Antonio Conte: Failure beckons the man who refuses to lose

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Image Courtesy: © Facebook - Antonio Conte

Antonio Conte: Failure beckons the man who refuses to lose

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Rahul Dev Bose


"Here (at Juventus), victory is an obligation. So maybe it can be more tiring. But he who demonstrates being a champion knows how to take this and the pressure that is a consequence of this.” Antonio Conte (On his resignation as Juventus manager)

It is not easy being a ‘winner’. It takes a certain disregard for circumstance, the courage to grab it by the scruff of its collar, and eventually the determination to push limits that would force ordinary men to stifle their ambitions. To accomplish the extraordinary, it takes not just sheer grit but also the rigidity of winning intent and the flexibility of choice. Winning also requires the stars to align, but for the stars to align, one needs to be aware of the moment and at times transcend the celestial and bend the stars to his will. It is not easy being a ‘winner’.

Antonio Conte is a ‘winner’, one of the few that remain in the beautiful game. Restoring glory to a club that was reeling from the insidious effects of a scandal that had ravaged an entire nation of football isn’t child’s play. 'Calciopoli' threatened to destroy forever the champions that Juventus were - on the pitch and off it. But Conte, a Juventini through and through, repaid his debts by dragging Juventus out of the quicksand. He also knows failure closely owing to his early stints as coach, and has learned to evade it. He doesn’t rest when there is work to be done and is a football man through and through. He is a coach of world-class ability, and to the naked eye, he has all the elements one needs to succeed in the next step of his journey.

Yet, he is destined to fail at Chelsea. The reason is one that it is oft-overlooked yet obvious in the second glance.

Where Other Managers Have Failed…

Chelsea has had six managers since the ‘Special One’ ended his first tenure with the London club. That’s six managers in nine years through the revolving doors, and this is not counting Guus Hiddink and Rafael Benitez, who were high profile interim managers, not tasked with shaping the club’s future. But before most of the sackings, a dip in form was as clear as day. However, for the keener observer, the dip in form seemed a more permanent problem than a loss of form should suggest.

Avram Grant found his way into the Chelsea hot seat when there were furious protests against Mourinho’s departure among the fans. The fans chided the club hierarchy for replacing Mourinho with a man who lacked experience at the highest level, and it would eventually find its way into the players camp despite him taking Chelsea into the Champions League final. Grant fell prey to his shortcomings as he refused to budge from his methods even when they didn’t seem to work.

His successor Luiz Felipe Scolari famously ranted to the media when asked of his failure at Chelsea:

"Some things are known, like the relations with the owner, who has the relationship with some players before the coach."

During his time, he had tried to replace Didier Drogba, subsequently dropping him and had tried to find an alternative to an ageing Michael Ballack in the dexterous Deco, two decisions that had ‘lost him the dressing room’. Scolari possessed the dynamism of thought that makes top managers but was not flexible in his choices when it came to shaping his team. His demise to this day is believed to be player-led.

Along came Ancelotti and led Chelsea to a League and Cup double in his first season. However in Europe, he was ousted by eventual winners Inter in the round of 16. The next season, Chelsea were runners-up in the league and lost in the quarterinals in the Champions League. Here, was a tested and true case of how the stars failed to align, as Ancelotti lost his place for a poor show in Europe.

With his successor Andre Villas-Boas, it was about losing the will to win. When some contentious decisions affected Villas-Boas, he capitulated. He was drawn into ego battles far too easily, and it led to players questioning his tactics openly in front of the owner. He dropped players, called in extra training after defeats. Of his state and failure, Didier Drogba had this to say in his autobiography:

“Andre’s mistake was to think that it was going to be easy — that we just had to do things his way and we would win.

“You have to be able to listen [to experienced individuals] and communicate with them.”

Roberto Di Matteo inherited a squad, that was relieved to see the back of his predecessor, and that was perhaps a key factor in the team's subsequent victories, including the Champions League, the prize that Abramovich had coveted for long. At least that is what Ashley Cole believed until years later:

"There were some players who didn't want to work hard for Villas-Boas, but as soon as [Roberto] Di Matteo arrived, that all changed."

Yet with Di Matteo, you could sense that the honeymoon was to end at some point. He was never the right man for Chelsea, and he felt desperately out of depth the following season failing to take them past even the Group stages of the Champions League. Chelsea would go on to have no qualms about showing him the door.

Rafa Benitez was to waltz by with fans slating him for his Liverpool connect, but the ‘Interim One’ reveled in his temporary appointment making something out of a lost season of sorts. Yet, his tenure is of no importance in this context.

With Jose, you could see why a team that dominated the Premier League last season ended up flirting with relegation during this one. However, the management found it easier to part with the manager as opposed to the idea of having to sack the whole team.

