The Hammer

Antonio Conte’s relentless nature

Antonio Conte

Author: Thor Haugstad

Antonio Conte considers defeat to be a virtual state of death. He was born in Lecce, in southern Italy, but spent thirteen years immersed in the uncompromising winning culture at Juventus, where an allergy to failure was driven deep into his being. Conte cannot change now; whatever he is involved in, the obligation to win is pathological. He named his daughter Vittoria. When Juve lost the Serie A title on the last day of the 1999/2000 season, he didn’t sleep for five days. Andrea Pirlo describes his obsessiveness as an “inner torment without a start or end point”, and also regards him as tactically superior to Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti. “I can say that Conte is a genius,” Pirlo says. “Like all men who possess genius, he is a little mad.”

Conte says that only winning can make him relaxed and at peace. In order to achieve it, he stays busy and at war. “There are twenty-four hours in a day,” he says, according to ESPN. “I sleep five of them and devote three to my family. That leaves me sixteen to work with.” James Horncastle writes that Conte’s wife Elisabetta can awake at night to find him downstairs glued to the television set, pausing and rewinding footage. “I know he is up until 3-4am in the morning, studying videos, looking at errors, studying the opposition of the next game,” says Pirlo. “It is a good job Elisabetta is such an understanding wife.”

In 2012, Conte got a four-month touchline ban for allegedly failing to report match fixing while at Siena. “It drove him absolutely crazy that he couldn’t pop his head into the dressing room,” Pirlo writes in his 2013 autobiography, before adding in brackets: “Let’s just say he ended up there a few times by mistake.” Back home, Elisabetta reportedly bought a bench for him to sit on in the living room. As put by the biographer Alessandro Alciato: “Conte doesn’t like to work. He needs to work.”

The fervency of his personality is felt by his players. Conte demands constant effort. Team-talks are filled with words such as sacrifice, sweat, pain. At Juve, he told his players to “eat grass”. When coaching Italy, he wanted his wing-backs to “come off the pitch spitting blood”. On one occasion, according to Horncastle, Mattia Destro had once been required to wake up at 5am to return to Conte’s training camp. It was his wedding night. “If it were down to me,” Conte smiled, “he would have already been on his way back after cutting the cake.”

Conte is not known for giving instructions in a playful manner. He wages a ceaseless war against complacency, and is not so much wary of it as hellbent on chasing it away before it gets a chance to arrive. At Juve, Pirlo rued picking the locker in front of the dressing room door, since at half-time, a raging Conte would slam full bottles of water into the wall. Pirlo called it the most dangerous spot in Turin. There could be bedlam even when Juve were winning. “He’s never happy—there’s always some small detail that’s not quite right in his mind,” Pirlo writes.

“That was passion,” Conte said later. “Because when you are a coach, and there is the break during the game, and you are winning but you realise there is danger, it is important to keep the tension very high.”

One of the stories that best illustrates his fear of distractions took place before his final league game with Juve. They were playing Cagliari at home. The scudetto had long been sealed, and all a win would do was up the points total from ninety-nine to a hundred and two. According to Alciato’s book Metodo Conte, Conte and the players were about to start a video review session when Gianluigi Buffon came in alongside chief executive Guiseppe Marotta.

“Excuse me for one moment, boss,” Buffon said. “The director just wants to clear up the question of bonuses owed to the team after the title win.”

Conte went mental. He chased everyone out of the room, and admonished Buffon. “I don’t want to hear another word,” Conte screamed. “From you, of all people, I would never have expected such a thing.

“Bonuses… You’re a disappointment, a defeat from the moment you open your mouth. Just like all the rest of these half-wits.”

Stirred to action, Juve went out and won 3-0.

Conte grew up in Lecce in Calcio’s heyday. He was twelve when Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain. In Serie A, the arrivals of Diego Maradona and Michel Platini helped make it the strongest league in the world. Conte idolised Marco Tardelli and Giuseppe Furino, who was nicknamed Furia—‘Fury’. Both played for Juve at the time, which happened to be Conte’s favourite team.

