(This isn’t some deliberately contrarian take designed to detract from the well-deserved plaudits that have been raining down on the Chelsea manager in end of season reviews/ retrospective; Conte has been undeniably brilliant as a manager and his amphetaminic touchline demeanour is entertaining. Instead, this is simply an observation of how that behaviour is interpreted and coloured by the success of his team, and how the same actions could easily be spun in the opposite direction should Chelsea’s fortunes change.)
Chelsea’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal was a watershed moment in the Blues’ season. In the space of ninety minutes, Conte’s side managed to all-but coronate themselves as they ended the title challenge of their only serious rivals, sticking the pin into the balloon to start Arsenal’s annual post-Christmas deflation a little earlier than usual.
There was also a sense of closure, of things coming full circle at the Bridge, as it was during the reverse fixture – a chastening 3-0 loss to Arsenal at the Emirates – that their manager was prompted into making the tactical change that ignited their season. With Chelsea being torn apart by Arsenal’s then-rampant forward line, Conte had a major reshuffle and switched to the 3-4-3 system that they’d utilise on the 13-match winning streak that has effectively won them the title. The irony is, as many have noted, that this year Arsène Wenger was responsible for winning a Premier League title – just not for Arsenal. With a victory by a similar scoreline in the home game, it felt like this iteration of Conte’s Chelsea had already returned to their roots and laid an early season ghost to rest.
For the Blues, there was plenty of reason to be cheerful as that win afforded them some breathing room for the rest of the season. However, after the game there was some fan-captured footage that showed that their manager was far from relaxed, despite his team’s superiority throughout:
— Георгий Черданцев (@cherdantsev) February 4, 2017
It was quite striking to see and the media reaction to the incident was equally striking. The Independent said that it “illustrated his passion”, while Joe.co.uk went with a photo caption calling Conte a “true perfectionist” and suggested that “His maniacal gesticulations, theatrical overreactions and exuberant celebrations have made watching the Italian almost as compulsive as his team’s table-topping performances.”
Clearly there is more than a little admiration for Conte’s approach in the coverage. That framing is intriguing, and it’s easy to see why so many find the Italian’s touchline behaviour so endearing.
Fans have become increasingly detached from football. The design of modern stadia and the enormous disparities of wealth mean that there has never been a greater distance, both literally and figuratively, between supporters and players.
Clubs themselves have done little to rectify this, becoming nakedly profit-driven enterprises; by chasing a relentless procession of sponsorship opportunities and suckling at the teat of broadcasting companies, clubs can no longer lay claim to being the integral part of their local community they once were.
Reducing players and staff to the status of ‘assets’ means that people have become objects to be traded, to be exchanged in order to squeeze the most value out of them or to discard them when they cease to serve their purpose. In turn this has created a culture of short-termism and impermanence around the game, making it difficult for fans to develop a sense of attachment to anyone playing for their club.
By pursuing these transparent financial goals, clubs have, perhaps irrevocably, caused a shift in the matchday experience and in terrace demographics – going to a game of football is now prohibitively expensive for the majority of working class supporters, as their teams seek daytripping tourists or middle class fans with disposable income.
The influence of the tabloids, and their insatiable desire to find a reason to hang footballers out to dry, has led to footballers being media-trained within an inch of their lives in order to avoid saying something that’ll get them in trouble. Every pre- and post-match interview is an exercise in using as many words as you can to say as little as possible; they’ve become a patchwork quilt of vapid, unemotive clichés haphazardly stitched together. There’s absolutely no sense of the individual spouting these lukewarm platitudes as this, the primary interaction between players and fans, has had the edges entirely sanded off.
All of which has led to football becoming an evermore glossy and sanitised experience: the robotic interviews devoid of any personality, overtly corporate trappings of new ground and the transience of staff have left the majority of fans disheartened and disillusioned with their teams.
So when we do see someone expressing themselves, showing that they care – or even acting like, you know, an actual human being – we tend to latch onto it.
It’s also not hard to understand why some managers act this either. The lifespan of a football manager in any one job is extremely short, as the financial implications of failure (or even a lack of success) mean that patience from chairmen is in very short supply. Inevitably, this creates a huge amount of pressure for those in the dugout, so when things are going well, or going poorly, displaying your emotions is a natural, and potentially healthy, way of managing that pressure. Mugging for the camera and for the terraces is also an easy way to get the fans onside and the most simple form of image management imaginable – it’s partially why Klopp has proven to be so popular on Merseyside.