(Read about Chelsea's improvement under Guus Hiddink and why there are still deeper issues that remain with the team)

The Conte Context…

Much of the criticism against Conte has been aimed at the sense of religiosity he maintains with his 3-5-2 alignment of teams. Even if we were to completely ignore this gross misrepresentation (he has tried every formation possible with Italy before settling on a 3-5-1-1 and was in fact a champion of the 4-2-4 prior to Juve), we would see that it is not this problem that should worry Chelsea fans. The fans should not worry about his English speaking skills. The fans needn’t worry about his ability to blood youngsters as Paul Pogba stands testament to his ability to realize talent to its full potential. The fans needn’t worry about him being able to deal with older players as the likes of Pirlo and Buffon would attest to his ability to draw the best out of them. Unlike Scolari, he will be flexible with his choices, play with what he has at his disposal. Unlike Grant, he is a progressive manager and unlike Villas-Boas, he will not accept his fate in the face of trouble. Most importantly, unlike Roberto Di Matteo he is not heading into a job which sees him out of his depth.

If anything at all should worry the Chelsea faithful, it is this - in spite of being a winner, Conte is not a one-man show. He is considered a great for his role in reviving Juventus, but what people forget is that it was not just him. Juventus’ revival was a matter of the stars aligning through the arrivals of Andrea Agnelli as President, Giuseppe Marotta as Director of Sport and Antonio Conte as Head Coach. Marotta played a major role in shielding Conte from any form of early criticism and politics as Conte went about worrying only about matters on the pitch. Agnelli, of course, was crucial in snatching Marotta from Sampdoria in the first place and also setting the matters off the pitch in place by reviving the finances to their prior healthy state. To be precise, Conte was given every opportunity to succeed without having to dabble with matters off the field. He had complete control over proceedings, and in that lay the basis for Juventus’ future success. If so many are thankful to him today, they must also look at Marotta and Agnelli having fulfilled their part of the bargain.

But the question here is, will he well and truly alone at Chelsea? And if he isn’t, what about the problems that have been the basis of the previous managers’ downfall?

Is Emenalo Part of the Solution?

Far from being Giuseppe Marotta, Emenalo is a figure at Cobham whose ascent is as mysterious as his brief within the club hierarchy. Between 2007 to 2016, Emenalo has gone from being a club scout at Chelsea to the position of Technical Director. More importantly, every bit of writing on Emenalo in the media has him down as one of Roman Abramovich’s most-trusted aides. Such is the trust that Roman has in Emenalo, that it was reported that when Jose’s return to Chelsea was being complicated by Emenalo’s presence, Mourinho was asked simply to find a way to work with him.

(Read why Roman Abramovich's ruthlessness is necessary for Chelsea)

Additionally, Chelsea have, over the years, been known to sack managers at will. Most of these sackings have somewhat always been a result of issues between the coach and the players. Players have had the freedom to complain about methods of coaching, tactics, player selection and even extra training. In the modern day structure of club football, player power being strong is understandable, yet Chelsea’s modus operandi tends to elevate their powers to the absolute.

Add to that, a shadow of a figure controlling everything at the club between transfers and academy operations, having the complete favor and trust of the owner. That does not bode well for the future that Conte is inching towards. At Juventus, Conte had control over all things football. In spite of shadows being cast over player sales, none of the Juventus jewels were sold. In fact, when Conte asked for a change in direction, Marotta delivered not just the players he wanted but everything that Juventus needed. At Chelsea, Jose asked for a defender only to end up with Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector, and what unraveled with John Terryafterwards was always an accident waiting to happen.

Conte’s Challenge is Tougher than All the Previous Managers of Chelsea…And that’s just on the Pitch…

The Premier League manager roster next season will read along the lines of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger, Slaven Bilic, Ronald Koeman, Claudio Ranieri and Mauricio Pochettino to begin with. Slaven Bilic’s West Ham is going places with a run of delirious results against the yesteryear’s top four, and Pochettino has already transformed the oft overlooked side of London into title contenders this very season itself.

Think of all of this, and then think of what Conte has inherited if he is to move to Chelsea. He has at his disposal a squad capable of being the spine of a continent-conquering team, but also a tinderbox of egos that is capable of imploding at a single spark. Conte must deal with a management which has, time and again, backed the players’ ego over their manager’s ability. Conte, at Chelsea, will not only need to revamp a squad, but will also need to drag on through the muck and the mud of the politics - to unite the club all the way from the fans, through the management and right down to the players. And he will have to do all of it without a Giuseppe Marotta or Andrea Agnelli. Instead, he will have to do it with Roman Abramovich and Michael Emenalo by his side, who have seen six managers through the door. The odds are highly stacked against him, and the prospect looks bleak. Antonio Conte, for all his prowess as a manager, seems destined to fail.

In spite of all of this, it is important to remember that Antonio Conte is experienced, decorated and a winner. If he is brought in to do a job, he will give it his best and maybe even succeed at his brief. As much as there is a chance that the stars won’t align for him, sometimes true winners make their own luck. So too could Conte.

As of now, it seems unlikely that Conte would be too concerned beyond brushing up on his English. He would be more bothered about the Euros than what is to happen eventually if he was to take up the Chelsea job tomorrow. After all, the day he announced his departure from Juventus, someone asked him:

“What will you do tomorrow, Antonio Conte?”

To which he calmly replied, “I will think about it tomorrow.”

Good Luck with that, Antonio!

(Also, take a look at our Managers XI - 2015/16 Premier League Managers XI - Who would make the team?)

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