At school, he was a good student, and earned praise from his teachers. In his spare time, he played for Juventina Lecce, coached by his dad Cosimino. Conte and his friends did not have the finest facilities, but they made the most of it, climbing trees (“we were like squirrels”) and playing football. “We played on a churchyard full of pot-holes, but for us it was like the San Siro,” Conte told El País, according to the Daily Mail. “There was a great spirit of adapting to the conditions; all we needed was a ball.”

Conte later joined Lecce alongside a player named Sandro Morello. The transfer fee was two hundred lire and eight footballs. He debuted at sixteen under Eugenio Fascetti, and became a key player under Carlo Mazzone, even though he only scored once for the club. In an interview with FIFA 1904, Conte would name Fascetti and Mazzone as the two coaches with the most influence on his career.

The childhood dream turned reality in 1991, when he joined Juve. Giovanni Trapattoni had just embarked on his second stint in Turin, and had inhered a squad that featured Roberto Baggio, Toto Schillaci, Stefano Tacconi. Conte’s first season was, in his own words, “very bad”. At twenty-one, he was intimidated by his heroes. “I remember that I didn’t say a single word,” he later said, according to FourFourTwo. “There was the great Trapattoni. There was Roberto Baggio. I was very emotional. I was a player-fan.”

Only in the second year did Conte develop the confidence to play regularly. He was never the most gifted, even by his own admission, but compensated with leadership, intelligence and hard running. By the time Italy flew to the US for the 1994 World Cup, he had done enough to sneak into the squad, having received his international debut on 27 May. He would later be overlooked for all but one tournament—Euro 2000—but the lessons of 1994 would prove invaluable.

At that time, the Azzurri coach was Arrigo Sacchi. Sacchi’s manic style is part of Calcio folklore: every chat centred on football, every minute was spent correcting, talking tactics. Alessandro Costacurta once told Sky Italia that when the players were about to sleep, Sacchi would knock on the doors of their hotel rooms for a final chat about the next match. Exhausted, several players would pretend to be asleep.

Not even as darkness fell did Sacchi give it a rest. “At USA ’94, we sometimes heard Arrigo yelling in the night,” Conte recalled, according to Football Italia.

“He said: ‘Diagonally, move, cover…’ He dreamt of us at night.”

If Sacchi drove some players mad, Conte embraced his erudition. He once likened such international call-ups to taking an exam. There is a story of how the squad would avoid sitting next to Sacchi at dinners, so as to duck the football talk. The exception was Conte, who would wait until everyone had sat down, then take the only empty seat—which was, naturally, next to Sacchi. Conte would only play two games in that tournament, but paid tribute to Sacchi when he had become a manager. “I learned a lot,” he said.

Back at Juve, the summer brought with it a change of coach. As Lippi replaced Trapattoni, the winning habit returned. Juve won three scudetti and reached three Champions League finals in four years, winning one. (Their methods over this period would later be scrutinised in a doping trial based on allegations made by Zdeněk Zeman.) Lippi made way for Ancelotti in early 1999, but returned to win league titles in 2002 and 2003. When Lippi left in 2004, Conte retired too, having served thirteen years as a combative midfielder, including several as captain.

By that time, Conte had become a competitive beast. The dressing room under Lippi and Ancelotti housed Paolo Montero, Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps, Ciro Ferrara. Winning was all; the end justified the means. “That was some dressing room, hard to the point of brutality,” Ancelotti said, according to The Times. “It had a roster of bad boys.” Particularly tough was Montero, whose record of sixteen red cards in Serie A still stands untouched.

It says a lot about Conte that he gained the authority and respect to lead such a group. Along the way, he soaked up knowledge. “All the time he was watching and learning,” Ancelotti wrote in the Telegraph. “I knew that he was going to be a coach one day.”

Conte did plan to enter management. He studied sports science at the University of Foggia, enrolled at Coverciano and had a brief spell as assistant to Luigi De Canio at Siena. But he would not do it at any price. “I’m giving myself a few years’ time to join a big club,” he said. “If I don’t succeed, I will spend much more time with my family.”

