Football managers who had their genesis on the other side of the touchlines tend to mold teams into the image of who they were as footballers. In this respect, Antonio Conte is no different. The terrier midfielder for Juventus and the Italian national team seeks to build teams defined by warriors. It is his belief that the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. The collective, above all else, is his message.
Conte memorably said ‘work’ 32 times in his first press conference as Chelsea manager. After Inter Milan’s defeat in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal to Napoli on February 12, he again slipped it in, “We are at the beginning of a journey; if anyone thinks we are at the level of those who have commanded for many years I say that we are far away and we must work and use these defeats to improve.”
There’s something beautiful in how Conte embraces the work concept–in how he sometimes mumbles and grumbles, borderline dismissively, about the realities of the job he’s been tasked with. He comes across to some as a complainer, one who detracts from his failings as a manager with an undiluted truth. But he embraces the underdog tag. In fact, he yearns for it, as is evidenced by his recruitment. It may stem from his dual role as a player and de facto coach in a star-studded Juventus, which could boast Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Lilian Thuram. Then, he was the one of the few to provide the reminder that this team was in fact populated by humans. Now, he’s the manager who, where other managers see discards, he sees diamonds in the rough and he sees trophies.
As a player, he wasn’t as naturally talented as his counterparts, but was able to improve the weaker facets of his game through hard work to add to his dedication, stamina, and discipline. The man, by his own admission, was one of “medium” talent but “great passion”. It is the “heart and a will to win and work to overcome [his] limitations” which held him in good stead as a player that defines his management. To overcome something, you must first acknowledge it.
Medium-High Talent, Maximum Mentality
Antonio Conte had a sobering start to life as a football manager, lasting only nine games as manager of second-division Arezzo. Poetically, the man to replace him was Maurizio Sarri, his eventual successor at Chelsea over a decade later and the current manager of the Juventus team that his charges are embroiled in a title tussle with. The elder Italian was unable to turn the tide, however, and Conte was reinstated four months later in March 2007. His second stint after a truncated Sarri tenure was more successful, resulting in 19 points from just seven matches, and almost secured an unlikely relegation escape.
With Arezzo relegated to Serie C, the budding manager found himself without a job for six months, until in December 2007 when Bari came calling. Bari, a storied club from il Mezzogiorno, in the south of Italy, was at risk of suffering the same fate. Guiseppe Materazzi, father of the villain and hero of the 2006 World Cup final–Marco Materazzi–was failing in his attempts to arrest a precipitous descent into Serie C oblivion. Enter Antonio Conte.
It is the recognition of the diligence and focus it would take to first avert a calamity relegation and then escape mid-table mediocrity that prompted Conte to apply the philosophy that served him so well as an Italian national player and a Juventus captain.
Bari provided Conte his first honours as a manager, to add to the litany from his time as a Juventus player. The 2008/09 season saw Bari gaining 80 points, 25 more than the previous season, and resulted in promotion to Serie A for the first time since 1997. However, he and the club parted ways by mutual consent on 23 June 2009, mainly due to diverging views on transfers. At Bari, Conte had become decidedly more experimental, and looking back, had already begun sowing the seeds for his biggest job to date, but his road would not be linear.
Early into the following season, Conte found himself at Atalanta replacing Angelo Gregucci who had a torrid time in charge of the Oribici, losing all of his four regular season games, coincidentally including a 1-4 defeat to the newly promoted Bari. By early January he had resigned, after a poor stretch of seven defeats in nine, and only a solitary victory.
Conte tendered his resignation twice–the first such attempt being rejected. His personality shone through, even in resignation, amidst protests from fans and confrontations involving Conte himself: “Is it a black mark in my career? No, if anything the black mark is what happened with the fans.”
His preferred formation then was a 4-4-2 which became a 4-2-4 in attack. His chosen formations encapsulate his work philosophy. A general feature of his teams is their fluidity, where each player in his outfield has multiple functions that tie back to his overall plan, resulting in a team that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. In this case, the wide midfielders in his four man midfield are expected to marshal the flanks, both defensively and offensively, and also cut inside to support the two man pivot as necessary. Managers who begin from a defensive base are known to be tactically rigid, relying on rigour, consistency, and repetition to carry out their plans. Conte is decidedly an outlier, having no qualms to alter his formation, while not compromising on his principle of balance reinforced by impermeability, as his personnel allows. The Italian is a tactical master, effecting a deceptively complex orchestra and requires the uncompromising buy-in of every man on the pitch. It was now on to his next job, Siena, where he’d served as assistant to Luigi De Canio in the 2005/06 season.
His job at I Bianconeri was simple–promotion. And that was what he delivered, losing only seven matches and conceding 35 goals over the 42 game season. That season saw him flirt with a back three, oscillating between his preferred back four, and variations of a back three.
Having secured two promotions and a Serie B title in five seasons, Conte seemed destined for greater things. Until then, he’d been tasked with providing a jolt to teams mired in obscurity or those battling relegation. He’d been linked with the job at La Vecchia Signora towards the end of his time at Bari. Now it was a reality–a reality bearing an uncanny resemblance to the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United in 2018 after years of faltering results and waning eminence. Again, his task was to rejuvenate a team–his team–a giant of Italian and of world club football. Juventus’ two previous seasons had resulted in consecutive seventh-placed finishes, joint worst in season unaffected by Calciopoli since 1998/99.
