Chelsea's Conte could learn from Benitez's experience and learn to work with team at his disposal
The eruption came after an FA Cup win.
Chelsea’s manager, a winner of major trophies in both his homeland and England, announced he would leave at the end of the season. He blamed the club for a climate where speculation surrounded his position.
Not Antonio Conte – or not yet, anyway – but Rafa Benitez, after beating Middlesbrough in 2013. History may not repeat itself on the Spaniard’s return to Stamford Bridge, but there are certain parallels with the recent past.
There are differences, too: while the choruses of “Antonio” are rarer than they were last season, the Chelsea fans have not turned on Conte. Benitez was persona non grata after his time at Liverpool.
His grievances centred around the way Chelsea had branded him "interim manager". That was, he said, “a mistake”.
Conte has been a permanent successor, but there is an increasingly interim feel to his regime. He highlighted the firing culture are Stamford Bridge on Friday, saying that 10 managers had been dismissed in 14 years.
It is only eight, but chances are that Conte will be gone in the summer. While he rowed back on them on Friday, his Wednesday assessment of Chelsea’s transfers – “sometimes I can have an impact, sometimes not” – had echoes of Benitez’s feeling that there was the club and the manager and they were different and distant.
It also has the feel of a reputation-saving exercise.
And yet that separation of powers perhaps necessitates a strategy that is not reliant on any one manager. Conte has a pulpit. Chelsea have a point. They have to plan for life after him.
They can seem a paradox, displaying institutionalised short-termism in the dugout but with a long-termist ethos behind the scenes: managers can come and go, but they rarely change the character of the club where there is a growing focus on signing younger players and finding value for money in the transfer market.
Ross Barkley is a case in point.
Conte was scarcely supportive of the midfielder after he was parachuted in for his debut in Wednesday’s defeat to Arsenal. The January arrival is more club signing than Conte’s choice. There was no true Benitez buy during his time in charge, either. Nor, for that matter, has there been one for Newcastle this January.
Managers who have pursued strikers – they may eventually get Edin Dzeko and Nicolai Jorgensen respectively – may be studies in frustration. At Chelsea, however, it is pertinent to ask if Conte’s dissatisfaction and his fractiousness have proved counter-productive, and if his downbeat attitude has made difficulties a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Thus far, 2018, yielding a solitary win in 90 minutes, has been tough and exhausting. Chelsea’s team on Sunday will be patched up. Willian, Alvaro Morata, and Thibaut Courtois are injured. The Belgian’s absence means that Willy Caballero, a transfer target to elude Benitez last summer, will continue in the Chelsea goal.
Cesc Fabregas could be back. Whether or not he is, Barkley will be sent out for a first start. Michy Batshuayi, who would have left Stamford Bridge had a forward been signed, could be required.
Benitez has indicated he will not field a full-strength side. His priority is survival whereas he brought silverware to Chelsea. Three months after his outburst at Middlesbrough, Benitez departed a trophy winner, securing the Uefa Cup.
The FA Cup represents Chelsea’s best chance of silverware in Conte’s sophomore season.
It may not alter his destiny, however, just as it did not change Benitez’s. But five years on, the Spaniard still looks a man in search of an ideal role. The past provides warnings for Conte.
He recognises some, but perhaps not all.