BREAKING GROUND: ANTONIO CONTE’S ROLLER COASTER ADVENTURE TO THE TOP

There aren’t many managers in the modern day with a better tactical education than Antonio Conte. In his years as a box-to-box midfielder for Juventus and the Italian national team, he played under Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi, Carlo Ancelotti, Arrigo Sacchi, and Dino Zoff.

Barring Fabio Capello, as Conte pointed out at the 2013 Globe Soccer Awards in Dubai, that’s a clean sweep of Italy’s best modern managers. “Every manager has given me so much information which I can use” he said, and he was certainly right.

Trapattoni and Zoff innovated the Zona Mista style, a mix of zonal and man marking that began Italian football’s move away from the useful-yet-ugly defensive catenaccio. Lippi pioneered the idea of changing your tactics and formation to suit your opponent. Sacchi implemented a modified version of total football, requiring every player to learn every position to cover for their teammate. Ancelotti was a disciple of his and constantly utilised the 3-5-2 formation that Conte is known for today.

So, when in December 2007, Conte was made manager of Bari in Serie B and tasked with keeping them up, he must’ve felt right at home.

Of course, this wasn’t home. Conte was Lecce born and bred, playing for them before his move to Juventus. Bari was in fact the opposite of home, Lecce’s fierce rivals in the Derby di Puglia. Conte could actually thank Lecce for his new job: Bari’s previous coach, Giuseppe Materazzi, had unexpectedly resigned after losing 4-0 to them.

Conte wasn’t a gamble, though. Bari’s executives had decided within hours to sign him on thanks to his two short spells in Arezzo the season before.

The first spell could’ve, maybe should’ve killed his managerial career dead. The Tuscan club failed to win their first nine games and out went Conte in favour of another future Chelsea manager, Maurizio Sarri.

Luckily, Sarri didn’t do much better either, so in March 2007, with Arezzo last, Conte was brought back in. Something must’ve happened in those few jobless months because he came back swinging, bringing in his attacking 4-2-4 style and winning five games on the trot at one point. Arezzo ultimately went down on the final day despite winning 3-1, but Conte’s stock had risen.

Bari wasn’t quite the same job. They were outsiders for relegation, sure, but they had a perfectly capable squad and, more importantly, Conte had more time.

Sitting in front of the press at the Stadio San Nicola, he must’ve realised that he still had some convincing to do. “I believe in my qualities” he confidently said, before outlining that he didn’t want to be a relegation firefighter forever. No journalist in that room could’ve predicted that his Bari team would lift the Serie B trophy the following season, but Conte, being a serial winner as a player, probably knew inside that he would.

Conte mentioned two players in particular at his first press conference that would go on to be very important in his 2007/08 season.

One was Davide Lanzafame, then a young forward loaned from Juventus, and the other was Vincenzo Santoruvo, a striker just exiting his prime. Both would go on to form an important part of Conte’s four-man frontline, notching seven and six goals respectively.

The 4-2-4 may sound like a horribly unbalanced formation, but this attacking intensity worked. Most teams played catenaccio with five defenders, so Conte believed that an aggressive four-man frontline would allow Bari to stretch defenders wide open in order to find space inside, as well as allowing the team to press higher up the pitch. Counter-attacking was out of the window – Conte later said in 2016 that “I never even train counter-attacks. It’s not in my concept of football.” This was all about pressing your opponent into submission rather than waiting for them to make a mistake.

This often meant that goals were shared around rather than coming from one source. Lacking an out-and-out goalscorer, Conte’s 2007/08 Bari team had a number of low-scoring forwards. As well as Lanzafame and Santoruvo, Simone Cavalli scored seven under Conte.

Behind this forward line was a two-man midfield made up of a passer and a tackler. Alessandro Gazzi filled the latter role, while the former changed often.

With Jean-François Gillet playing the role of sweeper-keeper, the four at the back had a little more breathing room to press. Andrea Masiello was signed on loan to bring central defensive stability alongside Marco Esposito (as well as playing as a left-back) while Giovanni Marchese was also loaned in to play in the centre or on the right. True to Sacchi and Ancelotti’s total football beliefs, Conte’s defenders could always play more than one position when needed.

