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.