From the tactical tweak that changed the Premier League to a bitter ending filled with rows over Virgil van Dijk, Diego Costa and more: How Antonio Conte went from the highest highs to a backdoor exit and a courtroom battle
- Antonio Conte returns to Stamford Bridge for the first time since he was sacked
- The Italian led Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season in 2016-17
- But they finished fifth in the following campaign and he went, despite cup glory
- Conte’s time at Stamford Bridge was full of rows and tensions behind the scenes
- It cost Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich £26m in compensation and legal fees
- Conte is back at Stamford Bridge with Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semi-finals
Antonio Conte returns to Chelsea tonight for the first time since he was sacked by the Blues in 2018.
Now in charge of their London rivals Tottenham, Conte is already eyeing silverware and a possible Champions League spot next season with his new club after just two months in charge.
The Italian will relish nothing more than knocking his former employers out of the Carabao Cup though, and the first leg at Stamford Bridge promises to be a thriller with Spurs in resurgent form.
Antonio Conte won the Premier League as Chelsea manager but was sacked just a year later
Goals scored: 218
Goals conceded: 109
Premier League: 2016-17
FA Cup: 2017-18
Conte spent two seasons in charge at Stamford Bridge, arriving in the summer of 2016 after managing Italy at that summer’s European Championships.
As we have come to accept from Conte’s managerial career, there were plenty of ups and downs along the way. It felt like the union was always on the brink of explosion, despite him landing the Premier League title in his first season in charge.
A disappointing title defence saw Chelsea finish fifth though and, even though he won the FA Cup – beating Manchester United at Wembley, it was not enough to win a stay of execution and Conte was gone.
He returned to Italy 12 months later and led Inter Milan to the Europa League final in his first season before winning Serie A last year, reinstating himself as one of Europe’s best coaches.
Rows over financial backing saw Conte walk away from the San Siro last summer before he was hired by Tottenham in November to replace Nuno Espirito Santo after their woeful start to the season.
Now he’s heading back to Stamford Bridge to take on Thomas Tuchel’s European champions but what exactly happened during his tumultuous reign in west London?
After a tumultuous second season, Conte was fired after a fifth-place finish in his second year
How did it start?
Conte inherited a squad that had fallen dramatically from winning the 2014-15 title to mid-table obscurity in the 2015-16 campaign. The collapse saw Jose Mourinho get the sack and Guus Hiddink come in as interim boss.
The Italian then arrived at Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2016 with a reputation as a fierce tactician and perfectionist who had dominated Italian football with three consecutive Serie A titles at Juventus in his last club role.
During pre-season the players’ diet was changed to make them leaner, sharper and fitter while Conte’s tactical demands were drilled into his squad with double sessions in the burning Californian heat.
Conte hit the ground running and put on double sessions for his squad in their California camp
A mixed start to the season was followed by defeat at Arsenal which prompted a tactical shift
Video analysis of their sessions and friendlies became constant, still a cornerstone of Conte’s methods with Tottenham, as his squad began to grasp just exactly what their new manager wanted.
Without the distraction of European football, Conte was able to use a small group of players and initially opted for a mix of 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 systems in the opening weeks of the campaign.
It brought wins over West Ham, Watford and Burnley before a draw at Swansea and a home defeat by Liverpool started to raise question marks.
Things took a dramatic turn at the end of September though when a humiliating 3-0 reverse at Arsenal prompted Conte to scrap all the work he had done so far and revert to a back five.
The tweak in system brought instant success and the subsequent 2-0 win at Hull City was the first of 13 consecutive wins in the Premier League as Chelsea started to build momentum in the title race.
Chelsea went on a 13-game winning run and then destroyed Man City on the break late in 2016
The title was wrapped up at West Brom after Michy Batshuayi scored a dramatic late winner
The formation saw Cesar Azpilicueta move inside as one of three central defenders alongside Gary Cahill and David Luiz, with Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses – somehow – flourishing as wing backs.
N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic were the midfield pair shielding the back three and linking them to the attacking trio of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Diego Costa.
Chelsea’s winning run in the league came to an end on January 4 thanks to Dele Alli’s brace for Tottenham at White Hart Lane but they would go on to lose only two more league games in the season.
The title was clinched on May 12 at The Hawthorns when Michy Batshuayi came off the bench to score an 82nd-minute winner, prompting scenes of joy involving Conte and his players in the West Midlands.
