfully diminished.
The link has not necessarily been proven that one or the other causes a benefit, but it makes intuitive sense that a brain that is challenged is one that stays healthier.
For the body, we get physical problems from excessive repetition. RSI and injuries become more likely, and overuse causes fatigues and susceptibility to injury. Learning new activities can strengthen our body and make it more capable of trying other, superficially unrelated activities.
The same goes for food – a varied diet is long gone from human habit, but it continually shows benefits when researched.
Too much of the same thing, or not enough different experiences, is detrimental for us, and football players are the same. At Chelsea, they appear to get bored of the same thing quicker than other squads.
There are complaints that Conte asks too much of the players with his intense training methods, that there are too many tactical meetings, and they are not given enough time off to recover between games and training.
This isn’t the only time that a group of players have got sick of a manager, should the reports be true. When Louis van Gaal took over at Manchester United following the disaster of David Moyes, the early reports were that the players were enthused by his new methods on the training ground, and his bullish, slightly weird, attitude. He was different from Moyes.
He had the confidence to talk his own self-serving propaganda, while Moyes was too cowed and honest, betraying the weaknesses of his approach. The training under Moyes was so rudimentary that it became clear that the better players simply took to ignoring it, and the more mischievous players ignored him entirely.
Then, after a year, the players were fed up. From enjoying the changes Van Gaal introduced, they started to chafe with the lack of flexibility afforded to them by the new training methods.
Giggs was palpably disinterested on the sidelines, perhaps also marginalised on the training ground too. The players then had the chance to work with Jose Mourinho, and right now things feel much more content at Old Trafford.
The players seem to enjoy Mourinho’s training, they didn’t blink when Wayne Rooney was eased out the door, and Mourinho, in turn, has spoken of liking this group of players more than any of his previous squads. All seems bright at United.
Which is just as it seemed at Chelsea for the months that Chelsea were battering the opposition and cruising to an unexpected title win, with Mourinho and then Conte.
Under Conte, without European football, they were able to take the majority of midweeks easier than the competition. Now they have the Champions League to play, and with injuries mounting up and disrupting the squad, there is less chance for a rest.
The methods have apparently stayed the same and not been suitably flexible in response to a change of circumstances. The same processes have gone from title-winning to excessively intense. Mae West once said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” It appears Old Hollywood legends now have little in common with 21st century elite athletes. And, to be fair, West never won the Premier League.
It’s nothing new. Other players get sick of managers, and the average life expectancy of a manager is now around 18 months in a job. But Chelsea have made it more feasible for players to react against their manager with a realistic hope of binning him swiftly.
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The importance of the manager has been diminished at Chelsea, and this is no bad thing. The power currently resides with key figures at board level, Michael Emenalo, and Roman Abramovich. Transfers are influenced most of all by Emenalo, who has turned recruitment into a viable profit-making strategy even at the top of the food chain, and Abramovich is there to be entertained as much as he wants anything else. If you can’t work with Emenalo and cannot convince Abramovich that things will improve on the pitch, you can be swiftly removed.
For Chelsea, they don’t have such overwhelming money concerns that they cannot cut short a managerial contract. They have a history of getting rid of managers who had performed pretty well. Carlo Ancelotti went, and Roberto Di Matteo left a few months after delivering the Champions League. The man who built their durable spine, Jose Mourinho, was removed shortly after he came second in the league.
Throughout these upheavals, Chelsea didn’t fall apart. Players kept signing, trophies kept coming, as did Champions League football. The manager had his place at Chelsea, and it was important to choose the right person for the job. The problem for Conte and others is that there was always another right person available.
Chelsea have experienced some chastening early losses as they adjust to a new season. Just as they did last year. They have a demanding manager, just as they did last year. There is no reason to think that Conte has suddenly become a bad manager, but unless he provides a swift upturn in form, there are plenty of reasons to think that there will be little hesitation to remove him from his job.