LONDON — Until recently, there had been something surreal and vaguely comical about the persistent reports that Antonio Conte might be sacked.
The fact that the Italian had to field questions about his future shortly after Chelsea’s loss to Burnley on the opening day of the season jarred at the time, and the performances and results that followed — while not without setbacks — provided his most powerful riposte.
Wednesday’s humiliation at home to Bournemouth, however, has shifted the landscape. The worst defeat of the Conte era has come at the worst possible time, compounding a stuttering start to 2018 just as Liverpool and Tottenham look resurgent and adding another layer to the tension between the Chelsea board and their increasingly outspoken head coach.
Conte has always insisted that he prefers to tell a “bad truth” than a “good lie”, but in recent weeks, his penchant for pessimism — about the fixture list, about the depth of his squad, about Chelsea’s spending power compared to the Manchester clubs — has not been well received. Prior to kick-off against Bournemouth, he let it be known that his preparations for the match had been rendered a “disaster” by Michy Batshuayi’s deadline-day loan move to Borussia Dortmund.
Tellingly, the decision to prepare for the match with Batshuayi upfront despite the high likelihood of his departure suggested either a wilful (and self-defeating) disregard for Chelsea’s transfer intentions or, worse, a worrying lack of communication with chief dealmaker Marina Granovskaia. Michael Emenalo, the chosen intermediary between the head coach and the hierarchy, left in November and has been missed.
You sense an even dimmer view will have been taken of Conte’s postmatch insistence that he is doing a “great job” and “exploiting this squad at the maximum level.” Chelsea’s attack has stalled since the turn of the year, failing to score in four of nine matches and, even accounting for depleted options, was startlingly toothless with Eden Hazard operating as a false nine against Bournemouth.
There has also been a hint of mischief in Conte’s claims about the extent to which he is bypassed in Chelsea’s transfer decision-making.
It is true that he does not have the biggest or even the final say, but Olivier Giroud revealed that a conversation with Chelsea’s head coach played a key role in him wanting to move to Stamford Bridge. “I asked for this type of player, with this characteristics, from my club, and the club gave me this opportunity with Giroud,” Conte said on Friday.
Chelsea hope that the arrivals of Giroud and Emerson Palmieri, coupled with the close of the transfer window, will enable Conte to refocus publicly and privately on what he has, rather than what he has been denied. If the recent slide continues, February has the potential to be both ugly and decisive.
Barcelona, the team Conte described as “maybe the best team in this moment in Europe” outside England, await in the Champions League round of 16 later this month. The first leg at Stamford Bridge is preceded by hosting Hull City in the FA Cup — Chelsea’s only realistic remaining hope of silverware — and followed by Premier League matches away against Manchester United and Manchester City.
There is no desire at Chelsea to see Conte go before the summer, when a mutually convenient parting of the ways seems the likeliest outcome. Conte, in turn, reiterated on Friday that he has no desire to leave before his contract expires in June 2019, though he can hardly be expected to say anything else.
An intervention before the end of the season will only be made if this recent stumble accelerates into something worse. It is unlikely that defeat to Barcelona will meet the criteria, but the top-four finish that Conte regards as a “great success” is considered the minimum requirement by those above him. Defeat to Bournemouth has left Chelsea just two points above fifth-placed Tottenham with a demanding run of fixtures ahead.
The Italian Football Association has, in recent days, made no secret of their desire to see Conte return and resurrect a national team in unprecedented crisis, but such a move would be surprising given the extent to which he pined for the daily rigours of club coaching in the lead-up to Euro 2016.
In any case, Conte will not lack for alternatives; his greatest consolation is that when he does finally leave Chelsea, his reputation and achievements in two very different footballing countries and cultures will make him the most coveted coach on the market.
Until then, Conte, like so many of his Chelsea predecessors, will have to tune out the noise and ignore the ominous suggestions that every miscalculation or misfortune could be his last at Stamford Bridge. “As you know very well, I trust in my work,” he said on Friday when asked how he avoids doubting himself. He then pointedly added: “This is the only thing I trust.”
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.