Antonio Conte: Does the Italian have what it takes to succeed at Chelsea?
While the British football press has been hesitant to speculate too confidently on the identity of the next Chelsea manager, Italy’s prominent sports publications are certain that it will be one of their countrymen who is to replace Guus Hiddink when his interim spell comes to an end in two months’ time. In fact, if the likes of La Gazzetta Dello Sport are to be believed, the Italian FA have already begun the recruitment process for the successor to current national team coach Antonio Conte, who will be heading to Stamford Bridge after the Azzurri’s Euro 2016 campaign.
It would be ill-advised to take La Gazzetta’s hubris as a sure sign of genuine inside information regarding Roman Abramovich’s plans; it was only a few months ago, after all, that they emblazoned their front page with the news that Juventus manager Max Allegri would be taking Hiddink’s place. But with Allegri promising to stay put, and a lack of other likely candidates being touted, Conte has emerged as the clear bookmaker’s favourite. The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor was evidently taking these rumours seriously when he highlighted the risk that Abramovich would be taking in employing a man with contested allegations of involvement in the 2011-12 Scomessopoli match-fixing scandal still hanging over his head.
More pertinently, there are plenty of footballing aspects to Conte’s expected appointment that are worthy of consideration. It’s clear to see why the Italian has attracted the interest of the reigning (yes, still technically reigning) Premier League champions. After Serie B promotions with Bari and Siena, the former midfielder was welcomed back to the club he had captained as a player, and immediately enjoyed domestic success. Prior to his arrival, Juventus were struggling to seventh-place finishes after the Calciopoli scandal had seen them relegated in 2006, but they made history by going the entirety of Conte’s first season unbeaten and reclaimed the Serie A crown. Two more years at the helm of ‘The Old Lady of Turin’ brought two more scudetti, before Conte decided that the club were not equipping him with the transfer market firepower necessary to compete in the latter stages of the Champions League, and left to manage Italy.
The main question mark over Conte’s credentials has been the ease with which Juventus adapted to life without him. Having presided over Milan’s drop from top-three consistency to a disastrous eighth place, Max Allegri was an extremely unpopular appointment among Juventus supporters when he was announced as Conte’s successor in the summer of 2014, but he added a Coppa Italia victory to another comfortably-won league championship in his first year. Significantly, Allegri also did what Conte could not in guiding his team to the Champions League final where they were only narrowly defeated by the unstoppable Barcelona. The summer transfer window brought with it a swathe of changes to the side Allegri had inherited from Conte, but they overcame early problems to return to the top of Serie A with another Coppa Italia final and a mouth-watering second leg against Bayern Munich in Europe still to come.
While Blues fans may see parallels between their current predicament and the one in which Juventus found themselves before Conte’s entrance, the manner in which he turned around that dressing room represents another potential source of doubt. Though a highly-regarded tactician, the Lecce-born coach has a fearsome reputation for impassioned team talks.
An oft-repeated quote from Andrea Pirlo, a key member of Conte’s Juventus team, recalls that “his words assault you, they crash through the doors of your mind.” Significant, too, was Pirlo’s remark that “there is a beast in him…I have been in his dressing room at half-time when we have been winning, but he comes in and will be throwing full bottles of water around because of a mistake we made or because he feels we should be further ahead.”
At Chelsea, Conte will be making these addresses in a foreign language (he is reportedly learning English, but hasn’t been heard speaking it before), to a squad which already reportedly fell afoul of a similarly volatile character in former boss José Mourinho. Couple this with his preference for a typically Italian defensive 3-5-2 formation – perhaps better described as a 5-3-2, given his preference for overlapping full-backs rather than wingers who track back – and problems in adapting to the environment of English football aren’t difficult to imagine.
It is highly unlikely that Conte would agree to leave his post as Italy coach without certain assurances from Abramovich regarding transfer policy, and his success if he is given the Chelsea job will rely heavily on the moves they make together over the summer. With the creativity and flair of Pirlo and Paul Pogba in midfield, a certain amount of defensive compensation was reasonable in Turin. In southwest London, however, a jump in quality in the middle of the park will be needed if Conte’s signature tactical approach is to be utilised once more. In any case, the fiery Italian’s attempts to adapt his coaching philosophy and man-management style to the Premier League once the season begins will be fascinating to observe.
Tom lives in Milan and is the Faculty’s Italian correspondent. He is a season ticket holder at the San Siro, where he follows Serie A closely.