“Chelsea found the right way to be strong together,” Antonio Conte said with a smile etched right across his face. Chelsea had just won the Premier League in emphatic fashion, aided by a remarkable 13-match unbeaten streak between October 2016 and January 2017, and the Italian maestro struggled to contain his euphoria whilst promising that the club would build on the success.
Just 12 months on, Conte’s job is on the line and the former Juventus boss is expected to get the sack, his position largely untenable. Ironically, his greatest sin of all was toiling to the summit of English football in his inaugural season at the club off the back of a 10th-placed finish thanks, in large, to a combination of injuries, or lack thereof, kind fixtures and good fortune.
Perhaps the writing had been on the wall all along: of the three previous Italian managers to have won the Premier League, that is, excluding the 48-year-old, every single one of them had been sacked in the following season. Carlo Ancelotti paid the price in 2010-11 with a second-placed finish despite winning the domestic double in his first season, Roberto Mancini was sacked a year after his 2011-12 triumph after finishing 11 points behind Manchester United and Claudio Ranieri was shown the exit in February 2017 mere months after leading Leicester to a fairy-tale triumph.
By all accounts, Conte is set to follow suit with Real Madrid’s recent surprise appointment of Julen Lopetegui as Coach only delaying the inevitable. But to simply suggest that last season’s failures were all of Conte’s doing is unfair, and inaccurate too.
Conte, of course, is far from blameless. His failure to improve upon his innovative 3-4-3 formation, used to great effect in their title-winning season, proved to be their greatest undoing. His personal relationships with players has been cause for concern too, with Eden Hazard and David Luiz amongst others said to be unhappy with the manager.
In amidst all of that, the former Italy CT has had to utilise a side lacking in depth. Ever since both Manchester clubs began to stretch their financial muscle, Roman Abramovich has opted to be more conservative in his spending. Where Conte identified Radja Nainggolan and Arturo Vidal as targets, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko – arguably one of the worst signings in the Russian’s time at the club – arrived.
With the club spending just £70m since Conte’s arrival, coupled with that fact that his record in the Premier League stands at an admirable 67.1% win rate, third behind Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant, and it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that Conte has been underappreciated. Winning the Premier League and an FA Cup title, with limited resources, would be considered a success at any other English club.
If the latest rumours are to be believed, though, Conte’s successor will come in the form of another Italian tactician – Maurizio Sarri – whose contributions have also been greatly undervalued.
It should come as little surprise that Sarri’s style has caught the eye of Europe’s elite, especially those of Abramovich, who has long desired that Chelsea develop a free-flowing, attacking style of play.
And although 59-year-old’s insistence on short, quick passing and high pressing has won many a fan over, his inability to transform style into substance has seen his relationship with President Aurelio De Laurentiis deteriorate, openly criticising the tactician for his failure to rotate the squad, believing that fatigue eventually cost his club a Serie A triumph, and a Europa League title too.
“He’s one of the absolute best,” Pep Guardiola said in praise of his counterpart. We judge people on what they’ve won, but the football played by Napoli this season has been out of this world. He did very well, seeing Napoli play is a spectacle. If he comes to the Premier League it’d be a pleasure to face him.”
Trophyless as he may be, Sarri’s philosophy has brought life back into a league where pragmatism prevails over tactical innovation. It’s perhaps only when he is gone that Serie A, and Napoli for that matter, provide Sarri with the recognition he deserves.