As featured on Guardian Sport
SOME FOOTBALLERS HAVE the privilege of working under gifted tacticians and thoroughbred winners during their careers, but it’s the intuitive ones who take it upon themselves to become students. Antonio Conte was both influential and influenced during his decorated playing career at Juventus. The tenacious box-to-box midfielder, equipped with piercingly cinematic blue eyes, decided to devote his career to learning on top of playing, and his premium apprenticeship was the kind of higher education any aspiring coach would have been desperate to embark on.
Conte was lucky to learn from a quartet of esteemed Italian managerial minds – Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi, Arrigo Sacchi and Carlo Ancelotti. However, while Conte admired his teachers, the admiration was undoubtedly mutual. In Conte, his managers saw a born leader, an influential dressing room voice who always put the team first and that was something they could always use to their advantage. With it working both ways, Conte’s managers inherited an excellent midfielder who was central to Juventus for over a decade, while Conte himself received the ultimate coaching manual.
That is how Conte’s philosophy came to be. The Chelsea manager, who has turned the Blues into a frighteningly effective winning machine once again, has always believed that you are either with or against the team. For him, there is no compromise. As a player and coach, it is an ideology that has served him well. Some observers may feel compelled to label Conte a genius in light of the remarkable transformation he has overseen at Stamford Bridge, however it’s perhaps more balanced to suggest that his work as José Mourinho’s successor is the culmination of years of studying how football, in his opinion, should be played and sticking to such a model.
Conte the scholarly player
Conte signed for Juventus in 1991 at a time when AC Milan, the Bianconeri’s great rivals, ascended to the pinnacle of Italian football. It was a rich and fascinating chapter in Italian football history. Milan had triumphed with back-to-back European Cups under revolutionary tactician Arrigo Sacchi, who single-handedly ushered in a new dawn for Italy that banished the outdated principles of catenaccio, while the country had high hopes for the Azzurri after managing a third-place finish while hosting Italia 90.
Conte joined Juventus at a trying time for the Turin giant. The dominant Michel Platini-inspired Juve of Trapattoni’s first reign had become an increasingly distant memory. The club had last lifted the Scudetto in 1986, watching on in subsequent years as Milan, Napoli and Inter all tasted league success.
However, even from the earliest stages of their working relationship, Trapattoni saw himself in Conte. Between 1991 and ‘94, the duo failed to deliver domestic silverware for Juventus, but it was a period that still proved crucial in Conte’s development. Arriving from the comparatively humble surroundings of Lecce, the 21-year-old midfielder felt awestruck by training alongside players he had idolised; Stefano Tacconi, Toto Schillaci and Roberto Baggio.
Tender in years, Conte was overwhelmed by the challenge of proving himself worthy to his national hero team-mates. “There was the great Trapattoni. There was Roberto Baggio. I was very emotional. I was a player-fan,” he would later admit. He had been a fundamental component of Lecce’s system under Eugene Faschetti and later Carlo Mazzone, thus heightening expectations of him at the Stadio Delle Alpi, the yawning arena that became one of European football’s most unloved backdrops until its demolition in 2006. It was a learning curve from the outset, but one Conte, deep down, knew he was equipped for, even if it seemed destined to fail.
At Lecce, Conte received crucial lessons in life and football from Lillino Caus and Carlo Mugo, a reputable youth coaching duo who taught the Giovanissimi (under-15s) how to become not only professional footballers but respectable men. Conte was brought up in a strict household, too, with his parents Cosimino and Ade ensuring Antonio and his two brothers, Gianluca and Daniele, kept their focus first on schoolwork, then on football. Cosimino, Conte’s father was a coach and influential figure at Lecce, and it was he who passed on the earliest pearls of wisdom about football and life to his son.
Read | Baggio vs Lippi: the anatomy of a feud
Antonio was always a good listener and excelled at school. He often played football in the street outside his house and the priests would allow him to kick a ball in the church’s courtyard, but only because he often had done his homework already. Work and focus; two fundamental aspects of Conte’s life that were deeply instilled in him from the earliest age. At home, school and while playing for Lecce, Conte had role models around him. People he could study, learn from and to an extent emulate as he chased his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
So when Conte arrived at Juventus, he was intimidated by the personalities that greeted him in the dressing room. The majority of young footballers, regardless of what level they’re playing at, often require a guiding hand. For Conte, that was Trapattoni. Conte had come from Lecce, the southern toe of Italy, to the alien surroundings of Turin in the north. It felt cold and stark to Conte, who would often let his mind wander back to the sun-soaked beaches in Lecce. Adapting to Juventus was proving difficult, made worse by Conte’s miserable start after adorning the famous black and striped shirt for the first time.
