Rumours of Antonio Conte’s immediate demise may have been exaggerated but rumours of an early departure have dogged the Italian since the summer.
Despite leading Chelsea to an unlikely Premier League title win last season, the former Juventus boss wasn’t slow in coming forward over his frustrations about the club and their failures in the transfer market.
He was even critical of their recruitment efforts in his first few months of work at Stamford Bridge, and was made the favourite by the bookies to become the next manager to lose their job in the Autumn of 2016.
The failure to sign Alex Sandro as an upgrade at left-back was acknowledged as a major sore point along with the sale of Nemanja Matic to a direct rival in Manchester United and Nathaniel Chalobah’s defection to Watford, leaving the Blues short in midfield.
Losing Diego Costa, and failing to adequately replace him as a forward and tone-setting talisman, was a failure pinned on both Conte and the club after missing out on Romelu Lukaku and Fernando Llorente.
Yet the Italian has made many of his errors, diminishing his popularity among some supporters. After crafting a side that played with such fantastic balance in his first season, he developed a habit for becoming too negative in his second, and was blamed for spoiling morale with his negativity and comments about leaving London in the near future.
The problem for Chelsea and Roman Abramovich is what next? Sacking Conte or watching him walk out on his own accord would leave a gap in the dugout that would not be easily filled. The Blues have already appointed and sacked a number of names who would otherwise have been ideal for the job, although the do have options.
Below are the leading candidates to replace the Italian, each with the cases for and against their candidacies laid out.
The treble winner – Luis Enrique
The lowdown: The second manager to win a treble with Barcelona after Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique is currently enjoying a year off after having left the Camp Nou in the summer of 2017.
Reasons for: Abramovich is not a person easily satisfied. Despite the success that his club enjoyed under Jose Mourinho, the Russian came to demand a more expansive style of play, and later came to see Guardiola’s Barcelona team as a model to copy. After Conte, he looks set to appoint a manager who will seek to play on the front foot whenever possible. Luis Enrique could be the answer.
He too has his critics. Barcelona’s 2015 treble win, the peak of his achievements as a coach so far, is often put down to the quality of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, rather than his managerial abilities. Yet he isn’t afraid to lay down the law or put his own ideas forward and allow talented players to express themselves.
Reasons against: He has already upset Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia by stalling on talks to replace Conte, according to reports. The possibility of interest from Paris Saint-Germain is said to have distracted him, and he can be a spiky personality in the press conference and behind the scenes.
Verdict: Not as rigorous a coach as some other names on this list, at least not going on reputations, but Luis Enrique has already shown he can imbue a team with the intensity to achieve great things, even if the quality of players was vital to Barcelona’s success during his time as coach.
In Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante, Chelsea aren’t exactly lacking in talent. The Spaniard’s wage demands may have priced him out of a move to Stamford Bridge, however.
The coach – Maurizio Sarri
The lowdown: The architect behind Napoli’s title challenge this season, Sarri is Naples born and bred and regarded as one of the most exciting coaches in Europe right now, not least due to the style of play of his teams.
Reasons for: Napoli’s football is frantic and yet controlled and extremely entertaining, soaking up possession while picking teams apart with their nimble attacking midfielders. Think about how Chelsea played at their most fluid best last season but taken up another level, or look to Manchester City under Guardiola this season.
Sarri sets his team out to dominate games with positive, precise football and get fans on their feet, and unlike Conte he is happy to work with whatever he is given in the transfer window. He is a coach first and foremost and can do without the backstage politics and agendas over who has authority over what beyond the football team. That’s his domain.
Reasons against: The Italian has been accused of making racism and homophobic comments on the sidelines and even charged by the league authorities for his comments in the past. He suffered a ban and heavy fine for his conduct in a clash with Roberto Mancini in 2016 and recently talked his way into trouble with a sexist response to a female football journalist in a press conference. Chelsea could do without those PR battles.
On the pitch, his team can shatter if the wrong sort of pressure is applied to their defence. A weakness at the back has never gone down well at Stamford Bridge.