In 2006, he got a break at Arezzo in Serie B. It started badly. He was sacked in October, after nine games and zero wins. Yet his successor did not fare much better, and Conte was reinstalled in March. This time he won five on the trot and improved the form greatly, though it was still not enough to prevent relegation on the last day of the season.

In between those appointments, Conte had travelled to the Netherlands to study a coach he respected highly. It was Louis van Gaal. Taking Elisabetta with him, he attended an open training session at AZ Alkmaar, but did not summon the nerve to approach Van Gaal. When he returned the next day, having manned himself up, the training session was closed. That did not stop Conte from finding a gap from where he could catch a glimpse, but then a security guard tapped him on the shoulder. (Conte would describe him as “looking like Ronald Koeman, but nasty”.)

“Are you spying on Mister Van Gaal?” the security guard asked.

“I’m not spy… player, old player… Juventus! I want to see… training,” Conte said, according to a profile written by Will Beckman.

The faltering dialogue made Elisabetta laugh.

“At that moment,” Conte writes in his autobiography, according to The Times, “I decided my homework would include a course in English.”

Half a year passed before Conte returned to the bench. In December 2007, he joined Bari and sealed a safe mid-table position in Serie B. The next season, they became champions.

Already at that point, Conte was linked with Juve. There was also talk of a contract extension at Bari, which seemed fair given his achievements. Yet Conte ended up with neither: Juve hired Ferrara, while Bari withdrew their offer. He instead join Atalanta in September, where things descended into chaos. In January, he was confronted by angry ultras during a home game. The next day he resigned, leaving Atalanta in the relegation zone.

The failure forced Conte down to Serie B, where he joined Siena in May 2010. They had just been relegated, and the brief was immediate promotion. Conte installed an adventurous 4-2-4 system based on quick passing and high pressing, plus a punishing training regime. Just before the Winter break, they lost the last game of the year; when the players returned, writes Horncastle, they were told to pack their bags. Conte had arranged a training camp four hundred miles away, in Sicily. They spent the rest of the holiday doing running tests.

Whatever grumblings the squad might have had, it worked. Siena got promoted. The next summer, Conte joined Juve.

Juve were a mess when Conte arrived. After Calciopoli had led to relegation in 2006, they had returned to Serie A under Deschamps and come third under Claudio Ranieri, before a second-place season was followed by consecutive seventh-place finishes under Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni and Luigi Delneri. That was a scandal for an institution like Juve. Certainly, it did not adhere to the club motto based on the famous words of Giampiero Boniperti: “Winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that counts.”

What did help Conte were the recent boardroom changes. After Calciopoli, the club had appointed Jean-Claude Blanc as chief executive. While the Frenchman was key to the new Juventus Stadium, he had also overseen the disastrous 2009/10 season, while sporting director Alessio Secco had produced a mixed bag of transfers. In May 2010, Blanc took a different role to leave the main responsibility with Andrea Agnelli, son of Umberto Agnelli, and the fourth member of the Agnelli family to run the club after Edoardo, Gianni and Umberto. His appointment of Delneri failed, but Agnelli made a crucial move in replacing Secco with Marotta.

Those changes put the foundations in place. When Conte came, Juve were moving into their new stadium, which provided an enormous financial advantage, seeing as the match-day revenue went straight into their own coffers; all other Serie A clubs played—and still play—in run-down grounds owned by the state. Meanwhile, Marotta had signed Arturo Vidal and Mirko Vučinić and made one of the greatest coups in Calcio history: Pirlo on a free from Milan.

The defensive building bricks were already there: Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci. But at the time, these were still players who had finished seventh twice. Conte wanted to shake the players into life and instil the winning mentality of the 90s. On the first day of their training camp, he convened the players.

“Lads, we’ve finished seventh each of the last two seasons,” he said, according to Pirlo. “Crazy stuff; absolutely appalling. I’ve not come here for that. It’s time we stopped being crap.”

