Sarri, not Sarri: How Antonio Conte's title winning empire crumbled in 12 months
September 24, 2016.
As Mesut Ozil smashed Arsenal's third goal past Thibaut Courtois - all of them coming in the first half - countless Blue hearts drowned in sorrow. Losing was a sight they had become used to after their previous season under Mourinho, but Arsenal still hadn't beaten them through the course of that season.
But under Antonio Conte, Chelsea was tottering. Back-to-back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal had taken away the initial hope of a change in management. It was back to the crazy days and waiting for the board to show him the door.
But that is the moment things really changed for them, and the man who was in charge of them. That was the moment that Antonio Conte decided to change the PL forever. That was the moment he decided to go back to his preferred 3-4-3.
The transfer window hadn't gotten off to the best of starts for the Italian.
Chelsea had managed to get the services of N'golo Kante from Leicester City for a paltry 30 million pounds, and Michy Batshuayi from Marseille for another 35 million pounds. To add to that, there was the unproven Marcos Alonso signed from Fiorentina, and David Luiz was a last-minute panic buy that everyone had given up on.
From the players who were there for the last season, Oscar, Cuadrado (on loan) and Mohamed Salah (then a complete unknown) were the most prominent players to leave the club, in addition to a plethora of youngsters going out on loan.
But Chelsea held things together to post wins over West Ham, Watford and Burnley in their opening 3 games, before being held to a draw by Swansea in the next. Then came the loss against Liverpool, thanks to a screamer out of the blue from Jordan Henderson, followed by the embarrassment to Arsenal.
Conte's decision to stick with Chelsea's default 4-2-3-1 had backfired. John Terry was too tired, Ivanovic was too slow, Fabregas seemed to be getting too old to produce magic anymore. Hazard looked uninterested at the time, Kante seemed to be a one-season wonder; everything was falling apart.
Then came the next game in the PL against Hull City. For the first time under Conte, the Blues lined up in their 3-4-3 formation.
Azpilicueta shifted to right center back, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic were moved to the bench in favor of David Luiz and Gary Cahill. Moses and Alonso - two players no one expected to play a game any time soon for the team - started as wing-backs.
Matic and Kante slotted in as the central midfielders, behind a front three of Hazard, Costa, and Willian.
Chelsea went on to win the game 2-0, thanks to goals from Costa and Willian. Two weeks later, Chelsea thrashed Manchester United 4-0, and Conte was seen on the sidelines encouraging an already-erupting crowd to take the roof off the stadium.
After the game, Mourinho asked Conte not to do that as asking the fans to cheer the home side when leading by 4 goals was disrespectful to the opposition, and Chelsea knew they had their man. It was the passion that had been missing all this time, and anyone passionate enough to piss off Mourinho had to be respected.
Two weeks later, Chelsea took apart Everton - this time scoring 5 goals in one of the finest displays of attacking football the PL had ever seen. Eden Hazard looked like a man possessed, and the rest of the team looked completely different from what was laid out only a month before.
Pedro had taken over from Willian due to personal reasons, and Fabregas came in whenever it was necessary for his magic. Then came victories against Tottenham and Manchester City - after the Blues had conceded the opening goal in both games.
For 13 games, no one could stop Chelsea. For 13 games, they steamrolled everyone that stood in their path. And by Christmas, it seemed written in the stars that Antonio Conte would lead his club to the title in his first season.
Then came the infamous spat with Diego Costa.
Costa, who had single-handedly served as the source of goals for the team at the top, was told in no uncertain terms that he wasn't part of Conte's future plans. And what was worse, he was conveyed the message through text - the source of the "Thank you for the season!"
Two of Chelsea fan favorites had taken to the public to duel it out, but Conte was stubborn in his opinion that Costa was no longer needed. The player he wanted instead was Romelu Lukaku - the former Chelsea academy player who had been sold to Everton after he was deemed surplus to requirements.
Chelsea did not get their man and had to settle for Alvaro Morata - an exceptional striker on his own, but not Conte's first choice for filling up the Costa void. Then Conte turned his eyes to Juventus' Alex Sandro - but his bid was rejected.
