On the eve of Juventus securing their fourth successive Serie A title defence in August 2014, Antonio Conte made his feelings known. He couldn’t carry on. Conte, a former midfielder who had spent ten years with the Bianconeri, had built something special. Faltering years in the aftermath of the calciopoli match-fixing scandal had seen the city of Milan become Italian football’s dominant force; first through Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho’s Inter, and then Max Allegri’s AC Milan.
When Conte turned to Turin in the summer of 2011, he inherited a project. Juventus hadn’t officially won a title since 2003, after the scandal stripped them of two, and they had been floundering since promotion from Serie B despite a hefty points deduction, their true punishment. Conte’s energy and intensity, plus the arrival of Andrea Pirlo on a free transfer, made the difference; Juve ended that season unbeaten and as champions.
Two years on from there, a disagreement with the board saw him cut ties. The foundations he’d built from — including Pirlo, a solid three-man defence of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci and the energetic Arturo Vidal — were strong enough for the club to continue on without him.
Paul Pogba’s development after arriving from Manchester United as a teenager, was incredible. He was the catalyst for that team’s initial and subsequent success both with and without Conte. Ironically, given that he had led AC Milan to their last student to in 2011 and wilfully offloaded Pirlo, Allegri stepped into Conte’s shoes and carried on his success; he led Juve to two Champions League finals in 2015 and 2017. They have won the last nine scudetto championships.
The raging fire within Conte had already proved to be both his driving force and potential undoing, but the best coaches will always ask their bosses to take the rough with the smooth. His next stop was the Italian national team, who had been largely struggling for identity since winning the 2006 World Cup; two failures to qualify for following tournaments were offset by decent performances at the European Championships in 2008 and 2012, but when Conte led them in the summer of 2016, his impact was obvious.
The Azzurri had adopted his preferred three-man defence with wingbacks, and their energy levels were only matched by their coach on the sidelines. Galvanising an international team to play in your image is no mean feat, and although success wasn’t forthcoming and his stint was only short — he’d already agreed to take charge of Chelsea the following season prior to that summer’s Euros — Conte had again showed just how good a coach he really was.
When he walked into Stamford Bridge, he inherited a supremely odd situation. His new team were both recent Premier League champions, having won the title in 2015 under Jose Mourinho, and a fraught group in need of a fresh voice after a disastrous season which saw the players completely fall out with Mourinho while sat in 16th the previous December. Guus Hiddink steered them to 10th but Conte’s reign could clearly go one of two ways. Talent was no issue; Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were all still at the peak of their powers but there were fears that Conte’s in-your-face style would cause further ructions.
Instead, it went the other way; Chelsea were crowned champions again in his first season. The 2016/17 campaign was billed as the year Manchester would become the epicentre of the Premier League title race, with Pep Guardiola at City and Mourinho at United. But, again armed with his 3-4-3 system, Conte came out on top against both; a 4-0 win on Mourinho’s first return to Stamford Bridge felt like a seminal moment.
A club which had been under his spell for so long felt freed by Conte; the crowd were chanting his name and, like a conductor to an orchestra, he was guiding them in the right direction, much to Mourinho’s annoyance. The Italian once again felt untouchable that season, just as he had once upon a time at Juve; his tactical philosophy was the talk of the town.
Soon enough, though, cracks began to show; after reinvigorating the form of Diego Costa, Conte sent him a text message telling him he was surplus to requirements before the dust had even settled on their achievement. It was another example of the negatives his confrontational approach could bring; Costa, who had been subject to huge interest from the Chinese Super League, went on strike before returning to former club Atletico Madrid in January, while Fabregas was cast aside, too.
Missing out on the top four in 2017/18 proved to be the end of Conte, but the most impressive thing about him was that, again, his system was more important than any one player when it came to his team’s top performances. Victor Moses had come in from the cold to play a vital role in the title run. Signing N’Golo Kante from Leicester City upon arrival was a superb piece of business, too.
Conte is now back in Italy, where he was always more comfortable, and is on the brink of breaking Juve’s dominance with their rivals, Inter. The Nerazzurri had suffered a similar fate to the club they are looking to usurp before Conte’s arrival; cast off from title races and European qualification. Now, they are on the brink of a first scudetto in 11 years, having reached and lost in the Europa League final.
Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez have formed a strike partnership unrivalled anywhere in Serie A and Nicolo Barella has become key in midfield, but just as with Juve, Italy and Chelsea, Conte has been the most important piece in the puzzle.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing at San Siro, there have been arguments and speculation. History suggests it could all end in tears, but Inter are now a quintessentially Conte team, and their resurgence is proof that, warts and all, he is among the best coaches and Europe, not just the most underrated.
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