Al Volo Extra: Can Antonio Conte Really Deliver As Coach Of Juventus?

by Adam Digby


April 20 1986. Some things are just simply meant to be. Roma lose 3-2 at home and a sixteen year old midfielder making just his second appearance played a huge role in Juventus winning their 22nd Scudetto. Antonio Conte may still have lined up for Lecce but he had already begun to deliver silverware to la vecchia Signora.

He would remain at the Pugliese side for another six years, maturing into one of the best midfielders of his generation. He missed a full season after suffering a double fracture of his right leg but in 1992 Juventus would bring him to Turin. Once there he would form part of one of the most dominant teams of all time, yet upon arriving the man himself thought it would be a short visit;

“I remember well the day I arrived for I did not say a word. There were champions like Roberto Baggio and Jürgen Kohler, my instinct was to enjoy it all. Because I come from Lecce and was used to that I thought I wouldn’t last long, that I’m just passing through”

But stay he would, making more than 400 appearances over the next twelve years and eventually becoming captain, taking over from Gianluca Vialli before sharing the honour with Alessandro Del Piero. Fourteen trophies would come during this time, including five league titles and four visits to the Champions League Final, sadly winning just once, in 1996.

He would endure more bad luck during his twenty cap international career, being part of the squads that became losing finalists at both the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000. This would simply serve to further endear him to the Juve faithful, proud of their captains fighting spirit as he became, along with many of that late 90′s team, synonymous with the grinta, attitude and will to win the club has so sorely lacked in recent years. It is a point not lost on him, as he told reporters ahead of the 2003 Champions League Final in Manchester;

“I say with sincerity and honesty, everything I got I earned with the sweat and commitment. I have never enjoyed special favors, I learned the full meaning of the word sacrifice. I think the fans appreciate my ways both on and off the field, with me they have always been really fantastic. In the hardest times they kept me close, showing warmth and friendliness.”

Now those same supporters look set to be asked to embrace him once more as the former hero seems all but certain to be chosen to replace the departing Gigi Delneri. To understand why this move is being made we must first recap what has gone before.

Moving into a brilliant new stadium is a superb boost for the club and Italian football in general, but doing so whilst also heading into a second consecutive season without Champions League football and with what will be their eighth coach in five years since the last Scudetto win is all far from ideal.

Always considered a coach on the field, Conte actually was just that – he completed the first of his coaching badges as far back as 1998, some six years before his eventual retirement. But here is the difficult part for many fans, separating the iconic number eight on the pitch from the coach he has become today. Much like this Juventus, his current incarnation began in Serie B in 2006 as became coach of Arezzo.

He won promotion for Bari, lasted just nineteen Serie A matches as coach of Atalanta and has now led Siena into the top flight, losing just six times and conceding 34 goals. In terms of sheer numbers his coaching career is not overly impressive, indeed it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to imagine that he would be even considered for the role were it not for his playing career.

Beyond that obvious shared history what does the former Captain bring to Juventus and why is he seemingly the only serious candidate to lead the club at what is shaping up to be a huge season for the Bianconeri? His combative midfield days are not such a distant memory, but who is Antonio Conte the coach?

As most observers are well aware, the formation he has preferred to employ so far is a 4-4-2 that quickly becomes a 4-2-4. The role given to the wingers in order to make this work is very demanding as not only are they asked to cover the flanks defensively, but also to come in-field to prevent the two central players being quickly outnumbered against narrower teams.

One feature of his sides, whether in the top flight or the Cadetti, has been a patient build up once possession is regained. It is very rare to see long kick-outs from the goalkeeper and clearly this is by design, as often one or both central defenders will drop deep to collect the ball. Once brought into attack there many options available to a player in possession, although one striker is almost always looking to stretch the defence with deep runs.

The main feature of his attacking play is a quick one or two touch style which provides persistent movement of the ball between players and is characterised by a front four playing with great speed and an abundance of movement. He has switched to a 4-3-3 at times, proving he has the intelligence and ability to not keep blind faith with one system, an essential quality in any coach as Massimiliano Allegri has shown during his debut season at Milan.

Defensively he employs a high back-line, not to catch opponents offside but to keep the team compact and press the ball hard and often, denying space between defence and midfield. In addition it is important to note his preference to man-mark almost always, both during open play and at set-piece situations. Obviously in a division largely devoid of width and heavily focused on central play-makers, Conte will either have to change to that 4-3-3 mentioned earlier or find a scheme that prevents the team being overrun the way Juventus were during the first month of last season.

While it may not be a point many want to hear, the coach Conte most resembles tactically – their preferred choice of marking aside – is in fact Gigi Delneri. Their choice of system is almost identical and the out-going coach saw very early on that his 4-4-2/4-2-4 wasn’t working and switched to his own hybrid 4-3-3 in order to erradicate many of the problems.

