LONDON — Less than 24 hours after a convincing victory over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge appeared to have steadied the ship, Michael Emenalo’s surprise decision to resign as technical director served as a reminder that Chelsea never enjoy calm waters for long.
The message from all sides was that, after 10 years, Emenalo wants a break, some family time and a fresh challenge — Monaco has been cited as a potential destination. But coming amid a steady stream of reports pointing to significant tensions between Antonio Conte and chief executive Marina Granovskaia, the timing of Emenalo’s departure raises questions.
It could be tempting to view Monday’s news as a victory for Conte. The Italian has made no secret of his frustration at having to navigate this season with a dangerously thin squad following the summer’s troubled recruitment drive and, with one fewer voice in future conversations about Chelsea’s transfer strategy, his own words might stand a better chance of swaying Roman Abramovich.
The theory is compelling, but the reality is that Emenalo was the closest thing to an ally Conte had within the Chelsea hierarchy. Their offices separated by the width of a corridor in the first-team building at Cobham, the two men spoke daily, often watched training together and enjoyed a professional relationship, though not without its disagreements.
Emenalo served a valuable purpose in that sense, as a calm line of communication and a mediating presence between the head coach and the board. Granovskaia works out of Stamford Bridge and Abramovich rarely visits Cobham because when he does — most recently following last month’s 1-0 win over Bournemouth — it tends to prompt a flurry of speculation.
Rather than strengthen Conte’s hand, Emenalo’s decision to step down actually has the potential to exacerbate any existing divisions between Chelsea’s wildly popular head coach and Granovskaia, who will assume many of his responsibilities while the club reviews their management structure.
Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck revealed that Abramovich and the board had accepted Emenalo’s resignation “with regret,” and there is plenty of reason to believe the feeling goes beyond the standard platitudes expected in such statements.
As well as being a trusted and amiable figure, Emenalo also assumed without complaint the unofficial and unfortunate role of public lightning rod for a club hierarchy that, while overseeing spectacular success on the pitch, has done plenty to mystify and frustrate its fan base over the years.
Fondness for Emenalo is in short supply among Chelsea supporters. Many disliked him from the moment he arrived at the invitation of Jose Mourinho’s perceived usurper Avram Grant in 2007, scornful of his qualifications and dismayed at the collateral damage inflicted by his rapid rise.
His elevation to assistant first-team coach in November 2010 came at the expense of club legend Ray Wilkins, and his influence was formalised in July 2011 with the grand but vague title of technical director weeks after Carlo Ancelotti had been coldly fired.
Unsure of his precise responsibilities, many fans felt comfortable blaming Emenalo for any of the setbacks that followed on or off the pitch. He did himself no favours with the infamous “palpable discord” TV interview of December 2015, referring to the sacked Mourinho only as “the individual” while supporters mourned the second departure of their hero.
There will be no such grief over Emenalo but, internally, his departure creates a number of problems for Chelsea. A potentially vital January transfer window edges closer, and while the Nigerian’s job centred more around the identification of targets than the doing of deals, losing him now is less than ideal for preparation.
Conte will expect reinforcements if Chelsea remain in Premier League and Champions League contention, and Emenalo will not be around to absorb the backlash if the reigning champions of England find themselves scrambling for compromise targets in the final days of a second successive window.
Ahead of January lies the task of either directly replacing Emenalo with a new technical director or revamping Chelsea’s decision-making structure. Neither option will be straightforward given the unique set-up at Cobham, coupled with the relentless demands of the club’s controversial mass loan system.
The Chelsea academy has emerged as a dominant power in England and Europe under director Neil Bath, and that is where Emenalo believes his true Chelsea legacy lies.
He strode onto the Stamford Bridge pitch on Sunday to hug academy graduate Andreas Christensen after the Dane had provided what he described as “a wonderful parting gift” with his near-flawless performance against United. In the coming days he will likely take similar pride in Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek making their first senior appearances for England.
Emenalo now has the luxury of revelling in his achievements. Chelsea, however, must find a way to keep moving forward without him in order to meet the expectations of their demanding head coach, as well as a fan base whose criticism can no longer be so easily deflected.
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.