Comment and Analysis @nicholaspwright
Antonio Conte sacked: Time for Chelsea to break managerial cycle?
Antonio Conte has been sacked after two seasons in charge
Last Updated: 13/07/18 12:23pm
Chelsea's model has brought them a glut of trophies under a string of different managers in the Roman Abramovich era, but does Antonio Conte's departure signal the need to start looking to the long-term?
Win or bust. It is the Chelsea way. Or, at least, it is Chelsea's way under Roman Abramovich. Since the Russian billionaire's takeover in 2003, managers have come and gone and the trophies have stacked up. Antonio Conte, sacked after last season's fifth-placed finish, is just the latest to discover how the cycle works.
It is a little over a year since Conte masterminded a title triumph which at one point looked implausible. The Italian recovered from a difficult start to outwit his more celebrated rivals and spark a tactical revolution in the Premier League. Now, however, he has paid the price for an alarming slide. FA Cup winners or not, Abramovich was never likely to tolerate it.
His departure leaves Chelsea at a crossroads. They are expected to appoint former Napoli manager Mauricio Sarri next, but should the policy of short-termism which has delivered 14 trophies under six different managers in 15 years continue? Or is it time to consider a longer-term approach? The evidence may now be weighted in favour of the latter.
Firstly, there is the question of transfer spending. Abramovich's huge financial investment was the undoubted catalyst behind Chelsea's rise into the elite and all the early successes that followed, but in recent years he has adopted a more prudent approach at a time when Chelsea's rivals have gone in the opposite direction.
The last two seasons illustrate the point. Chelsea broke their transfer record with the signing of Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid last summer, but unlike in the early years, expensive arrivals have generally been offset by sales. Chelsea's net spend during Conte's two seasons in charge was a relatively modest £125m. In the same period, Manchester City and Manchester United are up at £365.1m and £225.4m respectively.
Conte touched on it himself back in January, when he described Chelsea's title triumph in the previous season as a "little miracle". He added: "In this moment, there are two teams in this league who are 'top'. They stay there. The others have to fight for a place in the Champions League. These two big clubs can become seriously dangerous for other teams in the world. These two teams are very strong already and want to invest."
Conte highlighted the example of Alexis Sanchez's move to Manchester United, adding: "Only one or two clubs can pay this type of salary. We never were in this race. Ever."
Instead, Chelsea have been forced to lower their sights in the transfer market. It is a policy which yielded underwhelming results last season, leaving them lagging behind their rivals and begging the question as to why they did not afford more opportunities to the players developed in their own, hugely successful youth academy.
Instead of spending close to £100m on Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley, for example, could Chelsea not have placed more faith in Ruben Loftus-Cheek? Having shone on loan at Crystal Palace last season, the 22-year-old academy product is now the only member of that quartet to have represented his country in Russia this summer.
Of course, Loftus-Cheek is not the only academy graduate who should be on Chelsea's first-team radar. With their U18s' resounding 7-1 aggregate win over Arsenal in April, the club secured their sixth FA Youth Cup triumph in the last seven years. It is an extraordinary record which underlines the depth of talent Chelsea already have at their disposal.
Harnessing that talent will be crucial if Abramovich is to persist with his current approach to spending, but it requires a kind of patience he has never previously shown. The pressure for instant success at Chelsea is not conducive to giving youth a chance, and while Andreas Christensen broke the mould last season, his performances showed that even the best young players will make mistakes.
Tottenham and Liverpool, the two sides to have finished directly above Chelsea in this season's Premier League table, have shown the benefits of patience and a long-term vision. The stable environments at each club have allowed a string of academy products to flourish, from Harry Kane at Tottenham to Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool.
Neither side's approach has brought them silverware yet, of course, but nor have they suffered dips quite like Chelsea's in two of their last three seasons. When players know their manager's future is safe, they are far more likely to battle through adversity. When a change of leadership is never far away, it is difficult to sustain the same level of motivation.
It is food for thought for Chelsea. Conte is the latest victim of a cycle which has delivered remarkable success under Abramovich, but is it sustainable any longer? After the years of win or bust, it might be time for a change of direction.
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