The force of his personality was evident. Pirlo writes that Conte needed just a few words to win him over. The squad was soon made to train on the occasional day off, and those lacking effort were ostracised. Eljero Elia got just four league appearances in his debut season and was shipped off next summer, claiming Conte had not even wanted to speak to him.

By November, Juve topped the table. Conte had said that he wanted the players to become “nasty”—it was better to win ugly than lose beautifully. The players were almost scared into action. When Juve beat Internazionale at the Giuseppe Meazza, Conte switched the hardworking Simone Pepe from the right wing to the left in order to track Maicon. “Simone is a versatile player and he was excellent,” said Conte, according to the Guardian. “Plus I have a secret: I have a bat with lots of nails in it. When Pepe’s intensity drops, I threaten him with it.”

Tactical flexibility proved crucial as well. Conte initially wanted to replicate the 4-2-4, but realised that Pirlo and Vidal were not suited to a midfield duo. He switched to 4-3-3, then settled on 3-5-2. Pirlo pulled the strings behind Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, while two wing-backs supported the strikers. When Pirlo was marked, Bonucci would step up as an auxiliary playmaker. A template had been created.

Juve were a reflection of their manager. They were intense, though, pressing opponents and attacking at pace. Above all, they won. In fact, they became the third Italian team to complete a top-flight season undefeated, following Perugia in 1978/79 and Milan in 1991/92. Neither of those two did it in a twenty-team league. “The success was all his, a triumph of bloody-mindedness that went beyond everyone’s expectations,” Pirlo wrote of Conte. “It really couldn’t have gone any other way, given the example we had in front of us every single day. Conte was like a man possessed, the very essence of Juventus burned deep into his soul.”

Earlier, in April, as Juve and Milan fought for the title, Conte had held a twelve-minute team-talk. Based on speculation from the Italian press, Football Italia reported that it might have started like this:

“People are flooding us with praise right now, but that sends shivers through me. Why? Because I have fear, I have fear, I have fear that someone here will start to relax. There is applause and a consensus, but what is the reality? The reality is the pitch, the reality is sweat, the reality is sacrifice. That is what has led us to this point of the championship and we still haven’t done anything yet…”

Pirlo writes that Conte also used to hang up newspapers articles in the dressing room in order to provoke the players. They would feature pundits or opponents talking trash about Juve. The most explosive passages were highlighted in red. At least once a week, Conte summoned the squad for a press review. For instance, he’d mention that someone had said that Juve had weak spots.

“It’s rubbish,” the players would respond.

Another might have said that Juve would hit a bad patch soon.

“That’s a load of crap as well, coach.”

Someone else had called Juve the most unlovable team in the world.

“He’s right about that,” said Conte. “When we see him out on the pitch, we need to thank him for saying it. It’s compliment: it means we’re back.”

The following season, Juve maintained high standards. When they lost at Inter in November, they had clocked up an unbeaten run of forty-nine league games. It had started on 15 May 2011—before Conte had arrived.

Conte was not on the touchline when the defeat took place. He had been banned for ten months over an alleged failure to report attempted match fixing. He vehemently denied it: not only was he furious that people saw him as unethical, but the fix also involved Siena slowing down on purpose—an act he would never tolerate in any circumstance. The sentence was later reduced to four months. Conte could do training during the week, but could neither stay on the touchline nor communicate with the bench.

It was a testing time. Conte had no output for his emotions, and Pirlo said he went particularly nuts on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sunday, when games were played. He influenced whatever he could. While the duty to lead the team went to his loyal assistants, Angelo Alessio and Massimo Carrera (whom Conte knew from the 1991/92 Juve squad), Pirlo said they were mere surrogates; even when they conducted post-match interviews, the words and ideas were supplied by Conte.

On 9 December, Conte made his return away at Palermo. The newspapers called it ‘Conte Day’. Sky reportedly put a designated camera to track him for the entire game. After Juve had won, Conte spoke of “four months of pain” and expressed pride at how Juve were still four points clear. “I had to deal with this situation and I think it was formative in every sense,” he said, according to the Guardian. “The team has responded in an extraordinary way. It shows I have special players and a special team. And maybe I am special too.”

