After weeks of speculation, Antonio Conte has been confirmed as Jose Mourinho’s permanent replacement at Stamford Bridge. It’s a big call from owner Roman Abramovich, who will demand instant success; can the Italian deliver?
Following a highly decorated playing career, Antonio Conte’s ascent up the managerial ladder has been pretty rapid. Nevertheless, a summer move to Chelsea will form his biggest challenge to date and he’ll arrive at Stamford Bridge tasked with the job of recovering the damage of a dismal 2015/16 to reestablish the Blues as a major force both in the Premier League and on the continent.
After a tumultuous start at Serie B side Arezzo, which involved two separate stints within a campaign that ultimately ended in relegation, the Italian has quickly bounced back to carve out a wonderful reputation, lifting three Scudetti with Juventus as well as a Serie B title with Bari; regardless of how well his Azzurri side performs at Euro 2016, he will join Chelsea regarded as one of the best manager’s in the game. However, there is no denying that the 46-year-old will need to ring wholesale changes.
The imminent departure of skipper John Terry brings the curtain down on Chelsea’s most successful period. It’s a transition that has slowly taken place pretty much ever since they were crowned kings of Europe in 2012, but now is the perfect timing for a major shift. If Conte can freshen up the squad with the same authority that he did during his opening campaign at Juventus, the Blues could be back to their best in no time.
It’s easy to forget that, back in 2011, Conte inherited a Juventus squad that had finished the previous season in seventh. The Bianconeri were still very much in the process of rebuilding after the infamous 2006 Calciopoli scandal, but the former player quickly stamped his authority on proceedings. The additions of Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Matri, Stephan Lichsteiner and Arturo Vidal would all make an instant impression as the Turin club went undefeated to clinch the title and tusher in a new era of dominance; there is no question that Abramovich will demand a similar influence from his new appointment, and Blues fans can expect to see the owner splash the cash in a bid to help the Italian succeed.
A lack of spending proved to be fatal for the Blues last summer as Mourinho failed to build on the previous campaign’s success and Abramovich is unlikely to commit those same errors again. The regression of last term will make things a little tougher for Conte, but his pull as manager could compensate for the absence of Champions League football. The Italian’s first major assignment will be to find a marquee player to drive the team forward throughout the new era, and there’s every chance that he’ll be targeting his former employer for that superstar.
Bringing Paul Pogba to Turin from Manchester United in the summer of 2012 on a free transfer was undoubtedly Conte’s biggest masterstroke in management thus far. The Frenchman has evolved into a colossal midfielder; speed, power and technical ability have made him one of the most sought after stars on the planet. It seems likely that the 23-year-old will trade Italy for either England or Spain this summer. As our transfer index confirms, the chance to link up with his former boss could be enough to see him choose Stamford Bridge as his next destination. If this particular rumour does materialise, it could be the catalyst behind building a new and improved Chelsea.
Given his rich history with Italian football, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if further recruits come from Serie A. Even without Champions League football, most players would perceive a switch from Italy to Stamford Bridge as a step up both in class and financial remuneration. Roma duo Radja Nainggolan and Miralem Pjanic are already being touted as potential summer signings as Conte sets about building a new look midfield at Stamford Bridge. Cesc Fabregas, John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic have all struggled for long periods of 2015/16 while Ramires couldn’t resist the riches of China’s Super League; freshening up that middle area of the park is compulsory
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only aspect of Chelsea’s squad that requires work. After a blistering first campaign in England, Diego Costa has cast a frustrated figure throughout most of the campaign and has been regularly linked with a return to Spain. Should he stay, the 27-year-old still has a role to play, but the Blues are crying out for better alternatives. Loic Remy’s career has suffered badly since joining the West Londoners while Radamel Falcao has been a major disappointment. Fellow loanee Alexandre Pato is finally in action and could possibly earn himself a permanent contract between now and the season’s end. Nevertheless, finding a world class striker has to be a priority. Quite frankly, Conte cannot afford to fall into the same hole that Arsene Wenger has been trapped in for the best part of a decade.