Chelsea had the chance to record a famous double at the end of Conte’s first campaign but were beaten in the FA Cup final by Arsenal.
How did it end?
It was a pretty acrimonious exit that saw Conte win two lawsuits against Chelsea and land a fortune in compensation.
Roman Abramovich waited to sack Conte in the hope he wouldn’t pay compensation but he ended up forking out a staggering £26m
After years of court room battles, Chelsea’s accounts in January 2020 showed they had paid out a huge £26.6m to Conte, his staff and in legal fees associated with his dismissal, making it the most expensive sacking in football history.
But what brought his reign to an end? It seemed Cobham became a very hostile place in the second season of Conte’s spell in charge.
First there were rows over transfer targets, namely which striker Conte wanted and the one he was handed to work with.
The Italian desperately wanted Romelu Lukaku from Everton but the Chelsea hierarchy were unwilling to meet the Toffees’ £75m demand and the Belgian instead moved to Manchester United.
Alvaro Morata eventually joined for £60m but just a few days after the deal had been done, on Chelsea’s pre-season tour of Asia, Conte openly admitted his preference for Harry Kane.
Lukaku was the first of a number of transfer targets that Conte saw slip through his fingers in the summer after he landed the title.
Antonio Rudiger was brought in instead of Virgil van Dijk, who joined Liverpool six months later, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also headed to Anfield from Arsenal and Kyle Walker moved to Manchester City for £50m.
During that summer, Chelsea started to get concerned when Conte went off radar and could not be contacted amid interest from clubs in Italy.
Conte’s transfer demands went unnoticed and they ended up signing striker Alvaro Morata
Many thought he was contemplating a move away from the club but eventually he surfaced and, after holding peace talks, Chelsea got Conte to sign a new contract worth a reported £20m.
While his future appeared uncertain, Conte made the bold move of sending a text message to star striker Costa informing that he would play no part in Chelsea’s title defence.
After helping Chelsea to the Premier League title by scoring 20 goals in Conte’s first season at the club, Costa disappeared to Brazil and was 5,000 miles from Stamford Bridge on the opening weekend of the new campaign.
He accused Chelsea of treating him ‘like a criminal’ and refused to rule out legal action when Sportsmail spoke to him in Brazil.
Earlier in the title-winning campaign, Costa had a bust-up in training with Conte as the forward wanted to join Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian – who were offering large sums of cash.
After his first season in charge, Conte told Diego Costa he was not in his plans by text message
Eventually he left for a second spell at Atletico Madrid. The 31-year-old scored 52 goals across three Premier League campaigns at Stamford Bridge and was a part of two title-winning squads.
Tensions remained high throughout the summer of 2017 as more transfer targets slipped through Conte’s fingers.
Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo left the club three months into the 2017-18 season after the stress and tension got too much and transfer woes resurfaced again in 2018 when Alexis Sanchez, another Conte target, joined Manchester United.
What angered Conte most was that even after delivering the title, other managers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp were backed more by their clubs while his squad was allowed to stand still.
Conte was sacked just three days into pre-season and Maurizio Sarri was hired from Napoli
Man City, Man United, Tottenham and Liverpool all finished above Chelsea in Conte’s second season in charge as they were consigned to the Europa League.
Despite winning the FA Cup, the woeful title defence heaped pressure on the Italian and all summer it seemed a case of when – not if – they would sack him.
There was constant speculation that Maurizio Sarri at Napoli was coming in but Conte stayed in place and was allowed to return for pre-season.
Chelsea then eventually pulled the trigger three days after his return. It is claimed owner Roman Abramovich held out for so long in the hope Conte would take a job elsewhere, meaning he would save money in compensation.
Upon his dismissal, Conte returned to Italy a few months later and saved his reputation with Inter while his former club continued to struggle under replacement Sarri.
One of the standout moments came in the early stages of that 13-game winning run when Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge as Manchester United manager.
Chelsea were ruthless and took the lead after just 30 seconds when Pedro took advantage of a lapse in concentration to score.
Cahill, Hazard and Kante also found the back of the net in a glorious afternoon for Conte that left the Chelsea fans singing ‘you’re not special anymore’ at Mourinho.
Within the space of a week at the end of December and start of November, Chelsea also took six points off Tottenham at Stamford Bridge and Man City at the Etihad.