No opponent would catch Juve from there. They marched to another title, finishing nine points above Napoli. Amid the celebrations, the players threw Conte into an ice bath.

Conte’s methods were by now well established. In some ways, they combined teachings from Sacchi as well as Van Gaal. The Sacchi influence was evident in the exercises and the attention to detail. In training, Juve would play eleven versus nobody. The players would shift positions in order to achieve the perfect distance between the lines. No matter how much they practiced, Conte always managed to find corrections. “Allergic to error,” was Pirlo’s diagnosis.

The process was aided by Conte’s love for video analysis. At Juve, according to Alciato, he had every training session filmed, and would dispatch his brother Gianluca to the press box to get a better view of matches. “Video analysis is big for me,” Conte recently told the Daily Mail. “Through video you see good things and bad things and can show players how to improve. Not because I want to find blame. Only to improve them. It is very important. Sometimes, twenty or thirty minutes with the video is more important than three, four or five training sessions.”

Above all, Conte showed his predilection for predetermined movements. He is not a great believer in individual expression. Attacks are rehearsed in advance; like trains on a railway, the players run on certain tracks. “Conte has the ability to make you memorise movements and tactics very quickly,” said Mattia De Sciglio, according to Football Italia. “So if you are having a moment of difficulty on the field, you know that one of your teammates will be in that position.”

This is the idea. Conte wants to provide automatic solutions so that the players know what to do with the ball. “I did not have Zinédine Zidane or Roberto Baggio’s talent as a player…” Conte said in 2013, according to Football Italia. “When I was a player, my efforts and work-rate, my willingness to sacrifice fitness and humility, made up for my lack of pure talent. But sometimes, if I didn’t find a team-mate next to me, I might lose the ball. As a manager, my first thought from day one was that I wanted to find solutions for my players when the ball reached them, as I could not.”

This partly explains why Conte favours grafters ahead of wizards. If the players follow instructions, Conte believes the automatic movements will produce chances. This is similar to Van Gaal, who favours a slow but formulaic model in which creativity is not provided by individuals, but the system. The scope for self-expression is narrow. The same is true of Rafa Benítez, a Sacchi disciple, whose trainings feature comparable rehearsals. Incidentally, Conte, Van Gaal and Benítez were all defensive midfielders who were neither quick nor particularly skilful.

In 2013, many wondered whether Juve could maintain their consistency. The pre-season had been dreadful, but Marotta had delivered Carlos Tévez on the cheap. Sure enough, they flew out of the blocks, and, by March, their 1-0 win at home to Fiorentina looked to have all but wrapped up another title. Conte could have been delighted. Instead, he bemoaned inefficiency and slopping defending. Earlier, in January, he had outwitted Roma to pull Juve ahead. But he said: “The danger of this eight-point lead is that it makes us too comfortable.”

The season ended in historic style. Having beaten Cagliari on the final day, Juve had a hundred and two points, becoming the first side in Serie A to break the hundred-point barrier. They had won the scudetto three times in a row for the first time since 1935. To this day, their points record thrones above those in the Premier League (ninety-five, set by Chelsea in 2004/05) and La Liga (one hundred, set by Real Madrid in 2011/12 and equalled by Barcelona in 2012/13). Juve also won every home game. No Italian side had ever managed that in a twenty-team top flight.

In the aftermath, uncertainty enveloped Conte’s future. When he returned from holiday, he resigned on the first day of pre-season.

It was a shock. Many believe Conte felt he had taken Juve as far as he could. It seemed impossible to improve in the league. In Europe, Juve had left much to be desired, getting hammered by Bayern Munich before suffering an embarrassing group-stage exit. Some observers meant the three-man defence was outdated in Europe. For his part, Conte appeared to blame budget constrains, saying that “you cannot eat at a €100 restaurant with just €10 in your pocket”.

