Antonio Conte and the Kobayashi Maru

Antonio Conte won the league in his first season in England. 9 months later, he finds himself in a no-win situation, and perilously close to the axe.

Chelsea has come in for a fair bit of criticism after facing Barcelona and Manchester City without a striker. Much of it was deserved. However, I found it curious that no contrarian voices emerged. After all, the Blues came up against two of the top two teams in the world and earned a 1-1 draw against Spain’s runaway leaders and lost by one goal to the greatest attacking team in the history of the Premiership.

Taking points off of City and Barca this season is a near impossible task. It is the footballing equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru test. For the uninitiated, the test comes from the Star Trek universe. It is a training exercise for Starfleet cadets. In it, the cadet must decide between saving a disabled starship while violating Starfleet policies and risking almost certain death or leaving a disabled starship while violating Starfleet policies and leaving it to almost certain death. It is a no win scenario designed to observe the character, not the ability, of the cadet.

In the official Star Trek canon, only one cadet managed to beat the test: James Kirk. When questioned about it, Kirk simply quips, “I don’t believe in no win scenarios.” Neither does Antonio.

Facing the Barcelona machine and one of the best players in the history of the game was always going to be, at best, a difficult task. Conte chose to field Eden Hazard as a striker and use a flat back five to deny Lionel Messi space and then break with speed. Barcelona, of course, dominated possession but to little effect. Willian, after hitting the woodwork twice, managed to put Chelsea ahead. Conte was beating the Kobayashi Maru test.

Eventually, however, Barca’s pressing forced Andreas Christensen into a mistake, and Messi equalized. It was not a moment of individual brilliance from the Argentine; it was the product of the team’s excellent pressing and Iniesta’s alertness. The goal illustrates how the Catalans have been so successful this season. When the opposition concentrates on stopping Messi (an impossible scenario in itself), Luis Suarez pops up with a goal. Or Iniesta is able to find space to pick a pass. Or Paulinho bursts into the box unmarked. Or Jordi Alba steals in from the left undetected. With so many ways to hurt opponents, it is hardly a surprise Barcelona is La Liga’s champions in waiting.

Chelsea’s next match against Manchester City was more of the same. To attack the Premier League’s runaway leaders with would be foolishness. Liverpool was able to do so and won 4-3 in a thrilling contest; however, it is worth noting that Liverpool’s attacking approach resulted in a 5-0 loss to the Citizens earlier in the season.

So, the Blues came out again with the same strikerless formation. Tactically, the plan was the same as against Barcelona: defend deep and break quickly with Pedro, Willian, and Hazard. There was an element of psychology in lining up without a striker as well. Like Hernan Cortes burning his ships after arriving in Mexico, Conte removed the temptation to disobey his orders. It simply would not possible to waste precious possession on lumping the ball up to the man up front. So what happened? Panicked defenders lumped the ball up to the man up front, thus wasting possession and inviting another wave of City pressure. There is a special sadness to watching Hazard compete against Nicolas Otamendi for headers.

But, bizarrely, it sort of worked for the first 45 minutes. City, for all their possession, created little of note. Chelsea’s attack, though, offered next to nothing. When I say next to nothing, I mean that it failed to threaten the opposition goal and offered City opportunities to run into space vacated after the brief flurry of forward movement.

Once City broke their resistance 33 seconds after the restart,  however, Chelsea’s boss was faced with a test of character: stick with the game plan and maybe squeak out a 1-1 draw, or go for the win and almost certainly go down in a hail of bullets and glory. As long as the match stayed at 1-0, the Londoners only needed one lucky break to tie it up. It almost came in the last 10 minutes as Chelsea finally committed men forward. Indeed, one of the last kicks of the game was Marcos Alonso firing a shot just wide.

But that is not what is remembered from the match. The moment popularly memorialized came in the 75th minute as Ilkay Gundogan engaged in a one touch passing drill with his teammates, passing back and forth in front of the Chelsea midfield. And still, no one emerged from the midfield bunker. Eventually, Cesc Fabregas, probably out of boredom, strolled over to nominally put pressure on the ball.

The lack of urgency was strange to see from a team down 1-0. The passing drill was a provocation to pull defenders out their shape. In the Kobayashi Maru scenario this is the anguished distress calls of the disabled Starship making it difficult to do nothing. The Chelsea midfield was faced with its own no win scenario: press aggressively and get ripped to shreds by City’s attack or stay disciplined and get ripped to shreds by supporters, pundits, and banter accounts everywhere.

Danny Drinkwater, symbolic of Chelsea's hiring process. Most signings were panic buys after failing to land Conte's original targets.
Danny Drinkwater, symbolic of Chelsea’s hiring process. Most signings were panic buys after failing to land Conte’s original targets.

After the match, Antonio remained defiant: “I am not so stupid to play against Manchester City open and to lose 3-0 or 4-0… When you play against City you have to use your brain, otherwise you risk finishing the game in a bad way.” If one is looking for it, there is a slight dig at Arsene Wenger after Arsenal’s back to back 3-0 at the end of February and beginning of March. The Gunners looked less like a football team and more like a wave of doomed World War I Tommies sent over the top by incompetent generals only to be mowed down by salvos of machine gun fire.

Chelsea’s Italian boss knows his side. Who else would have looked at Victor Moses and seen a wingback, for example? Obviously, a full frontal assault simply would not suit his side. So, he waged guerrilla warfare against his rivals.

In the early Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” Captain Kirk lost the upper hand in a confrontation with an alien vessel. Spock, his first officer, compares their situation to that of a chess game with no winning possibilities. Kirk though finds an inspired solution by reframing the game as poker instead of chess and bluffs his way out of trouble. Chess is governed by rules and logic. Poker is determined by mathematical probabilities, but is greatly informed by psychology.

Chelsea’s ultra-defensive approach was not simply a pragmatic manoeuver. It was what game theoreticians call an optimal strategy. Conte knew he was facing a very good opponent, and boiled the probabilities down to determine his best chance of victory. He set his team out to wait and wait for the right moment to capitalize on any failures of execution. Unfortunately for the Blues, they were unable to execute as well as their opponents.

Ahead of the second leg last week, pundits smirked when asked about Chelsea’s chance of progressing. They were not wrong to do so, and it highlighted the situation Conte again found himself in. Everything in his pre-match comments indicated another stifling game plan. “We must be prepared to suffer,” he said. I had prepared myself to suffer through the match and was actually disappointed Chelsea started with a recognized center forward. I should not have been. Conte was unlikely to field the same strategy with an away goal as part of the equation.

Ultimately, the match was anything but an ordeal, as Messi’s goal in the 4th minute was a coup de grace that essentially decided the tie. The visitors to the Nou Camp were game but came up against the best player in the world. Messi can turn any match into a no win scenario for an opponent.

What comes next for Chelsea is more interesting. When an older Kirk administered the Kobayashi Maru test to a young cadet in The Wrath of Khan, he explained how one handles death is just as important as how one deals with life. Chelsea’s season is dead, and, with it, all likelihood of a third campaign under Conte’s leadership. Triumph in the FA Cup might just about salvage the season, but how the club responds to these setbacks will be revealing.