Conte’s Chelsea beat Man United 4-0 on Jose Mourinho’s Stamford Bridge return in 2016
Despite falling behind to Christian Eriksen’s thumping strike, the Blues grabbed the three points against Spurs thanks to two quick-fire goals from Matic and Moses.
Chelsea took their momentum to the Etihad and tore Man City apart on the counter attack in the second half. Costa levelled after Cahill scored a comical own goal before Willian and Hazard broke away to take the game away from Guardiola’s side.
Both of those wins against title rivals came from losing positions and instilled belief in Conte’s side that they could win the title.
Arsenal were also dismantled at Stamford Bridge in the league days after a point was earned at Anfield, while Chelsea beat Mourinho’s United again in the FA Cup sixth round and Spurs in the semi-finals.
In his second season, Conte secured a mightily impressive Champions League away win at Atletico Madrid in the group stage and defeated Mourinho’s United again at home.
In his second season, Chelsea chalked up an impressive away win against Atletico Madrid
Conte’s second season in charge was disappointing but did end with a FA Cup triumph
There were also league victories over Liverpool at home and away at Tottenham but it was a largely inconsistent campaign that spelled the end of Conte’s tenure.
Despite an underwhelming second season, there was a joyous end to Conte’s second campaign as Chelsea won the 2018 FA Cup final.
Hazard scored a first-half penalty after he was brought down by Untied defender Phil Jones after 22 minutes.
It would prove to be Conte’s final game in charge but he delivered two trophies in two seasons for the Blues.
Obviously the pair of defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in just the fifth and sixth league games of Conte’s reign are never ideal.
Jurgen Klopp’s side took all three points from Stamford Bridge thanks to a sublime goal from Jordan Henderson, while the Gunners took Chelsea apart in a blistering first 40 minutes.
But ultimately those results paved the way for Conte to change his system and it proved a masterstroke as Chelsea won the title.
A real low point, however, was that defeat at Tottenham that ended Chelsea’s lengthy winning run.
Liverpool inflicted a home defeat on Chelsea early on with Jordan Henderson netting a cracker
Dele Alli’s superb headed brace at White Hart Lane saw Tottenham end Chelsea’s winning run
Headers from Alli either side of half-time made the difference and took the roof of White Hart Lane but it proved to be nothing more than a speed bump as Chelsea quickly returned to winning ways.
Chelsea should have won the double, too. Against an Arsenal team that finished fifth in the Premier League, Conte’s side were beaten at Wembley as Arsene Wenger lifted a record seventh FA Cup.
Alexis Sanchez gave Arsenal the lead in contentious fashion after only four minutes before Moses was correctly sent off in the second half after receiving a second booking for diving.
Diego Costa levelled for the Blues but Arsenal came roaring back and Aaron Ramsey grabbed the winner from Olivier Giroud’s cross.
Nacho Monreal and Aaron Ramsey celebrate after Arsenal beat Chelsea in the 2017 cup final
Lionel Messi scored two as Chelsea went out of the Champions League in Barcelona in 2018
The woes continued a few months later when Conte’s second season got off to a bad start with Arsenal beating them on penalties in the Community Shield
With Chelsea’s form up and down more most of the campaign, things really took a turn for the worst within six days between January and February when they were beaten 3-0 at home by Bournemouth and 4-0 at Watford.
There were also two defeats in quick succession at both Man City and Man United while Barcelona completely outclassed them in the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
A home defeat by Spurs in April inflicted more misery on an already miserable fan base and a 3-0 reverse at Newcastle on the final day of the season surely spelled the end for Conte.
Even the FA Cup final win over Manchester United at the end of the campaign could not spare the Italian.
What’s been said in the build-up?
‘I spent two seasons where I created a good relationship with players, staff, people who work at Chelsea,’ Conte said earlier this week.
‘We did a really good job and I think in my position I mustn’t prove anything to anyone.
‘I’m a manager that has experience and continues to have experience and do important jobs at other teams. It’ll be a pleasure for me to come back to Stamford Bridge.
‘At this moment, Chelsea is more ready than us to win. They won the Champions League last season.
‘We have a lot of space for improvement, to be a team with aspirations to win. To use the verb “to win” is more simple than winning because to win you have to build something important, be solid, have an important squad.
‘Then you’re ready to win. Otherwise you have to hope.’
Conte has already turned Tottenham into top four contenders just two months after joining
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