The obvious indifference with which yesterday’s defeat to Swansea City was received, I think served to draw a final, thick black line under this season’s proceedings. It would have been nice to go into next season, coming off the back of an impressive unbeaten streak – but with Guus Hiddink’s 15 game run having ended, the only importance to be noted from any of our final six matches, will relate entirely to next season, as we conjecture the nature and extent of the changes Antonio Conte will be planning. As has been noted already, never has there been a situation at the club where so many senior players in the squad could potentially be sold this summer. With Conte already having been reported to have discussed transfer policy with the club’s directors, the temptation will be there to analyse all of Hiddink’ s selections, from now until May, to try and discern who Conte sees playing a key part in his side next season, and who he sees as dispensable.
The first signs of this trend were noted yesterday when Hiddink left Thibaut Courtois on the bench, favouring Asmir Begovic, whose quality and professionalism he was happy to extort in the press room. The form of Courtois this season is a difficult topic to summarise. Laid off for a significant portion with a bad injury and playing behind a consistently unimpressive defence and midfield, it feels unfair to lay any serious blame for this season on his performances, even if he’s failed to appear as the formidable talent and presence he was last season.
I think it’s fair to say however, far more than his indifferent form, what has disillusioned the club’s supporters has been the passivity and dullness of his attitude to the disappointments of this season, distancing himself from any responsibility in a recent interview, taking the opportunity to express with a trying lack of subtly, how he feels himself to be above competing within the club’s current situation (scrapping around mid-table).
Whilst I don’t see any point disliking or becoming frustrated with any player for being honest in interviews, with regards their career ambitions, I admit Courtois recent comments made me suspicious. Not as to whether or not he’s committed to the club long-term, (it appears he’s not – but that’s his prerogative), rather they made suspicious of his character in general, and whether or not he has the maturity to behave as a professional sportsman and public figure should do, in his position.
Expressing frustration or unhappiness is one thing, but to publically and deliberately talk down the quality of your own teammates, strike me as the remarks of someone who just isn’t that thoughtful or intelligent.
Regardless, Conte’s decision remains a difficult one. It would take an extremely brave manager to walk into a new club, inherit a squad which includes a world class 23 year old goalkeeper and immediately adjudge him to be expendable. Whatever you think of him personally, his talent is extraordinary – to the extent where he will be rated and ranked among the continent’s best players for the next decade without question. Should he leave the club this summer, a situation similar to the one in which we find ourselves watching Kevin De Bruyne perform outstandingly week after week for a rival club could easily come to pass.
If Conte is in favour of selling the Belgian however, his case is as strong now as it perhaps ever will be. His popularity at the club is low (to the extent where many are considering it an error, in hindsight, to have replaced Petr Cech last season). And also, perhaps most crucially, despite the form and class of Keylor Navas, Real Madrid remain allegedly in the market for a goalkeeper. And with David De Gea’s long rumoured transfer repeatedly stalling, Courtois’ is the name most often mentioned after that of his Spanish rival. The prospect of receiving a £50m sum from Madrid may well end up being too good to turn down, with certain areas of the squad plainly and desperately needing investment, and with a player of Asmir Begovic’s quality ready to step into the first team, provided he can convince players of similar calibre to join, the departure of Courtois may turn out to be a useful strategic move at this point.
We won’t know for some time whether Begovic’s selection for yesterday’s game was the result of an instruction from Conte or whether it was simply Hiddink’s decision to reward to Bosnian for his hard work and contributions this season. It feels like the sort of decision that will helplessly carry a subtext for the remainder of the campaign, as it continues to fizzle out. The last remaining hope is that a number of players, sensing the uncertainty hanging over them will stand up and make a case for themselves to be included in Conte’s plans. For now, it’s hard to be optimistic that we’ll see any of them make that kind of effort.