Natural goal-getters aren’t easy to find while acquiring one with a proven track record in England’s top flight is harder still. Chelsea would need to pay a highly inflated price compared to what the £28m they sold him for in 2014, but Conte could do a lot worse than Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has been vocal about his desire to leave Goodison Park this summer due to Everton’s poor league performance and he’ll almost certainly be heading for the exit door in the near future. A lack of Champions League could make Stamford Bridge a slightly less attractive prospect, but the 22-year-old will feel that he has a point to prove; with the right words of encouragement, one year away from Europe’s elite competition doesn’t need to be a decisive factor regarding a potential switch. After all, time is still very much on the talented star’s side.
Could 2016/17 finally see the powerhouse realise the former forecasts of being the next Didier Drogba? If Conte can succeed where Mourinho failed, Chelsea will almost certainly be fighting for silverware this time next year. Of course, though, landing Lukaku will be a huge challenge in itself.
A potential returning star would certainly get the Shed End bouncing, but Conte also needs to filter his way through the long list of out-on-loan stars that’ll be back at Stamford Bridge. The Blues currently have 30 stars plying their trade at other clubs. It’s a system that simply cannot continue indefinitely, and the new boss must look to offload anyone considered surplus to requirements, especially as those sales could be the key to staying within the financial fair play regulations in what will almost certainly be a summer of heavy spending.
The big dilemma for Conte is whether to stick or twist on Eden Hazard. The Belgian superstar has been ineffective for long period this term, but there is no denying that he has the ability to drive Chelsea forward during the next period of the club’s history, just as he did in the 2014/15 title-winning campaign. On the other hand, the incoming gaffer’s success in the game, both as a player and manager, has been built on hard graft. Questions still remain over Hazard’s willingness to put in a shift and if Real Madrid or PSG come calling with a big money bid, then it may be hard for the Italian to turn it down. The main issue, however, is finding the star quality to replace the 25-year-old, especially as his departure could form another stumbling block when trying to convince others that the club can reestablish itself as a genuine force.
Arguably the most influential element behind the decision whether to sell will come from Conte’s formational preferences. The Italian has often advocated a three-man defence, utilising wing-backs for width. Ironically, it’s Juventus loanee Juan Cuadrado that could team up with Cesar Azpilicueta to fulfil those specialists positions. This could bring the death of Chelsea’s need for wide attacking stars. Alternatively, turning Pato into a permanent signing could plug the void left by Hazard, at least during the inevitable period of transition.
No team in Premier League history has eked out major success whilst deploying the three-man defence, but English football is seemingly becoming more accommodating. But if Conte does opt for this philosophy, those central defensive recruits will be pivotal to deciding the club’s fate. Whilst Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma are worthy inclusions, they will need a figurehead to lead that defensive line. The new manager may yet offer Terry a chance to remain at Stamford Bridge, but this could only form a temporary solution. Long-term, whether part of a two-man or three-man defence, Zouma needs to be joined by world class defensive teammates. As a typical Italian, Conte will almost certainly have a shortlist up his sleeve; don’t be surprised if his first major signing happens to be a defensive giant.
For one reason or another, the Chelsea squad lost its way towards the end of Mourinho’s tenure. Nevertheless, improvements under interim boss Guus Hiddink have underlined the fact that this still boasts the basis of a great team. Conte’s job will be to combine those resources with his own stamp of authority to ensure that their slump stops at one season. It will be intriguing to see exactly what changes are made over the summer as the Blues look to drag themselves back to the summit. Whether they’ll do it or not is anybody’s guess.
One thing’s for certain, though: You will not want to miss out on this summer’s action at Stamford Bridge. With the help of our transfer index, you’ll be able to keep abreast of all the latest developments as they happen.