Play things down, play things down, play things down....
When quizzed by Tuttosport in October, Antonio Conte offered rousing answers, notably his most exciting goal: “Without a doubt the one I scored against Olympiakos in Greece, during the 1998-99 season. Not the prettiest, but certainly a stirring one. We were losing 1-0 and were virtually out of the Champions League. I was playing with a broken lip, forced to hold a handkerchief in my mouth to dab the blood. With 15 minutes left I scored, and the goal allowed us to qualify for the next round. I remember celebrating with my handkerchief all soaked in blood.” The former Juventus captain and now coach has spent the bulk of his professional life in Turin and is one of the main exponents of the fabled ‘Juventus style’. Oft spoken about, the style incorporates pride, spirit, determination and a winning mentality. Juve legend Giampiero Boniperti said of the Old Lady: “Winning isn’t important. It’s the only thing that matters.” Conte is so enamoured with the mentality his daughter is named Vittoria – Italian for victory.
Conte the player was raised in the Lecce youth system and his Serie A debut came for his hometown club as a 16 year old, in 1986. He scored his first league goal in 1989 against Napoli, before ending his six-and-half season stay with the Salentini in November 1991. Giovanni Trapattoni was a fan of Conte’s heart, willing running and know-how in the centre of midfield and the Bianconeri made a move for the player. His Juventus debut came as a substitute on November 17th in the derby against Torino. As Conte noted 20 years later, “It was the start of a wonderful experience.”
After Gianluca Vialli’s departure in 1996 Conte became club captain, but he had already figured prominently for Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi. Often the heart and soul of a Juve team brimming with experience and stars, Conte’s drive and grinta saw him become a club symbol. That he notes the Olympiakos goal his most exciting is indicative of the player: not the prettiest but equally important. During his 13 year stay with the Turin giants Conte amassed an impressive trophy collection: five Scudetti, one Italian Cup, four Italian Super Cups, one European Cup, one UEFA Cup and successes in the European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup.
Conte says Lippi conveyed the winning mentality required to lead Juventus: “With Lippi our relationship was long and intense: it’s while I was part of that Juventus that I learned what it means to be a winner. Even now, the most important thing I do as a Coach is to transmit that knowledge to my players.”
At the end of the 2003/04 season, Conte called time on his career. Overall, he played 295 matches for Juventus, scoring 29 goals. For club and country, the Lecce native played 412 games, netting on 43 occasions.
Conte would not be out of football for long. His first foray into coaching arrived during 2005/06, as assistant to Luigi De Canio at Siena. A first senior role came the following season as Conte took charge of Serie B side Arezzo. He was appointed in July but sacked in October after poor results. Maurizio Sarri was his replacement but only lasted until March, with Arezzo in danger of being relegated. Conte returned, then utilising the dubbed 4-2-4 system, which he notes was born out of necessity for points. The all-out attack gained results: his second reign included a period of eight wins from 12 and Arezzo was only relegated on the final day of the season.
Conte moved to Bari as a replacement for Giuseppe Materazzi in December 2007. His goal to avoid relegation was achieved. The following campaign, Conte earned his first piece of coaching silverware by leading Bari to first place and promotion. When set to lead Bari into Serie A his contract was terminated by mutual consent after a disagreement with club directors. Instead, Conte’s top flight coaching debut came during a disappointing spell with Atalanta. Hired in September 2009, Conte resigned by January after a poor run of results. He returned to the cadetti and Siena for 2010/11, taking the Tuscans back to Serie A in first position. During these spells he utilised his 4-4-2 (or 4-2-4, depending on who you ask) formation and following Luigi Delneri’s dismissal at Juventus in May, he took the job.
Conte told Tuttosport: “At some point I told myself: if within five years I am not the Coach of Juventus, I’ll stop. There was really no arrogance in this statement, because I have the habit of fixing objectives for myself and then do everything possible to attain them. Plus there was the infinite love I have for this team.” He has reached his goal and currently the team lies in second, only behind Milan on goal difference.
Whereas in recent seasons Juve (mostly) turned up for the big matches, points were dropped home and away against provincial clubs. Using last season’s final table, Juve defeated all clubs above them (except Napoli), while dropping points versus every team in the bottom half (bar Cagliari), some twice. Beyond that, Conte has instilled belief in this Juventus side. The team does not sit back but rather looks to take the game to their opponent. They play with rediscovered spirit and heart, with Conte leading from the front. After an abject first half in Napoli where Juve was 2-0 down, Conte’s half-time spray (and tactical shift) lifted the troops and Juve drew 3-3. It all points to a greater winning mentality, something akin to the Juve side Conte captained – a point mentioned recently by Lippi and former teammates Moreno Torricelli and Alessio Tacchinardi.
He has gotten the best out of oft-criticised Simone Pepe (likened to another former teammate Angelo Di Livio), while others such as Mirko Vucinic and Andrea Pirlo, known for their work on the ball rather than off it, have increased their work rate. It is no surprise to see Juve pressing, harassing and running out matches better than their opponents after amplified physical work in pre-season. This has helped gain late wins against Milan and Cesena.
Conte has on more than one occasion entered the post-match press conference with a sore throat and croaky voice from the amount of shouting and instructing he provides during the 90 minutes. He celebrates every goal as if he netted, often together with the players who run over to offer an embrace. He has referred to the squad as his “blood brothers”, deflecting the brunt of any criticism levelled towards them.
On a tactical level, 4-4-2 was the buzzword of the pre-season. Conte described it as such: “We can describe my tactic as a 4-4-2 in which the wingers distance is a little bit altered: they play a bit further up. Let’s say it is a much more offensive 4-4-2...Balance is of course important and necessary: there are two phases of play and one must not forget the defensive one, but when everyone on the team is willing to run and run well then everything is possible.”
Days after Conte’s appointment, Juve announced the signing of Pirlo. A question posed during pre-season surrounded whether Pirlo could fit into the system, as well as whom his partner would be – Arturo Vidal or Claudio Marchisio. As Conte noted, balance is important and after opening the season with his 4-4-2 in tow he reverted to 4-3-3, aware that in order to create a balanced midfield both Vidal and Marchisio would partner Pirlo. Striker Alessandro Matri has been flanked by Pepe and Vucinic; the two mixing work rate and technical ability. Conte may have left himself short at left-back by sending Reto Ziegler away to Turkey on loan months after his signing. Paolo De Ceglie is second choice behind Giorgio Chiellini for now, with Fabio Grosso the only other alternative.
It is still early days in Conte’s coaching career and his first job at a big club, so there will be errors made and increased media scrutiny over any mistakes. However, his work with the squad has mostly been positive and Conte is showing his tactical versatility to go with his motivational qualities. He is no longer typecast as simply a disciple of 4-4-2 and shown continued development on the bench.
Conte has been likened in sections of the Italian media to Happy Days character the Fonz (who could not say “I was wrong”), because of his professed lack of desire in discussing the s-word – the Scudetto. He has downplayed Juve’s chances, stating after two seventh placed finishes his aim is to ensure Juve are credible challengers once again. He knows there is a long way to go with more work required, but just as he has done throughout his career, Conte will exhibit features of the ‘Juventus style’ in order to achieve his goals.
Follow Luca on Twitter @l_cetta.