Trapattoni had noticed Conte in training. He was shaken by fear but showed flickers of potential. He was raw, but something worth refining. Il Trap awarded Conte his first start in a friendly against Bayern Munich. It was a tight, cagey affair that was ultimately decided when Conte misjudged his back pass to Tacconi, allowing Munich to clinch victory in the cruellest of circumstances for Conte.
There is no hiding at Juventus. Headline writers forget about age when they lose, and duly tore into Conte, exacerbating his vulnerabilities. The young midfielder was already struggling to acculturate at Juventus, but his sense of inadequacy deepened following that mistake. Trapattoni noticed a sullen Conte the next day. His player had been bruised by the sight of newsstands and was to reflect on a humbling introduction into the Juventus team. Conte was ruminating, possibly thinking about how he may have gone down in Tacconi’s estimation.
“I walked the next day and it felt like I’d be beaten up,” Conte explained via Football Italia. “All of a sudden, Trapattoni appears out of nowhere and it was as if he could read my thoughts. He said, ‘You’re not still thinking about yesterday’s mistake, are you? Oh, come on! Think of the future, you’ll be here for many years, it’s all fine’. If Trapattoni hadn’t been there, I don’t know if I would’ve stayed at Juventus.”
This brief but significant episode in Conte’s formative years was pivotal. Trapattoni offered sympathy but made Conte realise that the past could not be rewritten. He enabled in Conte an ability to think towards the future and to focus his attention on what was to come, not what had just happened. Ultimately, Trapattoni and Conte together could not return Juventus to the summit of Serie A, but several core principles that Conte still carries with him were sown in that period.
European champion under Lippi
The arrival of Marcello Lippi brought with it tremendous success. Lippi changed Juve’s system to a 4-3-3, deploying Conte on the left side of a midfield trio along with Angelo Di Livio and Paulo Sousa. There were trying times, namely a 2-0 defeat to Foggia, but Lippi’s Juventus established a culture of winning that had been absent during Trapattoni’s second stint.
It was under Lippi, the mastermind who later led the Azzurri to World Cup success in 2006 that Conte truly came of age. Conte had taken what he learned from Trapattoni while absorbing new lessons from Lippi, improving both the physical and mental side of his game. Lippi was an excellent communicator, a man who could control a training session expertly with the projection of his voice. He also attempted to maintain close relationships with his players, which alienated Roberto Baggio but endeared Conte.
The midfielder responded enthusiastically to Lippi’s brand of coaching, admiring not only clear ideas on football but the skill with which he taught those ideas. Conte recognised that coaches often have exciting ideas but communicating them effectively can often be a stumbling block. Lippi didn’t have that problem, and it benefitted Conte massively.
Read | How Marcello Lippi masterminded the resurgence of Juventus in the 1990s
However, under Lippi, Conte discovered how educational losing could be too. Lippi led Juve to Scudetti in 1995, ’97 and ’98, but the club also suffered a great deal of heartache during his time in charge. Operating at the peak of their powers, they marched to three consecutive Champions League finals from 1996 to 1998, but only managed to lift the trophy once. After beating Ajax in 1996 at the end of a tournament powered by the goals of Alessandro Del Piero and Fabrizio Ravanelli, the Bianconeri were shocked by Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund the following year.
The ’96 final had been bittersweet for Conte; he became a European champion but he had been forced to watch his team-mates complete the job from the bench. Conte had been substituted after 44 minutes, replaced by Vladimir Jugović, who struck the decisive penalty in the shootout. Conte was still overjoyed, especially for Jugović, as the Serbian’s contribution had ultimately helped the team, thus aligning with Conte’s philosophy.
A year later, Conte was still determined to make more of an impact on the final himself. Conte had risen from a troubled beginning at one of Italy’s prestige clubs to become its captain. From retreating into his shell at the sight of Baggio when he signed from Lecce, Conte had earned the respect and trust of his peers to lead a dressing room that contained at one stage dominant personalities like Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps and Paolo Montero who, with 19 red cards over 10 seasons, became a legendary Italian hard man.
However, his 1996-97 campaign was badly affected by injury and it meant missing much of Juventus’ run to the final. And so, Conte was once again forced to watch on – this time from the stands – as a Dortmund side containing ex-Juve players Sousa, Júlio César, Jürgen Kohler and Andreas Möller outsmarted Lippi’s men to win 3-1, their fate sealed by a wonderfully improvised lob from Lars Ricken with his first touch after coming on as a substitute. Conte remained on the bench until the 77th minute in the 1998 final against Real Madrid and was unable to stop Los Blancos making it seventh heaven.
The European near-misses were valuable lessons for Conte as football – the game he loved his whole life – seemed intent on dealing him cruel blow after cruel blow. However, fortified by Trapattoni’s early teachings, Conte was a survivor as well as a leader and continued to act as Juve’s most influential personality. But Conte’s most humbling experience as a player was still yet to come, one that has informed his managerial mantra greatly. Carlo Ancelotti succeeded Lippi in 1999 and his first season offered plenty of promise but delivered precious little. At 29, Conte was pretty much at his peak physically and had garnered a wealth of experience in his eight years at the club.
In Conte, Ancelotti saw an obvious choice as his on-pitch lieutenant. Juventus were forced to play in the Intertoto Cup at the start of that season, which is considered ignominious for a club of its stature and history. They won it anyway, with Conte scoring in the final. Ancelotti had gifted midfielders like Davids and Alessandro Tacchinardi in his team but Conte was always first on the teamsheet. Ancelotti had needed a leader at Juventus, too.
Coming from Parma, sections of the Bianconeri support sniffed at his appointment despite leading I Crociati to Champions League football. However, many couldn’t ignore the fact that Ancelotti was a Milan legend, immediately battering his popularity with hardened Juve fans. Conte saw beyond that, though, and, alongside Del Piero, Zidane and Davids, fired Juve into a seemingly unassailable lead atop Serie A.
Then the unthinkable happened. Juventus lost four of their last eight matches to surrender the title to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio in astonishing fashion. With Conte at the centre, Juve’s grip on the Scudetto slipped catastrophically, a season’s work unravelled over the final two months of the season. Conte’s reaction was as you’d expect: “The first Scudetto was a very emotional moment. I also remember the Scudetto we won in Udine on the last day, after losing the year before with Carlo Ancelotti on the final day at Perugia. That was devastating, as for seven days I just didn’t sleep. Not a wink. We’d lost a Scudetto that we had already won.”
Conte lost the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000 finals but it feels as though relinquishing the Scudetto to Lazio in such embarrassing fashion has shaped Conte as a manager more than anything else. “When you lose, you learn,” Conte said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “You try to see why you didn’t win. You learn a lot about yourself. To win is beautiful. I find the peace in myself when I win. For this reason, I want to work very hard and find solutions and to give options to my players. Only when I win am I relaxed.”
Read | How Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio won the great Serie A title race of 1999-2000
That offers essential insight into Conte’s psyche. His reaction to losing isn’t to scream and yell, it’s to figure out why it happened and how it can be avoided in the future, and putting into practice the first-rate education he received from Trapattoni and Lippi.
Conte the manager
Conte retired in 2004 but was far from finished with football. His development as an influential player under Trapattoni, Lippi and Ancelotti made pursuing his own managerial journey inevitable. Like his playing career, there were bumps along the way. He was sacked after a winless nine games in charge at Arezzo in Sere B. His successor fared even worse, allowing Conte to return to the fray and oversee an improvement in form but failing to avoid relegation.
In December 2007, he got a second chance to prove himself, at Serie B club Bari, leading them to promotion in his first full season in charge before his shot at managing Atalanta ended disastrously after just 14 games, with fans angrily confronting him when his final game in charge ended in defeat. A single season managing Siena bridged the gap between Atalanta and Juventus, but once Conte was appointed as manager of his old club in the summer of 2011, he felt adequately prepared.
When Conte arrived, Juventus had come back from the abyss. The club was still recovering from the Calciopoli scandal and, while they gained immediate promotion back to Serie A in 2007, they were far from the irresistible force of the 1990s. The club only managed consecutive seventh-place finishes before Conte arrived, yet there was boardroom faith in Conte that he could return Italy’s sleeping giant to greatness over a period of time. Conte duly exceeded expectations, leading Juventus to the Serie A title while going unbeaten for the season.
The Italian had no qualms about telling the squad he inherited what he thought of their recent endeavours. He let them know, in no uncertain terms, that seventh-place was simply unacceptable for a club like Juventus. His approach to getting the best out of Juventus was highly commendable.
Conte can be known as an uncompromising figure who has no problem in disposing of any naysayers, but that doesn’t mean he can’t change the system they’re naysaying. Conte was fond of a 4-2-4 when he became a manager and, while that had worked for him to a degree, he knew it wouldn’t fit in Turin. He switched to a 4-3-3 before tinkering once more to make it a 3-5-2, a formation that got the best out of an impressive midfield ensemble that included Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, while wing-backs supported the strikers.
The improvements made in defence, though, were the most striking. The season prior, Juventus often resembled a dishevelled collection of individuals, conceding 47 goals. Under Conte’s new system, they shipped just 20. With Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli all enjoying remarkable campaigns, Juventus became an incredibly difficult team to breach. The signing of Pirlo on a free transfer from AC Milan was one of the great masterstroke transfers in the modern era, as the stylish playmaker pulled the strings with typical panache throughout the season.
Conte’s methods had a profound impact on Pirlo, who spoke glowingly of his former boss in his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play. “When Conte speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently and settle deep within you. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve found myself saying, ‘Hell, Conte said something really spot-on again today. I was expecting him to be good, but not this good. I’ve worked with a lot of coaches and he’s the one who surprised me the most.”
Strengthened by his experiences as a player, Conte has been fuelled by an obsessive hatred of losing. His Juventus were never likely to surrender a title like Ancelotti’s. The Bianconeri maintained extremely high standards during his three-year reign there, finishing the 2013-14 campaign with an unprecedented haul of 102 points, 17 ahead of nearest challengers Roma.
Read | How Giovanni Trapattoni adapted his way into legend
He earned his appointment as Italy manager but, in a way, it was always going to be difficult for him to replicate the success at Juventus, simply because international managers can’t spend as much time with their squad as club coaches. In a way, this tormented Conte. He is known as a manager with a relentless, unerring attention to detail. He breathes football, much like Sacchi did, yet as the Azzurri boss he was forced to work without the players until they were released by their clubs for international duty, or at Euro 2016.
Conte is proactive in avoiding defeat by preparing meticulously for every single match. All managers do it, but some take their pre-match preparations to impressive lengths. Conte prides himself on organising his team immaculately. He pores over every detail, spending hours making and watching videos of upcoming opponents. More than that, whereas such preparation may yield painfully boring lectures on tactics for players, Conte condenses information to guarantee clarity for his squad. Rest assured, when a Conte team walks out onto the pitch, each player knows precisely what he is doing when his team have the ball, and when they haven’t.
His work as Italy boss is viewed as a success, mainly as Italians felt the squad he took to the Euros in France was the least-inspiring Azzurri team in 50 years. He managed to carve out great performances from Emmanuele Giaccherini – deemed surplus to requirements at Sunderland – while Graziano Pelle and Brazilian-born forward Éder impressed.
It became clear that Chelsea, who announced that Conte would take over at Stamford Bridge for the 2016-17 season, were inheriting a truly remarkable manager during Italy’s win over Belgium. The Azzurri’s sense of spirit and togetherness was apparent from the outset as they upset Marc Wilmots’s team, who many fancied as potential winners before the tournament.
A clinical and pitch-perfect tactical display allowed the Azzurri to unlock their highly-rated opponents and leave onlookers purring in appreciation inside the Stade de Lyon. Alchemy: it’s a word that has popped up more than once while researching Conte as it’s a state he likes his teams to find. Pressing high, finding a balance and attacking in numbers is secondary to finding this coveted alchemy, a heightened understanding between Conte’s players that forms the bedrock of his teams’ successes. When they found it against Belgium, there was no stopping them.
Italy may have fallen to Germany in the quarter-finals but there was a distinct sense of anticipation over Conte’s arrival in the Premier League with Chelsea. In Conte, Roman Abramovich has found the special manager he’s yearned for since José Mourinho’s first two seasons at the club. Stumbles early on against Liverpool and Chelsea only served to galvanise Conte and his players and, since switching to a three-man defence system once again, the Blues have been practically unstoppable, a winning machine that mirrors Conte’s Juventus.
It should be no surprise that Conte looks destined to return Chelsea to glory, given his talents, but that does not stop it from being impressive. At Juve, it was a kind of homecoming for Conte, a man tasked with emulating the success of a club he helped engineer as a player. It was different coming to Chelsea, adapting to England, learning a new language and living in a different culture. He responded to that in the only way he knows how: throwing himself into footballing matters. He took a side whose morale had plummeted under Mourinho and helped reinvigorate their appetite for winning.
English football can only marvel at Conte’s Chelsea revolution, just like Italian football did at his Juventus side. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Conte’s management is producing results in such a short space of time. After assembling his squad for the Euros, Conte spoke of how he helped create a ‘family environment’ for the players in just 45 days. At Chelsea he seems to have done something similar, building a squad that looks like they have the capacity to dominate the Premier League in years to come.
Conte’s aptitude for learning has been a wonderful asset for him in the first decade of his managerial career. The skills and methods he has learned Lippi, Trapattoni, Ancelotti and Sacchi have informed his understanding of how football should be played, while he has expanded on their vision to fashion his own brand of football. His style of management is abrasive and blunt. Leonardo Bonucci called him ‘The Hammer’ in the lead-up to Euro 2016, simply because he hammers points home emphatically, with an authoritative voice and, when it works, it bolsters the sense of trust between Conte’s players and himself. He will also not hesitate for a second to drop a club’s star players should they step out of line (ask Diego Costa), but it yields undeniable results, and that’s the important thing.
Conte once likened the feeling of defeat to death. Luckily at Chelsea, it doesn’t look as though he or his players will have to suffer a grim sense of mortality too often.