Though this approach started slowly, Bari soon hit their stride – although anything resembling a stride would be unacceptable for the demanding Conte. A 2-2 draw with Grosseto sparked an eight-match unbeaten run, including draws with play-off chasers Brescia and second-placed Bologna.

The highlight came in the Derby di Puglia. Lecce were flying high in fourth place, and the importance of the match wasn’t lost on Conte. Just like Lippi, one of his many mentors, he changed his formation to a 5-2-3, realising Lecce’s attacking strengths. Lanzafame won a penalty, which Massimo Bonnani converted, before setting up substitute Cavalli to win 2-1.

The season finished on a high with a 2-2 draw to champions Chievo Verona, with Cavalli and Santoruvo scoring. With Bari in 11th, having never dropped into the relegation zone, the season could be called a success, though with a bitter taste: Lecce went up via the play-offs. In Conte’s mind, despite being a Lecce native, this was unacceptable. Bari would have to go one better next season to end the humiliation.

Bari needed to become winners, although there were plenty of obstacles to that.

For starters, to echo the hated TV pundit, the team hadn’t scored enough and had let in too many. Thirty goals scored in Conte’s five months wasn’t too bad, but he needed a pure striker to knock a few in. Conceding 27 was a bigger problem – without a pre-season to up the fitness of his defenders and convert Gillet into a fully-fledged sweeper-keeper, there had been some teething issues at the back.

What’s more, Lanzafame had to go back to Juventus. Conte was a big fan of his, telling Gazzetta dello Sport: “He is explosive, he sniffs the goal, and imposes his speed outside the area. If he improves and learns he can become like Cristiano Ronaldo.” Lanzafame later returned in January 2009 for a six-month loan, playing an important role but ultimately fading from Italian football.

He remains one of those players only a manager like Conte could truly get the best out of – think Leonardo Bonucci at Juventus, or Victor Moses at Chelsea. As Sky Sports’ Augusto de Bartolo said: “Conte uses outside challenges to motivate his players to the maximum level – and demands unconditional loyalty.”

Thankfully, Conte was – and still is – an expert at putting teams together in a short period of time and imprinting his concept of football onto it, like some managerial MacGyver. At every club in which Conte has had a full season, he has either won the league or been promoted at the first attempt. If anything, he’s efficient with his time: he remarked in an interview with ESPN: “There are 24 hours in a day. I sleep five of them and spend three with my family. That leaves me 16 to work with.”

Defender Masiello was secured permanently, while the equally versatile Alessandro Parisi was brought in. In the middle, Daniele de Vezze was signed for his passing ability, slotting in alongside Gazzi. In that all-important forward line, Francesco Caputo came in, ultimately scoring 10 goals in 2008/09.

But two signings made by Conte were crucial in Bari’s title win that season. Most obviously, there was Barreto, a Brazilian striker who had impressed on loan at Treviso the season before his parent club, Udinese, obviously weren’t impressed enough, because Conte snapped him up in the summer of 2008, a signing that would pay back in the form of 25 league goals and 9 assists. More of a second striker than a classic centre-forward, Barreto could play all over the front line and was just as good at setting others up to score as he was at banging them in himself.

At the other end of the pitch was Andrea Ranocchia, a tall, powerful but young centre-forward loaned in from Genoa. Conte had given Ranocchia his professional debut at Arezzo, so he obviously believed in his talents.

Ranocchia didn’t really enter the side until the second half of the season but his performances were convincing enough to make Conte push Masiello out to the right. Ranocchia’s career would go much better than Lanzafame’s, the other youth prodigy of Conte’s, although perhaps not enough for his manager’s perfectionist liking: despite playing at Inter, Conte didn’t choose him in his Euro 2016 squad.

Though the season started off slowly, Bari went unbeaten in their first seven games. Losses to Sassuolo and Avellino followed, but things got back on track with a convincing 3-1 win over second-place Grosseto. Caputo bagged a hat-trick, first heading home from a Barreto free-kick before finishing it with another header, this time supplied by Masiello. The 4-2-4 formation was yielding high-scoring results.

Bari lost only two times more after December, and in the new year a 3-0 win over Avellino – Barreto scoring twice and Caputo once – signalled an uninterrupted stint at the top of the table. Promotion was confirmed on 8 May when Livorno lost to Triestina. The next day, 46,000 Bari fans filled the Stadio San Nicola to see Conte’s side draw 0-0 with Empoli. The league title was won soon after.