The combination of these factors, though, has led us to overvalue demonstrative passion. Our emotionally repressed national identity probably has something to do with this – as many of us are incapable of properly managing our emotions or expressing them in a healthy way, we cling onto anyone who makes a tangible display of their interior mental state.
Running around like a madman, flailing your arms like a broken windmill, and screaming and shouting until your tonsils are red and bloody aren’t the only way to be passionate though. Those who adopt a more placid, tranquil posture on the touchline aren’t necessarily less passionate than those who are overt; they may just choose to channel their passion into their preparation, their work on the training ground, or their relationships with their players.
Management isn’t a job you get into unless you have a burning passion for the game – it’s far too stressful and insecure and painful if you’re not enamoured with what you do. And yet, if a manager isn’t tearing (what’s left of) their hair out or terrifying the fourth official with their apoplexy, then they have their commitment called into question, or are instead accused of not caring.
And the prevalence of, and adulation received by, the individuals who do express themselves in this manner has created a fan culture where performative passion is overvalued and overrated. Again, it’s understandable – as fans become more detached from their increasingly faceless, corporatised clubs, they become more desperate to see that someone cares about their club as much as they do. This seems misplaced though as in football its those with who can keep a cool head who often prevail. Amongst the furious maelstrom of a game, results are decided by strikers who can keep their composure when they’re one on one with a goalkeeper, by playmakers who have the patience to hold onto the ball and only releasing it when their teammate has made their run, by managers who have courage in their convictions to maintain clarity of thought and make the right changes at the right time.
This sort of attitude, where if you’re not wearing your heart on your sleeve then you’re accused of not having a heart at all, is endemic in English football and manifests itself in the reaction to those on the pitch, too.
On any given Saturday afternoon, you’ll see and hear players being applauded for taking aimless potshots that sail way over the crossbar. It’s part of this desire for tangibility, for actions that are obvious and concrete, even if they’re not necessarily actually useful.
The way that Antonio Conte’s sideline antics have been greeted is perfectly in line with this and, given the thoroughly limp 12 months Chelsea experienced prior to his arrival, it makes sense why he has managed to charm so many.
That said, I can’t help wondering how differently Conte’s actions would be perceived if Chelsea were in a bad run of form.
In fact, I needn’t simply wonder, as I can turn to the way similar sorts of conduct by different managers have been received this season.
When his side conceded a late equaliser against West Brom, Slaven Bilic reacted by throwing a microphone on the ground and was sent to the stands by Michael Oliver, which was evidence of him being “tipped…over the edge” according to Sky Sports.
When Paul Pogba was booked for diving against West Ham, José Mourinho booted a water bottle in his technical area, was sent to the stands and later served a touchline ban for his troubles. United were in a bit of a slump at that time and José’s overreaction was painted as a desperate man unravelling at the seams.
The Mail said that Arsène Wenger should face a lengthy ban “after he inexplicably went berserk and shoved fourth official Anthony Taylor” at the end of his side’s game against Burnley and The Telegraph called the Arsenal manager’s behaviour “disgraceful”. Both of those articles were written by former referees so their view is to be expected, and obviously physical altercations with officials aren’t acceptable under any circumstances.
But is what Arséne did that far removed from what Conte was doing? Is the only difference that he did it with a member of his own staff, someone with whom he has a prior professional working relationship with? Does that make it fine? Does that make it a display of unfettered passion rather than unhinged frustration?
Looking back at the way another Chelsea manager interacted with a member of his staff, and the wide censure he received for his actions, provides an interesting point of contrast to the reception Antonio Conte received:
José was rightly raked over the coals for his aggressive and abusive language and behaviour towards Eva Carneiro, who was simply doing her job. Leaving the gendered implications to one side, was that incident that far removed from what we saw at Stamford Bridge recently? There’s been no suggestion from Angelo Alessio that he felt his manager’s behaviour was abusive, but is there a fundamental distinction between aggressively lambasting your club doctor and manhandling your assistant coach, furiously grabbing him and frogmarching him down the touchline? What’s the difference?
Is it simply that Chelsea are winning? Bilic, Wenger and Mourinho have all had their expressions of touchline emotion while results have been against them used as evidence of them starting to buckle under pressure, while Conte has been perceived in a largely positive light and heralded for his ‘passion’ because things are going his way.
Winning insulates you from criticism to a certain degree and Conte’s behaviour has been tolerated and praised because he’s been enjoying a successful run of form. Context is everything though and when that context changes, he might find the public’s perception of him changes too. There’s a fine line between being an impassioned mad genius and raving lunatic. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s viewed if he continues in a similar vein when Chelsea inevitably start struggling and go through a bad patch.