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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Conte has to be careful of following in the footsteps of Mourinho at Chelsea

A downcast mood and a visible irritation at a lack of recruitment at Stamford Bridge are ominous signs from the Italian manager ahead of the new Premier League season and similar to what befell his predecessor in 2015-16.

Antonio Conte's frustrated mood has not been difficult to read at Chelsea. Darren Staples / Reuters
Antonio Conte's frustrated mood has not been difficult to read at Chelsea. Darren Staples / Reuters

It has the potential to prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. Antonio Conte has taken to sighing in a rather downcast manner and his words can seem to mirror his mood.

On Friday he said: “There are many reasons which suggest that next season will be the most difficult of my career.”

Harder than 2006-07 when he was sacked as Arezzo manager in October, reinstated in March and then relegated to Serie C1? Apparently. Perhaps it is a different sort of difficulty.

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Whichever, Chelsea’s summer of discontent continued in the Community Shield on Sunday.

Conte was irritated by referee Bobby Madley’s decision to dismiss Pedro at Wembley. Lip-readers could detect him saying “but why?” to the fourth official.

An appropriate answer could include a reckless and potentially dangerous challenge, even if the sanction was surprising. It nevertheless contributed to the impression the manager feels the world is conspiring against him.

Chelsea have lost out on transfer targets Romelu Lukaku, Leonardo Bonucci and Danilo this summer; perhaps Alex Sandro, too. Conte intimated he did not concur with the decision to sell Nemanja Matic.

The dumped Diego Costa remains on the books, an unwanted irritant. The manager’s message has become increasingly blunt. “We need more players,” he stated on Friday.

Managers can use teamsheets to communicate with a club’s powerbrokers. Conte seemed to do that on Sunday by fielding an 11 comprised entirely of players who were at Stamford Bridge last season.

Alvaro Morata and Antonio Rudiger came off the bench, but selecting them from the start would have disrupted the image of a team that had not been bolstered.

Conte was permitted to make six substitutions, but left three of his changes unmade as a trio of youngsters remained unused. Only Charly Musonda of the rookies took the field. It was a vote of no confidence in the others. Chelsea seemed to lack a Plan B, both in terms of personnel and an alternative to their revelatory 3-4-2-1 formation.

For various reasons, Arsenal did not field six of their premier players, in Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Santi Cazorla, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi.

While they only prevailed on penalties, they were the better side and, aided by replacements, they passed a test of strength in depth.

Arguably that depth is an indictment of Wenger, who has accumulated players and shows a marked reluctance to sell those who do not realise their potential.

In contrast, Chelsea have spent the summer cashing in on fringe figures, even if the chances of Conte granting them extended opportunities were remote.

But if it all showed that three months is a long time in football – it was tempting to rewind 12 weeks to the May night when a jubilant Costa celebrated winning the title by barging into the press room to bundle Conte away – it also indicated that two weeks can be an age.

Fifteen days before their Wembley reverse, Chelsea had beaten Arsenal 3-0 in Beijing. That victory was secured by a starting 11 shorn of signings. It implied that the merits of continuity, cohesion and understanding could carry Chelsea a long way, especially if allied with Conte’s capacity to use additions intelligently, as he did with David Luiz, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante last season.

Perhaps, in time, Morata, Rudiger and the currently injured Tiemoue Bakayoko will be integrated as effectively. For now, and while it is pertinent that Uefa Champions League commitments mean he needs a bigger squad, the difference is the Italian’s disposition.

Conte actually endured a summer of frustration last year – Luiz and Alonso were late recruits, seemingly from further down shortlists – but it was camouflaged better.

The manager had a point to prove. He showed his resourcefulness, his tactical expertise and training-ground prowess to reconfigure Chelsea in such a way that they became champions.

That can-do attitude may be required again. In the dark days of his final few months, Jose Mourinho talked himself into trouble. Verbal negativity contributed to a downward spiral. Conte has to ensure history does not repeat itself.