His goals to make Juventus “nasty” as they once were; contesting every ball with an enviable work ethic and desire sum up the man, and it is something he achieves quickly. He needs to extract all he can from every match, player and season. Andrea Pirlo, written off by many before his move to the Turin club, was the man to provide the jolt to turn around Juventus’ fortunes on the pitch. Conte knew Pirlo could not function in his two-man base with his lack of mobility and needed extra support which would allow the regista to orchestrate to his mind’s will.
The tactician seamlessly shifted his formation to a 4-3-3 which saw Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio start on either side of the ageing Italian maestro, transforming the Juventus midfield into one of the best in Europe. He’d sorted the midfield and found a way to accommodate and get the best from his talisman when a lesser manager would have staggered. Juventus remained unbeaten until late January, relying predominantly on that set-up.
Paolo De Ceglie, the left back, failed to convince anyone on the merits of him keeping one of three accomplished centre backs out the starting team, and so Conte made another adjustment to reshape his team into a back three. The wingbacks now operated in the way his wide midfielders did in his back four, with a bonus of having his three best defensive players on the pitch at the same time. On the other hand, Pirlo had a legacy defining season and was recognized as one of the best across the continent yet again, supplying the most assists in Serie A in an unbeaten league season.
Conte’s three years brought three league titles to the club he had captained with distinction and pride. But the team never scaled the heights in European competition, lacking a commanding left back and the wingers to allow him to play a back four, and after those three years, he was gone. Fully immersed in the philosophy of work which earned him high praise, he took his principles to a struggling Italy team where he could adapt his back three with the same trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. Here, Conte showed his ruthlessness, leaving Pirlo and the dynamo Sebastian Giovinco out of his team to Euro 2016 as he believed Major League Soccer was not at a level that lent to excelling at the European Championship. Wins over Belgium and Spain were masterclasses, exploiting technical deficiencies in Romelu Lukaku and stifling the talented Belgians, and playing a patient progressive rock ballad that was peak hilarity for lovers of tactical football against a legendary Spain side that had begun to show signs of withdrawal from recent dizzying heights.
One of the Elites
Missing the day-to-day intensity of club football, Conte turned his attention to Chelsea, themselves in need of a shot of Conte penicillin. Jose Mourinho was sacked in December with Chelsea in 16th place, two above the relegation places. A stabilization job by interim coach Guus Hiddink saw Chelsea ending the season in 10th place. Conte’s moves were swift and true to type, having recognized the strengths and more importantly the weaknesses of his squad. Players like Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry were quickly out of the team, after a chastening 0-3 loss to Arsenal prompted a change to his now signature back three.
The tactics Conte employed were unusual for the Premier League and it led to a mini revolution where many of the top teams experimented with an extra centre back, but the fitness and mentality shift, which had so defined his playing career and those of his previous teams, was the main catalyst to a Premier League title in his first season in charge. It ended in less than ideal circumstances at Chelsea, although not before an FA Cup, but his ruthlessness with players who, in his judgement, were anything less than fully committed or cooperative was his own downfall. The alienation of Diego Costa, subsequent purchase of the noticeably less physical and menacing Alvaro Morata, and his own despondency at the lack of support from the Chelsea board doomed his season to fifth-place purgatory. Still, he left an enduring mark on a Chelsea team devastated by transition, and we can even go so far as to say that teams in England, including its national team, continue to be influenced by his ideas.
After Chelsea, and after being linked to several jobs, including Manchester United, Napoli, Real Madrid, and Juventus, Conte has settled into Inter Milan, a rival of his beloved Juventus, who are now in the midst of a Conte job. Without a Serie A title since the 2009/10 season and only as far as the group stages of the Champions league, Conte usually brings a quick improvement to his teams that made him the perfect man to take the mantle at Inter. In fact, his first seasons as the manager of Bari, Siena, Juventus, and Chelsea reaped a combined gain of 140 points on each of the seasons prior. He hasn’t yet proved himself in Europe (one of the touted reasons to exclude him from the top echelon) and it may be premature to speak definitively on his tenure at I Nerazzurri, but his combined league record since he took charge at Juventus is only usurped by Pep Guardiola, and Conte’s remarkable record for improving teams quickly is second to none.
For Conte to put doubts about his class to rest amongst his most stubborn and bitter critics, it is most important for him that his trademark principles and philosophy are evident at Inter Milan: his ability to resurrect struggling teams or teams needing to move to another level, reviving the form of players, tailoring his approach to personnel while staying true to his principles of tactical discipline, fluidity in movement, noticeable improvements in squad fitness and mentality, and of work being the fundamental determinant in success, not talent. To do this, he’ll be banking on the investment from his bosses and necessary agreement from Giuseppe Marotta to take this team to the next level.
We easily overlook that Conte has arguably never had a squad to really test the very best in Europe man for man. Perhaps, he doesn’t need to be all the way there. For that, time will be the master. Above all, the single most certain factor in the equation required for Inter to make serious runs at the Serie A and the Champions league is that the Italian will galvanize his team to work, work, and work some more.