Just like his aggressive, fast-flowing football on the pitch, Conte had pressed his team so hard that they achieved a previously unthinkable goal in an almost-impossible timeframe.

In 2016, Italian journalist Giovanni Capuano called Conte “the closest thing to Marcello Lippi that Italian football has been able to produce.” Conte was his own man, for sure, but the comparisons with the World Cup-winning coach only piled up from this point onwards. Charisma, passion, meticulous planning, tactical flexibility – the similarities are undeniable.

Everything was going swimmingly for Conte, and what’s more it appeared an even bigger opportunity for him was coming. At his beloved Juventus, the board was unhappy with Claudio Ranieri’s lack of silverware. Everyone in Bari, even the club’s president Vincenzo Matarrese, thought that Conte was a frontrunner for the job – especially Conte himself. A few days after securing promotion, not even before the season was over, Conte told Il Sussidiario: “Who says that I’m not ready for Juventus because I’m too young? These are just clichés.”

The possibility of Conte managing his former employer of 13 years crept ever closer upon news that Ranieri had been sacked before the end of the season. All he had to do was wait for caretaker manager (and old teammate) Ciro Ferrara to bring Juve over the finish line and job would be all his.

Unfortunately, Ferrara won the two games he presided over, also winning over the board in the process. He was given the job instead.

Thought Conte agreed to a contract extension at Bari, it was clear that something wasn’t there for him. Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for a Serie A relegation battle – after all, the whole point of taking the Bari job was to dispel any image of him being a firefighter.

But it’s most likely that he had his heart set on the Bianconeri. That’s where his passion lay, not with Bari, and what is football without passion to Conte? Could the man known for constantly barking orders and gesticulating on the touchline, marching with the flow of play, really manage a club that he had lost a passion for?

Evidently not, because in June 2009, Conte cut ties with Bari and drifted off the radar.

After a few months with no job, which is hard to imagine Conte coping with considering the amount of time he dedicates to football, opportunity knocked again.

Atalanta had lost their first four matches in Serie A, leaving them dead last, and their manager Angelo Gregucci had been let go. It was a relegation job, sure, but it was a Serie A relegation job. So Conte took it in September 2009 and set to work implementing his trademark 4-2-4.

A few draws were ground out before 3-1 wins against Udinese and Parma came. Conte’s formula seemed to be working in Serie A.

But something was wrong. After heavy losses to Juventus and Cagliari, Conte did something very un-Conte-like. He didn’t change his approach.

Of course, Conte believed in his methods. In 2016, he told the Daily Mail: “I like to follow training sessions with my voice” – ergo, shouting – “to explain the reasons for my idea of football” but one of those ideas had always been tactical flexibility, that ingenious idea passed down from Lippi.

But something was different, because Conte didn’t change from 4-2-4 once. Maybe he felt that the Atalanta squad didn’t suit any other formation. Maybe he was just being stubborn in the face of growing fan resentment, hoping that, by sticking to his guns, he could improve the team’s fate and win the Ultras over.

Instead, a winless December came and went, and despite an impressive 1-1 draw with first-placed Inter, the Ultras weren’t happy.

After a 2-0 home loss to Napoli in January, the Ultras were incensed. Having booed their own team for the majority of the match, they swarmed around the changing room. First the players, then technical director Carlo Osti tried to call them down, but they were all met with the same demand: “Enough with words, we want facts.”

They wanted Conte.

Almost an hour after this fan blockade began, Conte came out – although he was a little too close for their liking. Conte went for them and was just barely held back by five policemen as the Ultras shouted “Go back to Turin, we’re not Juventus here.” He threatened to leave the club if the Ultras didn’t treat him better and allow him to leave the stadium. He ultimately escaped in a car, although not before another group of fans shouted him down.

Being a man of conviction, Conte did as he promised and resigned the next day. This time, his passion had gotten the better of him – instead of feeding it into his on-pitch style, he’d brought it to the wrong place: off of it, dealing a huge blow to his career.

Or so you would’ve thought. Instead, he was hired by Siena in the summer of 2010 to bring them back up to Serie A. Maybe his reputation wasn’t so damaged after all. At Siena, Conte would get what he lacked in Bergamo: time (just enough), resources (see: “time”), and, importantly, the loyalty of the fans and the board.

