When Chelsea announced Antonio Conte as their long-awaited permanent replacement for Jose Mourinho in April of last year, club director Marina Granovskaia was at pains to point out one particular positive about naming a new manager a month before the season had even ended. “This aids our future planning,” she stated confidently.
The next day, the British media went into overdrive. Leonardo Bonucci, Edinson Cavani, Fraser Forster, Gonzalo Higuain, Kalidou Koulibaly, Romelu Lukaku, Kostas Manolas, Radja Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic, Paul Pogba, Antonio Rüdiger and Arturo Vidal were all linked with moves to Chelsea. This was “future planning” taken to a whole new level.
The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that each member of that 12-man transfer shortlist has one thing in common: They absolutely, undeniably, inarguably did not sign for Chelsea last summer.
How many of those players Conte actually targeted and pursued – and therefore missed out on – is impossible to say, but what is indisputable is that he did not accept the Chelsea job on the proviso that the club would have signed two players before August 24, with reserve goalkeeper Eduardo the third signing a day later. Former Bolton and Sunderland left-back Marcos Alonso and ex-Premier League laughing stock David Luiz then arrived on a panicked deadline day.
That the manager was reported to be ‘frustrated’ with the club’s lack of signings on the morning of the opening day of the season came as little surprise. Michy Batshuayi was his first purchase, followed by that of N’Golo Kante. The glorious glare of hindsight shows that only one of those players were ever considered improvements on a first team that had just finished tenth. There would be no further additions until the final week of August.
By December, and with the Blues top of the table, journalist Rory Smith shed a little more light on the situation. “What’s really impressive about Conte this season is that he didn’t get any of his first-choice signings. He didn’t get any of the players he really wanted,” said the New York Times writer.
Nainggolan, Manolas and Bonucci were all again named as targets, but Conte, Smith said “adapted, found second choices, found players that would fit and would work”. The Italian surely did not envisage a title-winning side containing Alonso and Victor Moses as wing-backs flanking Luiz, but he “adapted” – although that trio were likely third- and fourth-choice options, not second.
It was very much a case of transfer déjà vu at Stamford Bridge; Conte’s first summer mirrored his predecessor’s last. The issues that plagued the Italian preceded Mourinho’s eventual downfall.
The Portuguese openly courted John Stones in summer 2015, but to no avail. Everton stood firm as Mourinho missed out on his main transfer target, and by July his frustrations materialised in something of a pointed comment towards the club. “To go to next season with basically the same squad that we had last season, when our direct competitors are investing a lot, is a big challenge,” he stated. “They will improve immediately with the new players, and for us there is only one way to improve, which is to work fantastically well and to improve what we have which is the same as last season.”
If Mourinho expected an emphatic response from the club, he would be left disappointed. Baba Rahman, Kenedy, Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector were signed in the month following the manager’s remarks; none were close to improving the squad quality, never mind that of the starting line-up. Pedro also joined from Barcelona, but Stamford Bridge would have to wait at least a year to enjoy his true talents. Mourinho played the biggest part in the unmitigated failure of that season, but the club provided the pen with which he signed his own death warrant.
If this summer has proved anything, it is that only the true elite clubs are able to sign their main transfer targets. There has to be a combination of timing, luck and expertise. Liverpool’s botched pursuit of Virgil van Dijk shows the delicate nature of negotiations, and it is a tightrope Chelsea themselves have failed to navigate over the past two summers. Conte performed a magic trick in winning the Premier League title despite missing out on each of his preferred players, but for every David Luiz there is a Papy Djilobodji, and for every Marcos Alonso there is a Baba Rahman. The Italian could rely on the sort of fortune that Mourinho did not enjoy.
In truth, there is likely more to it. Mourinho, having been told that his new toys were too expensive, chucked his existing ones out of the pram and threw a tantrum. Conte cannot have been happy hearing the same news, but overlooked his frustrations and wrote a new list of more affordable, more attainable gadgets.
It remains to be seen whether Chelsea will find it easier to sign Conte’s main targets after winning the Premier League, but that did nothing to strengthen Mourinho’s case two years ago. Instead, the Blues seemed to rest on the laurels of an easy title victory.
The club will perhaps have to accept paying over the odds for at least one player this summer, certainly if either Romelu Lukaku or Alvaro Morata are to replace Diego Costa. It seems strange to think that Fernando Torres is still their record signing. The only current Premier League club with a longer-standing most-expensive purchase is Newcastle, who spent £16m on Michael Owen in 2005. Chelsea have spent between £30m and £34m eight times; Torres is their only signing to have cost more.
The club most associated with being bankrolled by a billionaire owner are curiously frugal past a certain point. If they want to avoid the mistakes made over the past two summers, that will have to change.
“I must be honest, I think we’ll have a problem to reach our targets,” said Conte in August of last year. The Italian was correct, but he managed to make the very best of a difficult summer. But as the struggles with Mourinho a year prior show, there is no guarantee he can navigate the transfer tightrope again.