Conte's disenchantment suggests his Chelsea reign could soon end
Time is running out for Antonio Conte. The Chelsea manager has the air of a man who knows that he is in the wrong job.
The Premier League champions have never looked like retaining their title and have made a bad start to 2018 with four straight draws, the last three of which have been 0-0. It's true that Conte's side are still in three cup competitions, but a feeling of staleness pervades Stamford Bridge and the 48-year-old has admitted his position is in doubt.
"Everything is possible," he said last week when asked about his future. "I have another year of the contract, but as you know very well in football everything is possible."
They were not the words of a man who knows his future is secure and there is good reason for Conte's skittishness. Chelsea have had 10 managers since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and reports have suggested the club is casting around for potential successors to Conte.
Massimiliano Allegri, who replaced Conte as Juventus coach in 2014, and Maurizio Sarri, his counterpart at Napoli, are high on the list of possible replacements, should a change become necessary. Both Serie A clubs are wary of losing their managers to the Premier League giants.
Almost from the start of his career in England, Conte has been disenchanted with his role at Chelsea. Ever since Jose Mourinho left at the end of his first spell in charge 11 years ago, Chelsea have created a framework whereby the power of the manager is minimized; the enduring legacy of the "Special One" is that no one would be quite so special again.
Conte feels, for example, that his record should grant him a greater say in transfer business but that view cuts little ice with the club's hierarchy and there are no signs the system will change. Trophies have arrived with regularity despite turnover in the dugout. There is a feeling that managers are almost interchangeable but that sort of logic has never sat well with Conte.
This month marks the fourth transfer window of his tenure and he has been exasperated by the failure to recruit targets that he deemed necessary to take the team forward. Conte has not come close to getting the players he wanted and also appeared underwhelmed by Chelsea's latest acquisition, Ross Barkley, making a statement that put responsibility for the team's inadequacies at other people's door.
"There is maybe this habit here, but I'm not involved in the transfer market," he said after the midfielder arrived from Everton earlier in January. "I give my opinion but the club decide on the players they want to buy, to invest in."
And the club's ongoing, haphazard approach to the current window is doing little to lift Conte's mood. The attempt to bring Andy Carroll in on loan from West Ham United is hardly the strategy of a club with ambition to dominate Europe, while a belated attempt to prise Alexis Sanchez away from Arsenal and out of the clutches of the Manchester clubs smacks of desperation.
Meanwhile, injuries to key players like Eden Hazard, N'Golo Kante and Victor Moses have further hampered Chelsea's season and the failure of Alvaro Morata to adequately fill Diego Costa's shoes had not helped matters. Conte has struggled to maintain the team's form with a mismatched, unbalanced squad and the pressure will only build in the coming weeks.
For now, his side trail leaders Manchester City by 15 points in the Premier League and are in a battle to secure a top-four place. That means knockout competitions represent the only chance of silverware -- Chelsea host Norwich in an FA Cup third-round replay on Wednesday and, seven days later, go to Arsenal for the second leg of the EFL Cup semifinal with the tie poised at 0-0 -- but only one cup matters at Stamford Bridge: The Champions League.
Progress in Europe -- or the lack of it -- will likely determine Conte's fate and the Champions League round-of-16 tie against Barcelona in February and March will be critical. With European success a priority, defeat at this stage of the tournament could trigger Conte's simmering resentment and Chelsea's revolving-door managerial policy.
Conte has options if things go wrong and is a man in demand, with no shortage of admirers; Paris Saint-Germain are watching the situation with interest. The smart money says that Chelsea will start next season with a different manager but Conte will have a much clearer idea of his fate as soon as March.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.