Players like Milos Krasic, Fabio Quagliarella, Alessandro Matri and Simone Pepe suit Conte’s model very well, and this will have been no small factor in the thinking of Beppe Marotta and Andrea Agnelli as changing coach became inevitable. The affection of the fans for the former Captain will allow the same plans and ideas to remain while changing the face at the forefront as the building continues.

The current Siena boss tends to switch his wingers more frequently than Delneri, often leaving them inverted for extended spells, meaning at least one naturally left-sided player would be needed to complete the system. The fullback situation also needs resolving, Frederik Sørensen has impressed but is unlikely to remain in a wide role too long and, while Paolo De Ceglie ideal, that still leaves the need for at least two new players.

One touted arrival who simply does not suit the framework nor playing style of Conte’s teams is Andrea Pirlo. His slower approach would throw off many of the patterns of play while his lack of mobility would simply not lend itself to the work-rate the coach demands of his double-pivot midfield. Alberto Aquilani, Claudio Marchisio and in particular Felipe Melo are fitting choices, as the increased presence of the Juve owned Luca Marrone in the Siena midfield serves to highlight.

The wide-spread opinion of Juventus fans is that at least he will bring the winning spirit back to the club, but in order to succeed he will need much much more than that. His name will buy him some breathing space if required but, once the initial joy and nostalgia wears out will supporters soon be altering the last word of his old chant, will the new stadium reverberate to cries of “Senza di te non andremo lontano, Antonio Conte è il nostro allenatore”? We will soon find out.

5 Responses

  1. bulle says:

    Great post Adam! Conte seems like the only option but perhaps that’s exactly the way the management want’s to keep it. Acquiring the services of Pirlo and then bringing in Conte seems like a move that only Secco would make. Maybe there is another manager on his way in!?

    Like your proposed idea of changing coach while keeping the same system. Even though I was against Delneri getting fired, it just seems like a brilliant move when put that way. Maybe Marotta and Agnelli had this planned all along. The chance of making it into the Champions League was almost impossible and the decided that the club needed a coach that could take the blame at the end of the season while still continuing the rebuilding process. Maybe Conte was Agnelli’s choice last time too but Marotta advised him to wait till the team had developed into something that actually could challenge. Therefore the only safe and familiar candidate to use while rebuilding was Delneri. Just a theory!

  2. JoseR says:

    The coach this summer is such a tough call, with Deschamps in a contract the only proven winners out there are Van Gaal and Lippi. I don’t really like Van Gaal and I doubt his salary will be low and Lippi may be done coaching clubs.

    I have so many doubts about Conte and about what he can do for this team. Yes, he brings the Juve mentality but is he ready to absorb all the pressure that comes with the job and to take charge of a team that is clearly still rebuilding?.

    We really can’t afford to make mistakes this summer and the idea of bringing in Conte and Pirlo seems like a bad move already. That is unless Juve are looking to move to a 4-3-3 which will mean Pirlo will be Aquilani’s reserve (or viceversa). With that being said I rather spend the money of Pirlo’s salary on real fullbacks and one good left attacker if we are going for the 4-3-3.

  3. thegutterpoet says:

    One of the best Digby pieces I have read…Keep up the good work, mate.

  4. Anthony says:

    Great post, Adam. One thing I want to point out though is that Conte himself said that Pirlo suits his plans perfectly. He said he’ll have to fight for his spot like everyone else, but that he’s vital to helping control the tempo of the game. Whether he plans to play him in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 I don’t know.

  5. Thank you for this piece, which is both very insightful and full of heart! One thing should be pointed out, however: even though, like you write, it is clear that Juventus did not want to waste the structure of the team and its current suitability in terms of overall design, Conte’s playing can not be more different from Delneri. Delneri’s teams, for better or worse, apply the purest ideas of zonal marking. They sit deep and narrow in two banks of four, the holding midfielders never track down and it is the duty of wide players to double up on the “week” side of FBs. With Delneri, positional awareness is prioritized over either possession or pressing. Conte said he wants Juve to keep the ball and press high. His teams tend to adopt a high-line defense and man-marking, at least from set pieces (which should bring Chiellini back to form). And it is the two holders who help the defenders, not the out-and-out wingers–the result being that there is much less to run on the park to close down raids on the flanks. I think your assessment of the possibility to see something of a 4-3-3 is a point very well-taken. Conte’s default 4-2-4ish, grafted at Juve, will be ideally suited to resemble Bayern, with the “inverted” wingers and a striker in the hole (looking rather like a 4-2-3-1) or even Barca’s alternative shape in some big games, when Henry was there (of course, with less quality throughout, oh well…).

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