Has Chelsea made a good choice in appointing Italy manager Antonio Conte to succeed manager Guus Hiddink?
It depends on who you ask. BBC Sport queried several former Chelsea players and those inquiries didn’t yield a consensus.
Conte’s three consecutive Serie A titles with Juventus -- in one of those seasons Juve went undefeated -- should carry over to the Premier League, believes Gianfranco Zola, voted to the Chelsea FC Centenary Eleven in 2005 after scoring 59 goals in 229 appearances from 1996 to 2003.
“Antonio as a coach is very disciplined, he demands a lot from the side no matter who you are and also tactically he works a lot,” said Zola, who played on Chelsea teams that won two FA Cups and the old Cup Winners’ Cup.
“There might be a problem bringing big players because playing in the Champions League is a big issue, but that actually could be an advantage because there won't be as much pressure on him. He will do well with Chelsea, I am sure.”
Not so inclined is former striker Chris Sutton. He notes that Conte’s style is too similar to that of predecessor Jose Mourinho, whose second stint deteriorated into acrimony and was dissolved in December. Conte will formally take command once his tasks managing the Italian national team conclude at the European Championships.
“If he comes in and starts hitting the players with a whip, are they going to respond?” asked Sutton, a 10-million pound ($16.5 million) purchase in 1999 whose meager tally of one goal in 28 matches triggered a move to Glasgow Celtic after one season. “Bringing in a similar type of manager to Mourinho in Conte doesn't make any sense to me.”
Keeping Hiddink would have made more sense, according to Sutton. Since he took over in December Chelsea hasn’t lost any of his 15 league matches and has risen from just above the relegation zone to 10th place. “It is working under him,” said Sutton. “The team have improved beyond all recognition.”
Chelsea won the league title by eight points last year but lost nine of its first 16 matches this season and was just one point out of a relegation place when it fired Mourinho.
Two of Sutton’s compatriots, former internationals Andy Townsend (Ireland) and Pat Nevin (Scotland), approve of the Conte hiring. Unlike Sutton, Townsend thinks Conte’s hard-driving style – he’s been labeled a “drill sergeant” – could be beneficial.
“I don't think Conte will be far removed from what Jose was like at his very best,” said Townsend. “Jose captured the attention of the players when he arrived. There was an intensity about what he did, the players responded and enjoyed working under that sort of regime. I feel Conte will do the same.”
Said Nevin: “People think of him as a one-system manager. He's not. He's always been very adaptable.”
One topic of agreement is that Conte must make a good decision regarding defender John Terry, whose contract is about to expire. The former England international has been with the club for more than 20 years, since joining up as a teenager in 1995. He turns 36 in December and has played an astonishing 701 matches for the club in all competitions. As player or coach or both, a place must be found for him.
“They have got to keep John Terry at the club in some capacity,” said Sutton. “I think Conte will keep him purely on his playing ability.”
Townsend also envisions Terry staying on if at all possible. “If Conte turns up and wants to play three centerbacks, then I don't see why John couldn't play for another 12 months in that system,” said Townsend.
Chelsea’s middling place in the standings will probably deprive it of European competition next season. A team that has been entrenched in the Champions League for the past decade and won it just four years ago has lost that allure to prospective acquisitions, at least in the short-term.
“If you want to play Champions League football you go to best teams," said Sutton. “Chelsea are going to find signing top players tough.”