Verdict: He is the toast of Europe, receiving rave reviews for the quality of the football Napoli play yet has let his lead in the Serie A title race slip as well as crashing out of the Champions League and Europa League, with no previous track record of major trophy wins to fall back on.
Unlike so many of the other candidates, he would provide less trouble over recruitment and other issues beyond his work as a coach, at least within the club. Chelsea would play some good stuff too, although whether they would win enough for Sarri to survive would be the big question.
The drill sergeant – Diego Simeone
The lowdown: The new Jose Mourinho according to some of his admirers, Simeone has rebuilt Atletico Madrid into one of Europe’s heavyweight sides, winning the La Liga title in an era where Barcelona and Real Madrid have won 12 of the last 13. He is resourceful, resilient and at times brilliant.
Reasons for: He broke the Barca-Real duopoly in Spain and took Atletico to two Champions League finals, and could win another Europa League title this season. Since lifting the LaLiga trophy in 2014, he has refined his team to playing with a more expansive approach by reworking Antoine Griezmann into a world class forward player and adapting to reality of no longer being the underdog.
Reasons against: It isn’t clear as to whether he’d want the job. Simeone has spoken about his desire to manage the clubs he represented as a player meaning a move to Italy could be on the cards. He may not finished with Atletico yet either. Whether the football he would bring to Stamford Bridge would be good enough, even if he were to evolve his approach, is another minor doubt.
Verdict: Ticks all the boxes. If he’s available, Chelsea must sound him out.
Conte’s successor at Juventus – Max Allegri
The lowdown: He took a team that was built to devour Serie A by Conte and turned it into a force to be reckoned with in Europe, replacing the old heads his predecessor relied upon and showing an excellent eye for mid-game tactical changes.
Reasons for: Allegri is a less challenging figure behind the scenes compared to Conte and has shown an ability to keep a competitive side pushing for more glory over a sustained period of time, tweaking his approach to wrong-foot opponents in Italy and in Europe.
Reasons against: Allegri is a problem solver but one that doesn’t always provide fans with the powerful sense of personality or positive football that is often expected from the head coach in their capacity as a figurehead and face of the team.
Verdict: Allegri has excelled as a tinkerer to keep an already successful side winning but what he would find at Chelsea after Conte would not be a team running quite so smoothly as the one he took on at Juventus. However, he appears to be set to commit himself to extending his stay in Turin.
The usual – Guus Hiddink
The lowdown: Abramovich’s trouble shooter. When the dug out needs manning, Hiddink comes in. Last seen in charge of the Dutch national team, he did not fare too well prior to being relieved of his duties, with his country missing out on the 2018 World Cup.
Reasons for: He is Abramovich’s man, always popular with players and a known quantity who the supporters know well.
Reasons against: Third time may not be the charm for Hiddink, and his previous two reigns as caretaker at Chelsea were helped by the knowledge that he was only in charge for a limited period of time. His second spell wasn’t quite as impressive as his first, suggesting that the magic may have already worn off for the once ‘Lucky Guus’.
Verdict: In his first stint at Stamford Bridge, Hiddink’s time was short but sweet, winning the FA Cup. Round two was rather more meek as he pieced together the wreckage of Jose Mourinho’s return. A third attempt, this time angling for a longer stay, would likely be a case of diminishing returns.
The mentor – Leonardo Jardim
The lowdown: The manager who lead Monaco to the Ligue 1 title and the semi-finals of the Champions League last season, a team he had built and nurtured full of young, exciting players.
Reasons for: His ability to work with young players to emphasis their talent in a team that plays on the break, whether on the front-foot as was the case in their title-winning season, or by sitting back when his Monaco side gave Arsenal problems in the Champions League back in 2015. Chelsea could finally get their hands on a manager capable of making the most out of their academy.
Reasons against: Would he get the time to build something at Chelsea? It’s unlikely, and his Monaco side were absolutely not an overnight success, even if he has a track record of winning trophies elsewhere in Portugal and in Greece. His lack of experience managing a dressing room full of egos would be a worry.
Verdict: Versatile, sharp and a manager with an excellent and recent record of developing young talent, his qualities may not elevate him above the usual pressures to deliver for Chelsea in the short-term, no matter the long-term goals of the manager or club.
