Friday 20 April 2018

Conte left to grumble as loss magnifies frustration over inabilty to bolster Blues' squad

Before kick-off, Conte had described the forthcoming season as offering the biggest challenge of his career. Photo: Getty Images
Before kick-off, Conte had described the forthcoming season as offering the biggest challenge of his career. Photo: Getty Images

Jim White

Just as he had at the final game of last season, so Antonio Conte was obliged to mark the first game of this campaign by trudging up to the Wembley Royal Box to collect a loser's medal.

This may have been only the Community Shield, a game whose significance lingers about as long in the collective memory as a lap of his bowl does in a goldfish's.

But still the Chelsea manager looked as if he were carrying the burdens of the world up the steps with him. Sagged of shoulders, his chin on his chest, eyes cast downward, he looked bereft.

This, it was clear, as he grumbled his way through his press duties, was not the start he wanted.

Before kick-off, Conte had described the forthcoming season as offering the biggest challenge of his career.

He worried that Chelsea had not recruited as he had wished over the summer; they had let good players go and not brought in sufficient numbers to replace them.

The momentum of his title win was seeping out with every lost chance to add to his squad.

And there was a hint of what he was alluding to printed on the back of the matchday programme.

Chelsea's squad numbered just 24 names and that list included Kenedy and Diego Costa - two players unlikely to make the team-sheet any time soon. Arsenal, by contrast, listed 41 names.

As if to rub his point in, Conte announced a line-up with none of the few new signings he had been allowed to make. It was almost as if he were manager of Tottenham.

Even his attire seemed a pointed reference to the paucity of his resources.

While Arsene Wenger was dressed - almost as always - in a well-tailored two piece, the Chelsea boss paced the touchline in a tracksuit, as if ready to answer the call to play if required.

By coincidence, Jose Mourinho had worn the same outfit for the same fixture against the same opponents two years ago in the match that marked the start of his season of bitter implosion. Conte will be hoping there was no omen in his wardrobe choice.

He had said during the club's summer tour that he felt he needed to slow down in his technical area.

There was no sign of that here. From the moment the match started, he was fully involved.

While the wise old Wenger spent much of his time sitting down, aware there was little he could do to influence things, Conte was on his feet throughout.

Living every kick, micro-managing every move, his arms flew in constant patterns of instruction.

When Per Mertesacker required lengthy treatment for a head wound midway through the first half, the Chelsea manager called his players together in a huddle, urgently issuing further direction.

As Conte pointed and chivvied, Wenger sent out Steve Bould to address his players, who completely ignored him.

If Conte was suffering from a deficit of resources, however, it was not immediately apparent. The team that had won the title began playing with familiarity, confidence, calm. A team capable of passing their way out of almost any difficulty.

And when Victor Moses scored the opening goal, Conte celebrated with a discreet clench of his fists.

Normal service seemed to have been resumed. But ultimately if you are short of players, it always helps if you can keep all of the ones you have on the pitch. When Pedro was shown the red card - and Arsenal substitute Sead Kolasinac scored the equaliser - Conte exploded his frustrations at the fourth official.

In the first 'ABBA' shoot-out, the name of the game for Chelsea was defeat. Try telling Conte it was a defeat that ultimately matters not a jot. © Daily Telegraph, London.

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