So Chelsea sack yet another manager. Hardly an unfamiliar occurrence. With Maurizio Sarri now in the hot seat, Blues’ owner Roman Abramovich has appointed his ninth full time manager since taking control of the club in 2003.
And many would say that the time was right. 48-year-old Conte, who had led the West London outfit to its sixth league title in his first season, was a fiery character who was noted for causing discontent in the dressing room with his hard-line approach to training and passionate outbursts. From winning the title with a then record 30 league wins, until Manchester City produced 32 the following year, the Italian set a club record 13 consecutive league victories. But that counts for very little when the following season the defending champions finished a dismal 30 points behind the Citizens, missed out on Champions League qualification by only finishing fifth and were knocked out of Europe’s premier competition in the last 16 stage. Coupled with the handling of Diego Costa’s departure, Conte was viewed by many as a dead man walking at Chelsea.
Abramovich moves quickly. He has to. The Premier League’s top four places are of incredible value in terms of wealth and attracting the world’s best players. And they are no longer a closed shop for the ‘big four’ to simply jostle for position while the chasing pack feed off the crumbs. The continuing emergence of Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City’s incredible heroics of 2014/15, the might of Manchester, Liverpool and Arsenal, means there is far less a guarantee of a place at Europe’s top table.
And Conte will have a pay-off in the region on £9m and should have no issue of landing another prominent job in football.
The Italian reported for three days of pre-season training with the senior side this week, and even oversaw training on Thursday morning before being informed of his impending departure that afternoon. Sources indicate that this was largely due to complications between Napoli and Chelsea in reaching an agreement over compensation for Sarri.
But to keep a manager in the dark over his future smacks of poor taste; particularly with one who, aside from his league achievements in his debut season, also delivered the club’s eighth FA Cup in May this year, with large sections of the Chelsea crowd chanting his name. A boss who also boasted a win percentage of 67.1% - a record only bettered by Pep Guardiola's 72.8% in the Premier League, and better than Sir Alex Ferguson's 65.2%.
And so to the future and one rather pertinent question. Is there any clear indication that Sarri will bring anything different than his predecessor? Named Serie A Coach of the Year in 2016/17, the 59-year-old clearly fits the profile billionaire Abramovich craves. During three years with Napoli, Sarri failed to win a major honour but guided the club to second, third and second again. A consistent record, but one that will have to be improved dramatically at Stamford Bridge should he survive behind the usual 24-month tenure Chelsea coaches are usually afforded.
What if the unthinkable were to happen and Chelsea were to finish outside the top four for two consecutive seasons? Both Manchester clubs are investing and improving, Liverpool are spending heavily, while Spurs will be loathed to relinquish a Champions League place, particularly to a bitter London rival. And staying in the capital, Arsenal, now with fresh blood at their helm, will be desperate to return to the top table.
Mourinho’s first departure in 2007 saw Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Ray Wilkins and Guus Hiddink take up managerial duties until Ancelotti’s arrival, less than two years later. During that time, Chelsea did triumph in both the FA- and League- Cups, but had to wait for title success until 2010. The Italian’s dismissal in 2011 saw a similar state of affairs unfold again, with André Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez – who actually assumed the title of Interim Manager – all being tried out in the top job before prodigal son Mourinho returned for his second stint in 2013.
In fairness, Chelsea did taste European triumphs during those two years. The Champions League of 2012 being followed by Europa League success the following season highlighted that the board had a point in making those changes.
But the Blues have long since sought to move away from being a good cup side that came close in the league but ultimately failed.
So far the plan of changing managers quickly has (just about!) worked out for Chelsea, but for how much longer? No longer are they the only monopolisers of billions of pounds and huge wages. A long-term plan has to be put in place. For their sake, let’s hope Sarri is it.