Antonio Conte's problems at Chelsea hark back to Jose Mourinho departure
Chelsea's chastening defeat to Bournemouth led to immediate questions about beleaguered Blues boss Antonio Conte's future at Stamford Bridge: Does the Italian manager still have control of the dressing room, and has his relationship with his employers irretrievably broken down?
Such questions highlight the scale of the problems facing Conte, who faces a steepening uphill battle to salvage not only Chelsea's season but his job as well -- though whether he aspires to the latter is another topic for debate.
The manner of the Blues' second-half capitulation against the Cherries made it hard to believe that 12 months ago, Conte was steering Chelsea toward the Premier League title. A year on, the champions of England have somehow evolved into a dispirited and disjointed rabble. As the biting-cold January wind whipped around the Bridge and the Blues' backline unravelled, Chelsea supporters looked at each other and at the players on the pitch. Where were the leaders, the fighters, the men who could turn adversity into triumph?
Conte's line last summer about the need to avoid a Mourinho season sprang to mind. So did thoughts about whether he is in fact the architect of his own and Chelsea's current misfortune, or whether callous fate was conspiring against him as it often had for the London club's managers in the Roman Abramovich era.
It could be argued, the seeds of Conte's malaise were sown a couple of years before he accepted the challenge of managing Chelsea.
"I go to war. You come with me." With these defiant words in July 2014, Diego Costa introduced himself to John Terry, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic, the four hard men of Chelsea's dressing room. There was always a pantomime villain aspect to Costa's demeanour that suggested he might be difficult to manage, but his gung-ho, battling approach to playing football and his ability to plunder goals aplenty was just what Jose Mourinho, the Blues boss at the time, needed. The Portuguese manager worked his players hard and Costa's goals powered Chelsea to the title.
What happened subsequently to Mourinho has been well documented. The missed transfer targets, the spat with club doctor Eva Carneiro, a bib-throwing tiff with Costa, the falling-out with the board, the lost dressing room, the inevitable sacking. Eva-gate aside, looking at the latest state of affairs at the Bridge, the expression "deja vu" springs to mind and Costa's name features prominently. Conte's woes are traceable to January 2017 and a much-publicised falling out with the striker, who was almost shipped out to China.
The Brazil-born Spain international stayed and again provided the firepower to help win Chelsea the title, but the peace between player and manager, both noted for their combustible personalities, was an uneasy one. Shortly after the campaign concluded, Conte advised Costa by text that he wasn't going to be in his plans for the coming season and that was that. It was a power play that would be repeated a few months later when defender David Luiz criticised Conte's tactics following a 3-0 loss to Roma in the Champions League. Luiz was dropped and subsequently the form of 21-year old Andreas Christensen made it difficult for the Brazilian to get back into the side.
Like Costa, Luiz has an engaging and forceful personality which needs to be managed carefully. Both players have the type of do-or-die attitude that was clearly an asset to Conte when he won the title at the first attempt, but in striving to assert his authority in the dressing room the manager has deflated the mood in the camp. Costa the warrior is now at Atletico Madrid. Luiz, who has the same spirit, has been cast aside.
Conte's actions against the players are rumoured to have displeased Abramovich, and the lack of hard backing in the January transfer window suggests the Chelsea board are already planning ahead for life without Conte -- who himself is being linked with a return to his native country to manage the national side once more, something that on Friday he steadfastly denied.
What the rest of the season holds for Chelsea is uncertain. The title is lost. Although the Blues remain in contention for a top-four finish and are still in the FA Cup and Champions League, if Conte and his players are no longer functioning as a unit, without any leaders coming to the fore, the club's supporters are going to be in for more disappointment.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco