Antonio Conte cut a despondent figure on the sidelines and in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat at home against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.
During the loss he saw his side give up a 1-0 lead and squander several chances to score, then make basic defensive errors as he kicked a water bottle in disgust as his time is running out at Chelsea, a club renowned for giving managers a short leash when things start to go wrong.
That defeat all but confirmed Chelsea will not be playing in the UEFA Champions League next season with the Blues eight points off the top four with seven games to go following a disastrous run of five defeats in their last seven Premier League games.
What now for Conte and Chelsea?
Asked if he feared for his future at the club beyond this season, the Italian coach remained defiant despite many believing he will depart at the end of the current campaign.
“I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know about this, but we didn’t speak about a project,” Conte said. “I don’t know, you have to ask the club, not me. I repeat, my task is to work, and I know that I work, 24 hours, for Chelsea, me and my staff. This is our task. Then the club has to take the decision. But I repeat, I am not worried about this.”
The way Conte nonchalantly shrugged off those questions about his own future is nothing new. He’s been doing it for months.
That’s what happens when you question the direction of the club and the player recruitment policy at Chelsea (which he has little to do with) time and time again.
Conte is, first and foremost, a coach. He is there to get the best out of this squad of players and without any European distractions he did that superbly last season by securing an unlikely Premier League title. Chelsea had an edge to them last season and didn’t suffer from fatigue as they always seemed to find a way to defend resolutely or be clinical when it mattered. That winning mentality has evaporated almost as quickly as Conte produced it.
This season it has been very different and Conte’s demeanor has been in stark contrast to the fiery, charismatic Italian coach who led Chelsea to glory in his debut season in England. He has had issues with Diego Costa which saw his elongated departure from Chelsea cause plenty of unrest, plus veterans Gary Cahill and David Luiz have both found themselves out of favor under the Italian and rumors about the futures of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois continue. Add into the mix his apparent displeasure that more money wasn’t spent last summer and Nemanja Matic was sold over his head and this has been brewing for some time with Conte chipping away at the hierarchy whenever he can and also trying to protect his own legacy whenever possible.
If Conte wins the FA Cup (his side face Southampton in the semifinal later this month at Wembley) and finishes in fifth place, a few points out of the top four, it is still not a bad campaign for the Blues. They still made it to the knockout rounds of the Champions League and Lionel Messi was the difference as they fell to Barcelona in the Round of 16. If he leaves at the end of this season, Conte will be able to hold his head high and his reputation won’t be tarnished. Chelsea could be set for another few seasons of struggling to finish in the top four but Conte will be fine.
Asked if he has been able to get the best out of the squad at his disposal this season, here was Conte’s intriguing response.
“Yeah. I am sure about this,” Conte said. “We are working very well, very hard and the commitment of the players is top. Despite this you stay in this position… we must be a bit worried about this.”
Chelsea’s defeat to Tottenham was perhaps the final nail in Conte’s coffin as he will likely get his wish to depart the West London club at the end of this season, but whether or not it’s on his terms remains to be seen.
Conte has one more season left on his current deal and insists he will honor that contract. But with his mind clearly elsewhere and the likes of PSG and the Italian national team said to be lining him up, Chelsea know he will not resign and forfeit a sizable compensation package (around $9 million) that would come his way if he was fired by Roman Abramovich and the Chelsea board.
The waiting game for who will flinch first is well and truly on and there seems to be no way that Conte will walk away on his own accord.
Chelsea’s issues run deeper than just another PL club facing a slump the season after winning the title. Conte won’t be around to figure out exactly how his, and Chelsea’s, bubble has burst.