“I stay here, try to work and put all of myself into the work. The pressure? Which pressure? What is the pressure? I work – if this is enough it is OK. Otherwise, the club have to take another decision.”
The Italian is not backwards about coming forwards. He is walking a tightrope and his thinly-veiled messages to the Blues’ hierarchy will only weaken his already tenuous position.
Chelsea have long been out of the Premier League title race. A fortnight ago they missed out on the Carabao Cup final when they were beaten by Arsenal. Now they face Barcelona in the Champions League last 16. Few will be backing the Blues to progress.
Suggestions Conte will be sacked before the season is out appear to be wide of the mark. There are few credible candidates available, after all, short of handing Guus Hiddink the reins on an interim basis for the third time in nine years.
So how does Conte turn it around? Football Whispers have come up with seven issues the former Juventus coach must solve.
1. The defence’s decline
Gary Cahill was not at his imperious best last season but, in John Terry‘s absence, he led the Blues to the Premier League title as part of an unfamiliar back three. Few would have predicted his rapid decline this season, however.
Cahill’s sharp drop in form has mirrored Chelsea’s. He has gone from Mr Dependable to a liability. Against Watford on Monday his vulnerability was shown up in lights as he backed off Gerard Deulofeu for the Hornets’ third. If he’d kept going he’d have ended up in the Rookery End with the home supporters.
The former Bolton Wanderers centre-back has always been more of a stopper than anything else; comfortable winning the ball first time and allowing others to clear up. But in Conte’s 3-4-3 he has been shunted out to the left and that has seen him exposed on several occasions.
David Luiz has been no better. The Brazilian was not Conte’s first choice when he returned in the summer of 2016 from a two-year spell at Paris Saint-Germain, but he showed a level of maturity and calmness not seen in his first stint. That has not been evident this season, though, and Luiz has regressed, culminating in a very public falling out with Conte.
Andreas Christensen‘s emergence has been a welcome tonic, however. The Dane is only 21 and has just 15 Premier League starts to his name but he has been Chelsea’s best defender this term and the player they must build around for the future.
Similarly, summer signing Antonio Rüdiger has to be afforded more opportunities. The German has been in and out of the side, never making more than four consecutive top-flight starts, but, at 24, he is also part of Chelsea’s future.
It’s a future which does not include Cahill as a starter. The 32-year-old saw first-hand the role Terry played in his final term at Stamford Bridge. It’s time he did something similar.
2. Eden Hazard as a false nine
The Belgian maverick is Chelsea’s best player. That is not in doubt. He has been the one bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for the Blues but, however good he is, he simply isn’t a striker.
Last month he claimed Chelsea did not need another frontman as he could fill in if needed. “I think we have two very good strikers in Alvaro and Michy. If they are not ready to play I can play striker, so I don’t think we need [another one],” he told the Evening Standard.
The Blues felt differently and, after sending Michy Batshuayi to Borussia Dortmund on loan, completed the £15.3million capture of Olivier Giroud from Arsenal. But the Frenchman, having made just one Premier League start all season, was named on the bench for the trip to Vicarage Road.
That might have been a precautionary measure, but starting Hazard as a false nine was a mistake.
The former Real Madrid transfer target is an incredibly intelligent, tricky player. But without service he is wasted and Chelsea lack a focal point. It was no coincidence the Blues improved immeasurably when Giroud was finally introduced from the bench.
3. Tiémoué Bakayoko
It’s safe to say Bakayoko has endured a rough start to life at Stamford Bridge. Robbed of a proper pre-season thanks to injury, the former Monaco man has struggled to justify his £40million price-tag.
Monday’s abomination at Watford was the nadir for the 23-year-old. He was harshly sent off for two bookings inside the first half an hour, but, in truth, referee Mike Dean did him a favour by sending him for an early bath.
Chelsea fans cruelly jeered him from the field, compounding a miserable evening’s work. Bakayoko completed a charitable 67 per cent of his passes and was dispossessed twice before his evening was cut short. This was not a one off, though.
This season he has averaged just 47.8 passes per 90 minutes, per WhoScored, compared to the 55.5 he managed as Monaco won Ligue 1 last season. He’s also been making fewer tackles per 90 (2.7 v 2.8) and interceptions (1.5 v 2.3).
Clearly there is a player in there. But Conte is doing the French international no favours by selecting him continually. With Cesc Fábregas back from injury and Ross Barkley arriving from Everton there is no reason to persist with Bakayoko when he suspension is over.
4. A lack of a Plan B
From the outset on Monday, Watford made Chelsea uncomfortable. The front three of Troy Deeney, Richarlison and – to a lesser extent – Deulofeu worked tirelessly in tandem to deny the Blues defence time and space whenever they were in possession.
Chelsea struggled to break the Hornets’ press and frequently lost possession in midfield. They were not helped by Bakayoko’s dismal showing but Conte’s reluctance to change the approach played into Watford’s hands.
The visitors’ luck only changed when Watford tired, allowing Luiz to step out of defence and drive his side forward.
Conte should have reacted quicker once it became apparent his side weren’t going to be given the time and space to play out of defence. But instead the Blues stuck stubbornly to their original plan and were punished for it.
5. Álvaro Morata’s form
Seven goals in his first eight games for Chelsea suggested the club’s new No.9 had taken to English football with ease and was revelling in his role as a team’s main striker – foreign territory having served as a deputy at Real Madrid and Juventus.
But since scoring a hat-trick at Stoke City at the end of September, Morata has struck just five goals – the last of which came on Boxing Day. One school of thought is that he is struggling with the number of minutes he is expected to play having already clocked up more this term than in any season of his career.
He is sidelined with a back injury at present and that might prove to be a blessing in disguise having come under scrutiny for missing a hatful of chances against Arsenal.
Conte has leapt to his centre-forward’s defence but, privately, he will have been concerned by the way Morata’s goals have dried up. He must find a way to help the Spaniard re-discover his best form – and soon.
6. The excuse culture
While Conte would argue he has been dealt a bad hand this season, he has not always helped himself – particularly when it comes to what he says in the press. He has issued a number of messages through the media, some delicate and some very clear.
His complaints have been varied, but a number have given Chelsea’s players ready-made excuses for their below-par displays. Tiredness has been one such example. If the players hear their manager claiming they’re fatigued they will feel it. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Speaking after a goalless draw at home to Leicester last month Conte told The Independent: “We played with almost the same players as against Arsenal. My plan was to play with one team [in the] FA Cup against Norwich, and then to play these two games with almost the same players. But I think today I saw a lot of players very tired.”
Chelsea do have a small squad of senior professionals but that is Conte’s doing. It is he who has allowed a number of the club’s young stars to move out on loan across Europe and now he is paying the price for the lack of depth.
7. The lack of faith in youth products
Although Chelsea are short of numbers compared to the likes of Manchester City or Manchester United, they do not lack for homegrown talent. The Blues have ploughed a lot of money into their academy and are beginning to reap the rewards.
However, Conte has shown scant regard for the club’s youngsters, allowing Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kurt Zouma and Isaiah Brown to join other Premier League clubs on loan after deeming them not ready for the first-team.
Meanwhile, Charly Musonda was packed off to Celtic last month while Jake Clarke-Salter, Jérémie Boga, Michael Hector, Ola Aina, Fikayo Tomori, Tomáš Kalas, Lucas Piazon, Kasey Palmer and Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman are all learning their craft in the Championship.
And still Conte is not without options. Dujon Sterling, Kyle Scott, Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi remain at Stamford Bridge. Yet, for all his complaints about tiredness and squad depth, they have been afforded just two substitute outings in the Premier League between them.