There are rumours now, that Diego Costa could join Everton on loan. At least until the winter, to let Costa wait out Atletico Madrid’s transfer ban, and then he can jump ship back to Spain and never have to give Brexit a second thought. Everton can afford his zesty wages, Chelsea get rid of a troublemaker. But this merely removes one problem from Antonio Conte, who now has plenty to deal with.
In the short term, he has to cope without Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill. Antonio Rudiger can fill in at central defence. Central midfield, without Tiemoue Bakayoko, will be a harder position to fill. Alvaro Morata is not yet up to speed, Conte says, with Conte’s own presumably intellectually exhausting approach to football.
On Sunday, Chelsea have to play Spurs, and could conceivably be six points behind whoever the league leaders are at that point. That would be no disaster, and Conte’s Chelsea were able to overcome their own slow start at the end of last season, but the difficulties for Conte are mounting.
The Chelsea manager is, for some, the manager most likely to be sacked first this season. He has fallen out with his board to some extent.
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First, over his cack-handed dealings over Costa, a perennial irritant but nevertheless an asset.
Second, over his demands for them to get their finger out over new signings when Champions League games are an additional demand this season. So far, he has received one defender, one midfielder and a striker, but he has lost that with John Terry, Nemanja Matic and (soon, somehow) Costa.
In terms of numbers, Chelsea have stood still. They might be a touch younger, but that is not sufficient rejuvenation for a season that might have 10 more games, and potentially more. Conte signed a new contract, but while the terms were improved, the length of it remained the same.
Chelsea’s board and owner are not known for their patience, either. They might have been reluctant to sack Mourinho, but they didn’t prolong a toxic situation for so long that it couldn’t be resolved by Guus Hiddink and a summer’s clean slate.
Conte will understand that a Chelsea manager is at times incidental to the future of the club. They have other people to take care of signings. Other people to take care of the finances. The manager does his best with the players at his disposal, and he can influence little else beyond that.
As the turnover of managers has shown, it is not a set-up that precludes the club from succeeding. But it does mean that any manager can’t sure of his footing at the club. It is an explicitly temporary situation, there is no lip service otherwise.
Conte is a manager who has proven that he can kick players out of a funk effectively, that slow starts are not necessarily a problem, and that he can rejig a system to fit the players available to him. Chelsea will likely add one or two more players, but if they don’t, Conte can fix up his squad to perform to the best of their abilities in the league. The question is whether that will be enough this season, either to win the league or satisfy his various bosses.
It is harder because the demands will now be about European success, something close to Roman Abramovich. Beyond Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Alvaro Morata, there are few players who we could expect to handle the step up in quality. Others might be able, but that remains unclear. And then you must consider Conte’s own failures in Europe with Juventus. This is not a man who has yet shown that he can handle the rigours of continental competition.
Other clubs have either started to catch up or begun to pull away. Manchester City have restocked in attack and may even fix their central defence at some point in the next few weeks. Manchester United both have a spine and no longer look spineless. Spurs and Liverpool are struggling in the market but should provide competition. It is fair to assume that Chelsea will have more standing in their way in the league as they assimilate new players and significant exits.
None of this is hopeless, merely to point out that problems and pressure are mounting for Conte as he attempts a second season that matches an almost unimpeachable first. They side requires increased depth, but it needs this with the same tactical understanding as Conte managed last season.
It needs the same togetherness, but done without Terry, under the cloud of the Costa exit, and with a manager who increasingly tedious with his fury on the sidelines. And it needs to perform with the assumption that the competition will be better this time around. And most pressingly, it needs to start doing all this against Spurs on Sunday.