This was a sort of homecoming for Conte: it was here that he’d made his first foray into management as Luigi de Canio’s assistant in 2005/06. No time for sentiments though: they wouldn’t fit into his 16-hour workday.

Conte brought two players from his title-winning Bari side to Siena: Pedro Kamata, the trusty, energetic Congolese winger, and left-back Cristian Stellini, now his assistant manager. Goalkeeper Ferdinando Coppola was loaned in from AC Milan, though Conte knew him as a rare positive from his time at Atalanta.

Among other signings was a certain Ciro Immobile, a Juventus loanee, then 20-years-old, though he only ended up playing four times and scoring once.

With his team assembled at a moment’s notice, Conte’s Siena got off to a cracking start, unbeaten in their first nine games. Particularly cathartic was a 1-0 win over Atalanta, new signing Salvatore Mastronunzio scoring the only goal.

There was satisfaction from beating the team that had doubted him, but whether he admitted it or not, Conte did have a reason to thank Atalanta. That nightmare time in Bergamo had taught him the important of switching things up, so it was particularly poignant that Siena beat them in Conte’s now-trademark 3-5-2.

In a way, the 3-5-2 has the same aggressive principles as the 4-2-4: press high and wide to stretch the opposition out before passing to whoever’s in space, overwhelming the opposition. Siena’s three-man defence would start every attack, passing out from the back to one of these superhuman wing-backs tasked with providing chances for the two central strikers as well as helping the defence. The midfield took on defensive responsibilities as well as controlling the centre of the pitch to spread out passes around the field.

This wasn’t direct long-ball football, but it wasn’t possession-based either. A delicate balance between short passing and arching through-balls, just like Lippi, Trapattoni, and Zoff taught – just this time it was much more intense.

After a couple of losses in this system, Conte switched to a 4-2-4 and won 3-0, 3-1, and 4-1 in his next three games. This was the real Conte, not the temperamental one dogged by fan protest and unhelpful stubbornness the year before.

This didn’t mean that he stopped demanding utmost loyalty from his players, of course. After a loss before the winter break against Varese, Conte demanded his players pack their bags on Boxing Day before sending them off to Sicily for a harsh training camp.

That could push a footballer over the edge, but it had the opposite effect on Siena’s newly-built squad, bringing them closer to each other and their manager. Central midfielder Luca Marrone, who later played joined Conte at Juventus, told The Guardian in 2017: “Everything he does in preparation is done with maniacal precision and attention to detail. When you realise, by buying into it, you can win things, you follow.” Conte’s hour-long video analysis sessions were just one part of this preparation.

Siena kept going and going, eventually hitting a five-match winning streak. A 5-0 win over fourth-placed Varese was a stunning example of the attacking displays 4-2-4 could produce. Main goalscorer Emanuele Calaiò netted twice, alongside Bari loanee (and title-winner under Conte) Caputo, forward Reginaldo, and midfielder Franco Brienza.

Promotion was sealed comfortably, but there was still a twinge of disappointment. On the final day, Siena lost 3-2 to Albino Leffe when a win would’ve snatched the Serie B title from Atalanta’s grasp. Conte ultimately had the last laugh, his fine managerial display launching him to his coveted position as Juventus manager the next season, but that defeat must’ve stayed in his mind for a while.

Even worse, in the public eye it stayed with him for five years. During Conte’s inaugural season with Juventus, former Siena player Filippo Carobbio claimed that assistant manager Stellini (now alongside Conte at Juventus) had thrown the match – and that Conte had known about it. It seemed unbelievable that Conte would sit by and allow a chance to one-up his old employers go untaken, but Conte was given a 10-month touchline ban.

Conte disputed this throughout his time as Juventus and Italy manager. ESPN’s James Horncastle in 2016 wrote that Conte “doesn’t have DNA made up of double helixes but instead a series of Ws”, both a defence of his innocence and a reason why he fought the case for so long. He was determined to win it, just as he was determined to win every match, and eventually he did, being acquitted of all charges in 2016.

Just like his old masters, Conte has become a winner. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it all started with a failed relegation battle in Serie B all those years ago.

BY SAM BROOKE

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