Ken Early: Antonio Conte already feeling heat from above
Abramovich has continually burdened his Chelsea managers with unreasonable demands
Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich appointed seven permanent managers before Conte. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
On Saturday evening, after his Chelsea team lost 3-0 to Arsenal, Antonio Conte gave reporters a tantalising glimpse of the fury that is said by some to have fuelled Juventus’s return to the top of Italian football.
“We are a great team only on the paper. Not on the pitch. The pitch speaks. The pitch is the truth. The pitch is the most important thing for us. Not the words. Not the paper. And we must change this.”
Conte’s manner made you think that he longed to go back into the away dressing room, bolt the door, and spend the sort of quality time with his players that they were unlikely to enjoy. You felt sorry for Gary Cahill, who gave away the opening goal to Alexis Sánchez after getting caught in possession, and this time didn’t even have a referee to blame, as he did when he gave away a similar goal two weeks ago at Swansea.
Conte’s seething demeanour was at first more interesting than the words that he spoke; “the truth is on the pitch” is a coaching commonplace. But his analysis of Chelsea’s situation did invite one interesting question: who, exactly, has been telling him that Chelsea are a great team on paper?
Certainly not the men who preceded him in the job. José Mourinho, the last permanent Chelsea manager, accused the players of betraying his work. Guus Hiddink, who saw out the season as interim coach after Mourinho had been fired, warned that rebuilding Chelsea into a top team was “not a small job”.
The media has hardly been hyping up Chelsea’s credentials as a “great” team. They are maybe seen as having a reasonable chance of finishing in the top four, but not regarded as “great” in any sense.
A great team on paper would be a team that has a lot of talent but hasn’t figured out how to put it together – Manchester United are probably the Premier League team that currently comes closest to the definition.
Chelsea, by contrast, are carrying some mediocre players, and also have some good players who don’t always seem that interested in fighting for Chelsea.
So when Conte issued this public challenge to the folks who think a great team like Chelsea should not be losing to teams like Arsenal, he sounded like a man who was grappling with unseen forces.
Thanks to one of his predecessors as Chelsea coach, we have an idea of what those forces might be.
Ancelotti’s revelations about Abramovich came mainly in two autobiographical books. The first of these, The Beautiful Game of an Ordinary Genius, was published in 2010, when Ancelotti was still the Chelsea manager. The second, Quiet Leadership, was published earlier this year.
The second is therefore more enlightening about Abramovich than the first, which is nevertheless not totally devoid of insight.
When Abramovich met Ancelotti to size him up as a possible future Chelsea manager, he told him that he wanted his team to develop a distinctive and attractive identity – “Like Manchester United, Liverpool or Milan. Certainly not my Chelsea.”
The meeting was taking place in May 2008, a month when Chelsea lost the Champions League final in Moscow to Manchester United. Chelsea’s ‘identity’ has arguably never been more distinctive than it was at that time. Abramovich just didn’t like it much. “I want Chelsea’s style of play to be recognised around the world,” he told Ancelotti.
Ancelotti’s second book came out five years after he had been sacked by Abramovich and the sections on his relationship with the owner should be read by anyone who is considering becoming the coach of Chelsea, so that they know what they are getting into.
Abramovich was annoyed every time Chelsea lost a game. He would react to unexpected defeats by calling meetings and demanding answers, even if the losses were just blips in otherwise impressive runs of form.
The night before they played Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League quarter-finals, Abramovich called a meeting with the players, “telling them they had to win or there would be huge changes to the team. He told me individually that if we lost then I was not to bother coming back to work”.
Chelsea did lose and Ancelotti was duly sacked at the end of the season. But the new coach, André Villas-Boas, lasted only 40 games in the job. Abramovich appointed seven permanent managers before Conte and they lasted on average 86 matches.
Now that Chelsea have lost successive games to rival clubs we can surmise that Conte is already feeling the heat from above. That might seem unreasonable to him, but Chelsea is an unreasonable place.
“We have to change the situation. The situation is that we concede two goals in every game,” Conte said.
That is the immediate situation, but tightening up the defence is not going to change the situation of the bigger picture, which is that Chelsea are even further away from capturing the world’s imagination than they were in 2008. For Abramovich, the endless search goes on.