The one with the image problem – Brendan Rodgers
The lowdown: A former Chelsea coach who went on to lift Swansea City into the Premier League playing a sophisticated brand of possession football before taking over at Liverpool and turning the Reds into title contenders. He is now at Celtic and last season won the Scottish title without suffering a single defeat.
Reasons for: Bright, British and hardly a stranger to the Blues, Rodgers would fit the profile demanded by some Chelsea supporters, if not the name. His mannerisms and comments to the media have led to mockery but he has shown he can make inspired calls over how to refine and deploy players in a team to get the best out of their talent.
Before Pep Guardiola turned Raheem Sterling into a top player, the Northern Irishman was showing other coaches how it was done. He is another candidate whose knack for bringing youngsters on would be a bonus.
Reasons against: Those mannerisms and sound bites can’t be ignored, however, and there would be plenty of resistance and ridicule to the idea of bringing Rodgers south from Glasgow to replace Conte.
Verdict: If he wasn’t Brendan Rodgers, a coach with the same CV and qualities would be a leading candidates for many jobs, but given his history off-the-field, he would be a difficult appointment to sell to some supporters.
The former player – Slavisa Jokanovic
The lowdown: A former Chelsea player, the Serbian could yet lead Fulham into the Premier League this season playing some of the best football in the English game.
Reasons for: Jokanovic has Fulham playing on the front foot, with attacking verve and intensity, and a number of bright, up-and-coming players, including Ryan Sessegnon. Chelsea have been linked with the youngster. Signing the manager who has become his mentor would be one way of sealing a deal.
Reasons against: He has experience managing at the top level in his native Serbia and other nations outside of Europe’s most reputable leagues but his lack of track record in the Premier League is a mark against him, albeit due to the lack of opportunity so far.
Verdict: A risky option but not one without merit. He would be another appointment whose lack of name recognition would see Chelsea accused of lacking ambition or worse.
The French specialist – Laurent Blanc
The lowdown: One of the finest defenders of his generation as a player, Blanc has gone on to become a prolific winner of titles in his native France as a manager. He has reigned as champion of Ligue 1 on four occasions from the dugout, once with Bordeaux and three times as head coach of Paris Saint-Germain after a stint in charge of the national team that took in Euro 2012. He has also lifted the French Cup twice and the French League Cup four times.
Reasons for: Under Blanc, PSG flexed their muscles over their domestic opponents like never before, and finally began to make their obvious financial advantages deliver on the pitch, playing to a system designed by their manager that was not only attractive but effective.
He is the only manager in the club’s history to win the title in every season and was also successful with Bordeaux, collecting the awards for Ligue 1 manager of the year and French manager of the year while taking the club to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, topping a group that featured Bayern Munich and Juventus.
Reasons against: Blanc can become a bit of a tinkerer at times, and his decision to send PSG out to play an untested formation against Manchester City in 2016 was blamed on their failure to make the quarter-finals of the Champions League that year. He was tied into the racial quota controversy back in his homeland during his time as national team manager.
Verdict: Given his record in France, and availability since leaving PSG in the summer of 2016, Blanc is a surprisingly rare name to crop up in discussions over the managerial appointments at the top level, but he has shown his ability to manage a dressing room filled with egos at the highest level.
However, the story around national quotas has marked him in the eyes of some critics. Whether he could replicate his success in Ligue 1 to the Premier League would be the major doubt. His record in the Champions League offers hope with Blanc steering his teams into the quarter-finals in four out of his six seasons in club management.
The homegrown hopeful – Jody Morris
The lowdown: John Terry and Frank Lampard may be options in the future but at the moment Jody Morris is the best-placed former player within the Chelsea family to get the nod due to his excellent record with the youth team.
Reasons for: His record with the youth team! Morris’ teams play good football and Chelsea fans are desperate to see the link between the academy and the first team strengthened.
Reasons against: Experience, or a lack of it as a top level, first team manager. There’s no getting around it. Appointing Morris would be a shot in the dark. Coaching Chelsea is a different beast to coaching Chelsea’s academy.
Verdict: Too soon but fans who want to see as many academy players in the first team can but dream.