This weekend marks five weeks since Chelsea won the FA Cup at Wembley. At the time it was widely expected that manager Antonio Conte would be sacked, with Maurizio Sarri widely thought to be appointed his successor.
The ensuing saga has become a source of deep frustration for supporters, who harbour concerns about the detrimental effect the delay in resolving the matter will have on Chelsea’s chances of making a competitive start to the season. It has also brought to the forefront a couple of familiar problems: player power and the mismanagement of young talent, which have bedevilled the Blues in recent years.
Star man Eden Hazard has made it patently obvious with his “wait and see” statements that if Conte remains in charge, he will seek to depart from Chelsea. The 27-year old will not be the only established member of the squad who feels the same way. Outside this clique, but of equal concern to the fans, is academy graduate Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who made sufficient waves on loan at Crystal Palace last season to progress into the England side for whom he is likely to start in Sunday’s World Cup clash with Panama.
While Hazard and his coterie clearly have an axe to grind with Conte, 22-year-old Loftus-Cheek simply wants assurances that if he comes back to Chelsea he will be integrated into the first team by the manager — whoever that will be.
Player power seems to be more prevalent at Chelsea than at any other Premier League club. Along with Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, Hazard was scorned by sections of the Blues’ support following the unceremonious sacking of Jose Mourinho in December 2015. “Rats” proclaimed one banner, unfurled at the Bridge at the home game following Mourinho’s departure.
After a brief honeymoon period, Mourinho’s replacement Conte soon found his position becoming increasingly untenable. A bust-up with Costa ultimately lead to the him being sold back to Atletico Madrid and the Italian encountered further problems with the striker’s countrymen David Luiz and Willian that led to both players being marginalised. Following the FA Cup final win over Manchester United, Willian infamously blocked out Conte on an image posted on Instagram.
This bad habit of the tail wagging the dog at the Bridge might be attributed to a number of things. Players with over-inflated egos and over zealous agents have certainly exposed the lack of a concrete, well bedded-in football management infrastructure at the club. The club desperately needs a competent, well-respected technical director as much as it needs a cabal of assistant coaches who have an affinity with Chelsea and know the dressing room inside out. Such a scenario would have made both Conte and Mourinho’s lives that much easier and the worry is that the next manager will eventually encounter the same problems if players are allowed to retain the upper hand.
The Groundhog Day aspect to this, as far as Chelsea are concerned, is amplified by the situation concerning Loftus-Cheek, who could be the latest prodigious talent to go through the club’s loan system and find fame elsewhere.
The World Cup in Russia may only be a week old, but the anxiety it has caused Blues fans is palpable:
Costa’s goals for Spain: Yes, he wanted to leave Chelsea, but it could have been handled better. Conte might have got another season out of him and who knows what might have happened.
Romelu Lukaku finding the net for Belgium: A spiky reminder of how Chelsea squandered his talent and the hulking striker lining up alongside another Blues cast-off Kevin De Bruyne focused minds on Loftus-Cheek and what the future might hold for him.
Given such instability, it’s extraordinary that between them, Mourinho (in his second spell) and Conte managed to deliver four major pieces of silverware which included both men winning the Premier League. Perhaps that can be attributed to the fact that the duo are single-minded, self-styled serial winners capable for a period of time at least of fashioning triumph from chaos before becoming engulfed in the chasm of despair that lurks within Stamford Bridge.
Will life be any different for Conte’s successor? Time will tell. Right now, given the complete news blackout at Chelsea, there is no evidence to suggest that life will be any easier or things will be any different for any incoming manager at the club.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco