If Roman Abramovich wants to appoint a manager with a different approach from Jose Mourinho, Should Antonio Conte really the top choice?
Like Mourinho, Conte always prefers to create an ‘us against the world’ mentality and also has a combustible, confrontational style of thinking. Just like Mourinho, the highly-rated Italian comes with a forceful personality and wants to keep his players on the edge most of the time.
Like Mourinho, he likes to emphasise the collective work over the flair of an individual; something he has been showing during his time with Italy by giving very little space to players like Mario Balotelli, Lorenzo Insigne or Domenico Berardi. So why did Abramovich make Conte his no.1 choice? First of all, the prosaic reasons: he is still available, that means no compensation package would be there to hire Conte — and secondly, he knows how to win league titles, if not the Champions League ones.
When he took charge at Juventus, where he played from 1991 to 2004, the club were really drifting, struggling to find a way to shake off the adverse effects of the 2006 ‘calciopoli’ corruption scandal, which left them punished with relegation to Serie B. And then with Conte in charge, Juve went on to win three successive Serie A crowns. Yet it was not at all a smooth ride. In his famous autobiography, Italian legend Andrea Pirlo said Antonio Conte “becomes a beast [at half-time] and is never happy. He will throw anything he can get his hands on, almost always plastic bottles of water — even when we are winning.” Something similar is needed at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea have to start again too, even if their slump this term is not even comparable to Juventus’ worst years after Calciopoli.
It is not only the players who had to endure the sharp edge of Conte’s tongue. Even though Juventus were successful on the field, of the field there were some tense moments with the club hierarchy — which meant it was not a surprise when, in the summer of 2014, Conte decided to resign. Juventus had merely finished their celebration after winning the league and his contract had another year to run but still Conte walked away — because, it is largely said, of frustration over transfer policy.
Pirlo also recalled Conte’s peculiar penchant for cutting out newspaper articles that were actually critical of Juventus and urging his men to read them thoroughly. But Conte doesn’t rule only by fear. “I thought he would be a coach with a lot of grit and charisma,” admitted Pirlo. “But he has much to teach in terms of tactics and technique.”
Maybe this tactical flexibility appealed to Chelsea hierarchy. With Juventus, Conte was a strict 3-5-2 man and redeployed the same system when he replaced Cesare Prandelli as Italy coach, shortly after leaving Juve.
Yet Conte was very quick to realise that, with limited talent in hand, he needed some backup plans. During Euro 2016 qualifying, he also introduced 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or even 3-3-4. Conte likes to rely heavily on his wider players and looks for a big centre-forward to lead his attack.
At the heart of everything the Italian manager wants to play “good football at an intense tempo”. He can use a system which allows Andrea Pirlo’s considerable talents to orchestrate proceedings or switch the play in a manner that consistently operates on the front foot with great width and pace. Conte likes attacking play and perhaps, more importantly, he doesn’t simply equate attacking football with endless passing.
Arguably there remain a lot of similarities to Juventus’ resurgence with Conte and the Chelsea team who were unbelievable from 2004 to 2010. A squad blessed with technique, pace, power and an ability to win a variety of ways. Conte’s style of play is both technical and powerful: it always encourages creativity while being functionally very robust. Looks like he feels tailor-made for the Premier League.
Italy’s football has been solid under him and qualification also achieved but there has been tension. Conte even pondered about quitting less than a year into the National team job, so frustrated was he that the national team was then seemed to him secondary to the top clubs, but was later talked round.
The first target Conte set was reaching Euro 2016 and he secured the qualification, and now all his coaching ability will be tested in the tournament. As previously stated, he is a “group first” type of manager, so you can only analyse how good his work has been when his side confronts big challenges and he has to demonstrate something special. The Euros will show us the answer, but surely the credit he achieved from Juventus is still a huge one so his reputation here is great whatever happens in France.
Meanwhile, the Italian is keen to return to club management: in December he even admitted that his worst moment of 2015 was watching the big Champions League matches from the stands or TV and not on the bench; not only that, in the past he said it was hard to compete with Juventus against the European giants because of the club’s financial disparities. Chelsea most likely will not be in the Champions League next season, but they have lots of money and the opportunity to build a successful new group around some top stars like Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard.
So this is Antonio Conte: a manager with a so much record of success in domestic football but not in the Champions League. A man not at all afraid to speak his mind that who may occasionally fall out with players and employers. A coach who always values effectiveness over attractiveness. But if you think deeper, it doesn’t sound much like Roman Abramovich’s dream of a squad playing expansive football, enjoying great success in Europe and managed by someone who generally opts to stay in the background, far from the limelight.
If Antonio Conte does end up at Chelsea, it is really hard to escape the feeling that he will be a compromise option for the Russian owner.