Antonio Conte will be given short shrift by the Chelsea hierarchy if he attempts to exert greater control over the Premier League champions’ recruitment policy amid suggestions the manager is growing frustrated at the club’s failure to make early inroads in the summer market.
Reports have emerged in Italy, where Conte is on holiday with his family, that he may be considering his future, with his preferred profile of transfer targets and the number of proposed recruits apparently at odds with that of the board. The club are relaxed about the situation and insist the 47-year-old has not communicated such displeasure directly. They fully expect Conte to be in charge when the season begins in August.
Yet it is perhaps telling the contract extension to 2021 on improved terms, made to Conte towards the end of the league campaign, which would establish him as the highest-paid manager in Chelsea’s history, has still to be signed. He is wary of what awaits next term when his team will defend their title while returning to the Champions League after a season’s absence. With that in mind, he had hoped to make a significant number of additions, strengthening the first team with players of experience, and envisaged the influx of players would have been under way by now.
It is understood his instinct was to target players such as Leonardo Bonucci at his former club Juventus, a player who has turned 30 and would cost in excess of £50m together with a hefty wage package. Virgil van Dijk had long been earmarked as a potential arrival but Liverpool’s interest in the player – together with the uncertainty over the managerial situation at Southampton, who sacked Claude Puel this week – has significantly increased the Dutch defender’s valuation.
Conte was also disappointed that more effort was not made to secure the Belgium forward Dries Mertens from Napoli before the 30-year-old signed a contract at the Serie A club. The manager has also pushed for the signing of Juve’s Alex Sandro or Bayern Munich’s David Alaba at left wing-back, and watched with frustration as Manchester City, in particular, and Manchester United have made high-profile moves in the market.
There had been suggestions, again emanating from Italy, that Conte’s exasperation would lead him to push for greater influence over transfer policy, potentially wresting some control from the technical director, Michael Emenalo, despite always admitting his forte lies more on the training pitch. Yet Chelsea’s strategy in the market has proved highly successful over recent years, for all the regular upheaval of the management staff, with two Premier League titles secured in the past three seasons. Players are bought and developed, and invariably sold at a profit if they do not make their mark, not least those who graduate through the youth academy.
The manager was irritated by a lack of arrivals early last summer but the decisions to target N’Golo Kanté, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, players of some pedigree, ultimately proved decisive in the Premier League pursuit.
Neither that recruitment structure, which leans heavily on Emenalo as well as input, usually towards the end of deals, from the director Marina Granovskaia, nor the transfer strategy is going to bend for Conte, who has enjoyed the unbridled backing of the board since taking up the reins last summer. The owner, Roman Abramovich, was supportive while the team endured early teething trouble and backed his manager as players learned to live with the Italian’s demanding training schedule and approach.
Abramovich’s presence at the club’s Cobham training complex over three days last September, in the wake of a damaging 3-0 loss at Arsenal, was designed to demonstrate the manager was being backed, with the owner making a point of sitting with the coaching staff in the canteen rather than mixing with the players, as he might have done in the past.
Chelsea still intend to spend heavily this summer, with the Monaco midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko expected to become the first recruit for around £40m and interest retained in the Everton forward Romelu Lukaku, who could cost a world record fee. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois will be offered new deals on improved terms, though agreements have not yet been reached. Neither will be sold this summer.
There has been disappointment at board level at the manner in which Conte addressed Diego Costa’s future last week, with the manager’s decision to inform the striker by text he was no longer in his plans apparently born of frustration over progress in the window.
That move, made public by Costa, has potentially cost Chelsea millions of poundsas it demonstrates the club’s eagerness to sell a player with two years left on his contract, weakening their negotiating position, and has prompted some tension behind the scenes.
Asmir Begovic has been sold to Bournemouth and is likely to be replaced by the former City goalkeeper Willy Caballero on a free transfer at the start of next month. Conte, who had been linked with a return to Italy at Internazionale only for Luciano Spalletti to take over as manager at San Siro, will expect more additions by the time he returns with his players for pre-season training at the beginning of July. He is expected to be joined in London by his wife Elisabetta and daughter Vittoria before the new season.
By Dominic Fifield. This report was published in the Guardian.