Chelsea's decision on Antonio Conte is the first of a significant summer
NEWCASTLE, England -- Chelsea's final-day humbling at St James' Park brought us back to what has become a familiar sight this season: Antonio Conte stood, arms folded and stony faced, watching an unfolding catastrophe from his technical area.
The lowest moments of Chelsea's miserable campaign have stripped the Italian of the explosive passion that ripped through the Premier League last season, leaving only the impression of a man resigned to the belief that he has not been the master of his own destiny for some time.
Conte's open pessimism, stretching back to the prediction in August that this would be the most difficult season of his managerial career, has been relentless and it is this attitude that makes him seeing out the final year of his Chelsea contract such an unlikely prospect, regardless of the FA Cup final result. Indeed, as he championed his own record in his post-match news conference, it once again felt as if Conte was washing his hands of this season and talking to potential future employers.
"I like to play to win," he insisted. "This is my first season [as a coach] that I didn't win the title. Three with Juventus and one with Chelsea. When I've started a season I have always won."
Leaving aside the omitted first chapter of Conte's coaching career, which featured trophyless seasons at Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena, the message he wanted to convey was clear: I am not the problem.
To a degree, he is right. Whatever direction they choose this summer, Chelsea are unlikely to replace Conte with a better pure coach and as they reconcile themselves to the reality of another season outside the Champions League, and there are broader cultural issues to consider.
Chelsea under Roman Abramovich have always operated on the principles that stability is overrated, that coaches are disposable and that a winning culture can flow upwards from an expensively assembled dressing room rather than downwards from the top. All three were sound as long as their owner's pockets ran deeper than any others in the Premier League.
For the first eight seasons of Abramovich's ownership, Chelsea were ever-present in the top four and won three Premier League titles. The seven seasons since 2011, when Manchester City forever altered the domestic landscape by qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, have yielded two Premier League titles but also fifth-, sixth- and 10th-placed finishes.
City's rise, coupled with the incremental improvements made by Tottenham and Liverpool under Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp respectively, have eliminated Chelsea's margin for error. The inconsistency on the pitch borne out of instability off it now has tangible consequences at Stamford Bridge.
Then there is the fact that the last two Premier League triumphs, in 2015 and 2017, were achieved by swimming against the financial tide. Chelsea's net spend of £119 million since June 2014 is significantly lower than that of Crystal Palace (£126m) and Everton (£165m), and dwarfed by the gargantuan outlay of Manchester United (£417m) and Manchester City (£496m).
Chelsea have not been the Premier League's biggest spenders for some time. They remained at the top by being the smartest, targeting elite players with friendly release clauses such as Diego Costa and N'Golo Kante and adding intelligently around their core, while Marina Granovskaia proved peerless at securing maximum value for those deemed surplus to requirements.
But recruitment has felt considerably more scattergun in recent windows, with Chelsea invariably left scrambling for squad reinforcements after failing to land their top targets. It remains difficult to see the benefit of acquiring Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater, particularly as both represent obstacles to graduates of the most dominant youth academy in England.
A return to the strategy that first brought Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah to Stamford Bridge is what is required. Securing top talent must be the priority this summer, even if Abramovich can no longer afford to shop at the very top of the market.
Even more important than who replaces Conte may be who succeeds Michael Emenalo as technical director, or whatever new form Chelsea decide the role should take. The Nigerian, often a lightning rod for supporter discontent, has been sorely missed at Cobham since his surprise resignation in November.
The abiding sense is that Chelsea, with or (more likely) without Conte, are embarking on their most significant summer since the construction of this current team began in earnest in 2012, and the absence of Champions League football next season crystallises what is at stake.
At the end of a season in which City have set a new benchmark for Premier League excellence, Chelsea once again find themselves at a crossroads. They have been here many times before under Abramovich but, without the safety net of the Russian's billions, decisions made in the coming weeks -- including what to do with Conte -- could have lasting consequences.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.