As Ayoze Perez tapped home Newcastle United’s third against Chelsea on Sunday – rubber stamping the former champions’ miserable day – the camera panned across to a man in a glossy tracksuit. His arms were folded, looking like a depressed worker at the end of a long week, waiting for his train home.
This same man, 366 days previous had been seen diving head first into a pile of bodies. A smile was plastered across his face, and he was grabbing, pulling and pushing anything that would move. This was moments after he’d seen Michy Batshuayi net the goal that would give his side the Premier League crown in his maiden season in English football.
A year later, Conte might as well be a different man. The same determined Italian who stormed England’s top division now looks dishevelled, worn down and nonplussed at anything that takes place in front of him.
It’s been a pretty miserable season at Stamford Bridge. The final day sealed Chelsea to a fifth placed finish, 23 points off their total the previous season. The dethroned champions left without Champions League football, without mounting a defence of any kind and a squad lacking any belief or dynamism needed for a club of Chelsea’s size and stature.
Chelsea finished 2017 with a 5-0 thrashing of a depleted Stoke City side; nothing too impressive considering the Potters fate come May. The win left the west London club second, in front of Manchester United, and eight clear of fifth placed Tottenham Hotspur. Despite being miles off a rampant Manchester City side, in hindsight now, you’re sure Chelsea fans would wish for a time machine to take them back to what was then, the best it would get for their league campaign.
Since January, Chelsea have only picked up eight wins from 17 games, losing six and drawing the other three.
The side’s run of four wins against Southampton, Burnley, Swansea and Liverpool helped make the stats look a little more respectable, but still look bleak when compared to the 14 wins the side picked up in the first half of the campaign. Embarrassing drubbings to Bournemouth and Watford heaped lots of pressure on the Italian, but it was the defeats to Manchester City and Tottenham that will stick in the craw for most.
They were the moments Conte lost support from a significant section of the fanbase.
At the Etihad, with no recognised striker and little attacking intent, it was clear that Conte’s intention seemed to keep the score respectable rather then make any impact. The game was a glorified training session for Pep Guardiola’s side. Not even at their best, Chelsea didn’t try to test the jaw of their rivals. In reflection, it was a mockery of a top level contest.
Two weeks later, a different game, same story. Chelsea found themselves 3-1 down to a Tottenham side looking to put the bed 28 years of hurt at Stamford Bridge. Once again, Conte kicked the turf below him in an almost careless fashion as Chelsea meagrely accepted their fate and allowed a bitter rival to bask in a derby victory.
The reasoning behind his almost juvenile behaviour all appears to lead back to the failure of the Chelsea board to acquire Conte’s top targets. From Romelu Lukaku to Alex Sandro, neither found their way to the west London, with Conte left unsatisfied. The sale of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United was crucial too – it was a major twist in the transfer window that helped strengthen a rival.
His supposed replacement, Tiémoué Bakayoko, has struggled. Those struggles have brought further questions to the decision making of the club’s hierarchy. Conte, not long after the sale, insinuated that it was out of his hands and one he had to “accept”. His frustration at Chelsea’s structure is a battle he would always lose.
The most impressive aspect of Conte’s title win was the ability to transform a broken squad who finished tenth and take them to first.
Getting the best out of the signings of Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, and taking a stowaway in Victor Moses and making him a first team regular, were things that heightened his achievement and showcased his tactical nouse. This season has been the complete opposite. With the exception of Antonio Rudiger, nearly all of the signings have struggled to adapt and the revolutionary 3-4-3 has become stale.
Over the season, Conte has looked like a man waiting to be sacked. One of the main responsibilities of a manager is to motivate their players, but if the man leading you doesn’t look interested, it cannot reflect positively on the pitch. It has all has lead to the creation of a toxic environment.
The saying that a team will often reflect a manager couldn’t be more true for Chelsea. Last season, Chelsea played with intensity, determination and passion. This campaign, they looked disinterested, lacklustre and despondent, like their manager.
Chelsea are a few days from an FA Cup final against Manchester United, which is the last chance for Antonio Conte and his players to save face. However, after Sunday’s result, it’s hard to see anything other than a United victory.
Regardless of the result, Antonio Conte will leave Stamford Bridge a shadow of the man who electrified the league, who simply watched on as his empire crumbled in front of his eyes.