In the past, Chelsea had never shown restraint when it came to buying players, but their policy had changed. Roman Abramovich, their oil mogul owner, wanted the club to be self-sustainable, meaning that the board was no longer free to splash money on every player their manager wanted.
This led to a spat once more - this time between Conte and the board. Conte was very open about the board interfering with his transfer policies, and not co-operating enough to get him the winning team he wanted.
Chelsea acquired the services of Timeoue Bakayoko from Monaco, but with his arrival, Nemanja Matic realized that he would no longer be the first priority and moved to Manchester United. Ivanovic was sold in the winter of the previous window, and John Terry moved for free to Aston Villa.
Cuadrado left permanently for Juventus, Begovic and Ake left to Bournemouth. Antonio Rudiger was purchased from Roma, while Andreas Christensen returned from a successful loan spell at Borussia Monchengladbach and was promoted to the first squad.
Ross Barkley changed his mind at the last minute - rumors are that he changed his mind in the middle of his medical. As last-minute panic buys, Chelsea managed to grab hold of Davide Zappacosta - a widely unknown fullback from Torino - and Danny Drinkwater from Leicester City.
The cracks were visible even before the first game had taken place and when it did, things got even worse. The Blues lost their first game to Burnley 2-3, and although they stabilized a little later, Conte did not. He prefaced every press conference with an attack on the board and a message that the transfers did not suit him.
But things were still not so bad back then.
Chelsea were actually at the second position on the table and even managed to beat Manchester United - the winner ironically coming from the head of one Alvaro Morata. Things looked like back to normal - or at the very least, conducive for normalcy.
The beginning of the end
The winter transfer window was what sparked disruption once more. Chelsea failed to land a bid for Alexis Sanchez who was looking for a way out of Arsenal, and the Sandro bid was shut down once again.
Business was indeed conducted - Olivier Giroud from Arsenal, Emerson from Roma and the finalization of Barkley from Everton - while Michy Batshuayi left for Borussia Dortmund. Conte, however, was unsatisfied. He felt that the men he got were still second-string and that his requests were not being heeded.
Then came the double losses against Bournemouth and Watford - one at home and one away. And one week after that, Chelsea lost two more consecutive losses on the road - this time against Manchester United and Manchester City.
The final nail in the coffin was a loss at home against Tottenham, which further increased the gap between Conte's men and a CL position finish. In the meantime, Barcelona also decided to shut the doors in the Champions League, leaving the PL defending champions gasping for breath.
By the end, Chelsea finished fifth on the table - not too far behind Liverpool at fourth place. They did manage a trophy in the form of an FA Cup, beating Manchester United in the final. But despite all assurances from the Italian, it was obvious that his relations with the club had soured too much to be saved, and a change at the helm was imminent.
The late, but eventual arrival of Sarri
Imminent, it was not. Chelsea took their sweet, sweet time to confirm the signing of Sarri as the next manager, much to the anguish of their impatient fans.
With Real Madrid also being without a manager during that time, there was added chaos as some fans felt that Madrid might end up wooing an attacking manager like Sarri. Much to their relief, turned out favorably at the end.
The problem with Sarri was his release clause - which Chelsea did not want to pay, and Antonio Conte's firing clause - which they again did not want to pay. So they waited till Sarri's release clause expired, and only after Napoli and Sarri parted ways by mutual consent did they announce his appointment.
In many ways, this marks a new era for Chelsea. It is an era in which an attacking manager who is yet to win a major trophy is at a club where even winning trophies is no guaranteed way to a permanent position, and an era where Roman Abramovich is no longer pumping the money without questions asked.
What happens now will determine the club's future for some time to come. A lack of CL play this season will also mean significantly less revenue, and failure to win the EL will only invite ridicule from the fans who are still salty about the Conte termination.
But hey, if Sarri can keep hold of both Hazard and Courtois and manage to give free rein to the former and let him play with the same zest he did at the World Cup, this will all be totally worth it.