Chelsea perhaps threw away their best chance at a clean rebuild when they let Antonio Conte go, and in the ugly manner they did. It was much like Carlo Ancelotti, except this offense was more grievous than the Ancelotti sacking, as Ancelotti had quite the squad, and expecting him to win the Champions League or the Premier League a second time was fair. Conte didn’t have that luxury.
Jurgen Klopp arrived two seasons after Liverpool’s title challenge under Brendan Rodgers: the 2015/16 season where Leicester won the league. In Klopp’s first season, he finished eight with 60 points, in a lower position and with less points and less wins than the previous season. Klopp had preached patience and warned that success should not be expected for five seasons, so when he didn’t win anything after 3-4 seasons, he wasn’t under any pressure from the hierarchy.
Perhaps Chelsea and fans would have appreciated Conte if he was as slow as Klopp.
The very best managers are held to near-impossibly high standards and are judged incredibly harshly because those are the standards they have set for themselves.
Chelsea had not won the Premier League in the modern era, though they had finished third in the 1998/99 league season (four points behind winners Manchester United) and they had finished second with 79 points in the 2003/04 league season (11 points behind winners Arsenal). Mourinho came in and won the league the first two times of asking, from that point forward anything less seemed like a letdown, and success for Mourinho was defined as the highest possible achievement, which is what it had been from his days as FC Porto manager where he won the Europa league, Champions League and Primeira Liga in two seasons.
Antonio Conte had a squad that had just finished 10th, Klopp had a squad that had just finished sixth. Whose team was better/worse is immaterial. Though Conte didn’t promise to win the league in his first season, he did. He did what any manager was supposed to do: use a system that maximizes the players collective strengths and mitigates their collective weaknesses, or to put it simply: he got the best out of his players. He delivered free flowing counter-attacking football and Chelsea’s second highest points total in English football history (93), coming behind Mourinho’s club record (95). What’s more, is that Conte delivered the more wins in a Premier League campaign than any other Chelsea manager, and in fact any other Premier League manager up until that point, winning 30 games, ahead of Mourinho’s 29 games in the glorious 2004/05 league season.
Despite this, Conte was vilified the following season for missing out on automatic Champions League qualification. Conte had asked the board for reinforcements, but because Conte had delivered a league title without as much investment as league titles usually command, the board expected Conte to deliver better results than clubs and managers that made more, smarter investments. The fans also disrespected and disregarded Conte’s work because they saw his second season’s result as a “bitter disappointment” compared to his first.
Had Conte gone down the usual route of “It’s a process, I can’t make Chelsea contenders in one season. We are a team that finished 10th last season, you have to give us time”, his fifth place finish would have been seen as “progress”, at least when you compare it to the 10th place finish. Had Conte not won the league, perhaps fans and the board would have gotten a more realistic sense of what was needed to get back to winning titles. The board might have even put in the appropriate investment, if they had not been given the impression success could be attained without it.
Instead, Conte was too good for his own good. When you hear Chelsea fans talk about Conte now, you hear resentment and irritation and when you listen to the same fans talk about Klopp, you hear awe, respect and reverence, despite Conte delivering one league title, two cup finals and one FA Cup trophy, before Klopp even delivered one trophy for Liverpool.
It’s even more glaring how silly the decision not to back Conte was, as Inter Milan are now reaping the benefits of giving Conte time and money, sitting eight points clear at the top of Serie A, with a game in hand. Good things take time, but exceptional managers like Conte and Mourinho spoilt the Chelsea board by delivering good things without taking any time at all, and now the board think they can sign hot talents and return Chelsea to being title contenders at the snap of a finger.