Antonio Conte can't escape blame for Chelsea woes, he's not changed enough
LONDON -- The story of Chelsea's season played out over 94 minutes in a 3-1 defeat against Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Alvaro Morata scored early, then faded into anonymity. A promising start was undone by avoidable errors and a creeping passivity. Manager Antonio Conte began the afternoon a bundle of defiant energy on the touchline but had been tamed by the end, sullenly pacing with his eyes downcast, resigned to another defeat that brings his exit closer.
"Conte can't wait to leave Chelsea," said friend and former Juventus teammate Gianluca Vialli on Sky Sport Italia, confirming what his countryman has been not-so-subtly hinting at on a regular basis for months. Even prior to Tottenham's first victory at Stamford Bridge for 28 years, the feeling was becoming increasingly mutual.
It is getting harder to find a Chelsea supporter who wants the Conte era to extend to a third act, even if it were possible at this late stage to heal his deeply damaged relationship with the board. The growing ambivalence has been fuelled by the sharp decline on the pitch, but just as detrimental to the head coach's status has been the atmosphere created by his constant whining.
Many of Conte's grievances are justified. He has been hindered by Chelsea's limitations and mistakes in the transfer market. Several experienced contributors with characters of substance have gone, replaced by squad names or long-term development projects. Injuries have taken their toll and the fixture schedule, a valuable ally last season, has been unfavourable in key moments.
Yet it is tempting to wonder how different the current situation might be if Chelsea still had the Conte of last season. Back then he was a man who responded to crises with creative solutions, reviving his team with tactical dexterity and reinventing players on the training pitch.
Too often in 2017-18 he has patrolled his technical area in weary silence, greeting adversity with baffling inaction, as if the slave rather than the master of his own fate. No explanation was given on Sunday for the 15 minutes that elapsed between Dele Alli poking in Tottenham's third goal and the first movements on the Chelsea bench that heralded the belated introduction of Olivier Giroud.
The "Mourinho season" that Conte feared last summer has arrived by stealth in 2018; if the Premier League had begun on New Years' Day, Chelsea would be 15th. They have won only six of 19 matches in all competitions and just three in the Premier League: beating Brighton, West Brom and Crystal Palace.
A second capitulation in three seasons does not speak well of this group of players but, just as Jose Mourinho will forever be tainted by the torrid final months of his second Chelsea spell, Conte cannot escape blame for the current drift -- particularly given his increasingly ludicrous pronouncements that neither he nor his team could possibly do better.
Transition was inevitable from the moment that Diego Costa forced a return to Atletico Madrid last summer and Nemanja Matic was granted the exit (to Manchester United) he had desired for the best part of a year. Chelsea are attempting to rebuild on the fly with less proven names, even if Conte's cries of inexperience against Tottenham stretched credibility a little; his starting XI had an average age of 27.4.
Further change is coming this summer, when the futures of Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois must be settled decisively one way or the other. Conte is right when he says patience from all levels will be required, particularly if Chelsea are recruiting as a Europa League club.
But the Italian's words would carry more weight if he had demonstrated any such patience himself. Signing an improved (rather than extended) contract last summer underlined that Conte did not view himself as part of a long-term Chelsea project, and his acrimonious departure from Juventus in 2014 provides further evidence that he has no time for employers he feels do not match his ambitions.
Change has been one of the few constants of the Roman Abramovich era, and not always for the better. Yet it is increasingly clear that a parting of the ways would be best for all concerned.
Conte will, in the words of Vialli, have "a queue of contracts" from interested clubs to choose between, while Chelsea should gain fresh impetus from a new leader invested in the process, even if they will struggle to find a better coach than the man who masterminded their fifth Premier League title.
In the sunshine and glory of May it seemed inconceivable that Conte would leave Stamford Bridge with anything less than the universal adoration of Chelsea supporters. When the dust settles, his successes will be remembered more than his failures, but there can now be no escaping the reality that he took over a club at a low ebb and will leave it much the same.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.