Antonio Conte will finally get to see Radja Nainggolan at Stamford Bridge – though unfortunately it will not be as a Chelsea player. Since he took charge of the club, and even when he was at Juventus, Conte has wanted to sign the all-action midfielder. But, for various reasons – and even in spite of several phone calls – the move never transpired.
Any disappointment over that failed transfer will only be magnified on Wednesday night when Roma, and Nainggolan, arrive in west London. Up against them, it seems likely that Conte will be forced to deploy either David Luiz or Andreas Christensen in a rather unfamiliar midfield role. Rarely has the discord between manager and club felt quite so pronounced.
Conte has always seemed to have a fragile relationship with Chelsea’s transfer decision makers. This summer he wanted to sign Alvaro Morata ahead of Romelu Lukaku, but the Blues only pursued the Spaniard after Manchester United had hijacked their deal for the Belgian. Conte’s other primary targets, Alex Sandro and Fernando Llorente, failed to be delivered.
But the midfield will be one of the areas Conte has the most concern over. Danny Drinkwater is still sidelined and waiting to make his debut, though he was very much the wooden spoon in Conte’s pursuit of a midfielder over the summer. Tiemoue Bakayoko was a rather more auspicious arrival, though Conte has not exactly been glowing in his assessment of the Frenchman either.
‘I think Baka is a good player – he’s 23 years old, don’t forget this. He has a lot of room to improve in the tactical aspect. Also in the physical aspect. He’s working very well and he needs a bit more time than other players to understand our style of football very well. He can improve a lot with the ball. We are working about this aspect.’
The unfinished article, then; a player who still ‘alternates between positive things and negative things’. The opposite of Nainggolan. The Belgian, six years Bakayoko’s senior, is one of the most dynamic and complete midfielders in the world – exactly the breed that Conte, himself a similarly skilled midfielder, likes most – and took his game to a new level under Luciano Spalletti, also alerting the likes of Manchester United.
Roma's top scorers in Serie A 2016/17
Edin Dzeko29Mohamed Salah15Radja Nainggolan11Stephan El Shaarawy8Diego Perotti8
Deployed in a more advanced role, he almost redefined what a No.10 can do, taking his combative skillset far higher up the pitch; a destroyer, but one that started scoring too. He netted 11 times, and provided five assists, last season, figures only bettered by Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah among the Roma squad (and as many as Paulo Dybala and Ivan Perisic). All the while making the team a more intimidating, fearsome proposition.
Nainggolan, like Conte’s other lieutenant at Juventus, Arturo Vidal, are tempo-setters and intimidators. They gobble up every blade of grass, they press aggressively, they get in the face of the opposition and contribute as much defensively as offensively. They do everything, and they do it all well.
Roma chances created (open play) Serie A 2017/18
Edin Dzeko12Radja Nainggolan11Aleksandar Kolarov11Diego Perotti9Lorenzo Pellegrini8
At his pre-match press conference, Conte was reluctant to speak about Nainggolan too much, but the admiration was obvious: ‘In the past we tried to buy him, but now Nainggolan is Roma’s player and I have great respect for him, for Rome, and for my players. I think it’s not right to speak about him. He’s a really good player, for me one of the best midfielders. But he’s an opponent.’
In normal circumstances N’Golo Kante would be tasked with taming the beast, but is sidelined with a hamstring injury. Ironically, the Frenchman arrived last summer only as a secondary target behind Nainggolan, but quickly established himself as a key player for Conte.
Yet even Kante – blessed with so much work rate, defensive awareness and composure – still feels a little lacking compared to what Conte demands; a little too nice. A world-class player, no doubt, but perhaps not the aggressor and powerhouse the Chelsea midfield needed. It is why Conte ditched Nemanja Matic – a back-foot player, rather than a front-foot aggressor – and wanted Nainggolan again this summer.
He only got half of what he wanted. Bakayoko is a player full of potential, though still not really in the same mould as Nainggolan. Drinkwater looked like an odd signing at the time, a £35m backup that boosts the homegrown quota, while Cesc Fabregas is a useful plan B even though he lacks the tenacity, physicality and verticality Conte really wants.
It has left the Italian with a midfield still not quite in his image, while the obvious lack of harmony between manager and transfer chiefs has resulted in a squad just as small as the one that did not have to deal with European football last season; now it is spread even thinner.
But at least Roma have similar problems. The Giallorossi arrive in west London with an injury-ravaged squad being held together by Nainggolan. If, on Wednesday night, he performs as well as he has done in Serie A over the past few seasons, he could both add to the current malaise affecting Chelsea and widen the fracture between Conte and the club’s decision makers. It’s probably not the role Conte envisaged for him.