Juve’s reaction to the resignation denoted the shrewd and efficient manner in which the club has been run under Agnelli. Within twenty-four hours, they had announced the appointment of Massimiliano Allegri. The move was as surprising as it was unpopular. Allegri was the man who had let Pirlo leave Milan, and was quickly accused of lacking Conte’s charisma. When his car rolled through the gates in Turin, Juve fans met up to kick it, spit at it and pelt it with eggs.

That Allegri has since won two scudetti and reached a Champions League final has recontextualised the Conte years. There were bargains to find in the restaurant. Some feel Allegri has given Juve the tactical nous to cope with top teams, as evident when they beat Madrid in 2015 and troubled Bayern in 2016. Critical voices have portrayed Conte as more of a drill sergeant than a calculated strategist. Some notable comparisons have certainly emerged. Already in August 2014, Marchisio told Tuttosport that Juve were playing with more freedom. A year later, according to Football Italia, Barzagli told La Stampa: “Conte was often our motivator, but Allegri has worked on tactics and management and what has materialised is this team.”

Also up front were changes noticed. “With Allegri, I have more freedom of movement than under Conte,” Tévez told El País in 2015via Football Italia. “Under the previous coach, we played with two strikers, in fixed positions and close together. Under Allegri, we only have a fixed position when we don’t have the ball, but we’re more free to play the way we want to play when we attack.”

Conte had initially planned to travel and study languages while waiting for a top club. But then Italy came along. The World Cup under Cesare Prandelli had been disastrous, and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) pulled off a coup by landing the most coveted coach in Italy. They made Conte the third-highest paid international coach in the world, and needed the help of sponsors to afford the salary.

“I’m bringing my mentality here, I live for winning,” Conte said. “The difference between victory and defeat is for me the same as between life and death.”

It would not be an easy ride. Italy reached France, but played stale football and changed systems often. En route, Conte cancelled training camps because clubs refused to release their players. He lamented the low number of Italian players in Serie A. At one point, when Marchisio suffered a serious injury in Italy training, he was accused by Juve of working the players too hard. Juve fans also sent him death threats. Already within the first six months, there had been rumours that he might quit.

A few months before the Euros, Conte had grown restless at the lack of daily involvement. “I find it too hard to stay in the garage,” he told the press. “In the garage, you get the scent of the car; the tires, the engine oil, but not that of the grass, of the field.” If that sparked accusations of disrespect towards the job, it did not help that his deal with Chelsea was confirmed before the tournament.

That Conte still succeeded in France is a testimony to his approach. He had lost Marchisio and Marco Verratti to injury, and, since he overlooked indisciplined players regardless of their gifts, the final squad was eventually described as one of the least talented in decades. Yet he trusted his rehearsed moves, which gave the tactical sessions extra importance. In Montpellier, Italy’s training camp was reportedly encircled by barbed wire and security guards accompanied by Rottweilers.

The subsequent 2-0 win over Belgium saw Conte hailed as the finest coach at the tournament. Italy later produced a tactical masterclass to beat Spain. They showed everything Conte had preached: superb organisation, relentless pressing and attacks that looked as if they could have been carried out blindfolded. On the touchline, Conte barked instructions and pointed to where he wanted his players to press. “It’s more than a month that we’ve been working tactically, technically, mentally, and we’ve been trying to surprise everybody,” he said afterwards. “I think we’ve succeeded to some extent.”

Only penalties stopped Italy from beating Germany in the quarter-finals. Conte returned to Italy with pride restored.

After just a week of holidays, Conte returned to work. When he was unveiled at Chelsea, he spoke in impressive English. In pre-season, in California, he coached for six hours a day. Before long, he was hoarse. He told journalists he had to take lozenges.

“I’m shouting too much,” he smiled.

In the games, Chelsea looked more aggressive than what is normal in pre-season. Against Liverpool, they sat back to protect a 1-0 win. In the second half, Cesc Fàbregas flew into a tackle and got a straight red—the only dismissal to occur in any of the games between the seventeen teams participating in the International Champions Cup. According to ESPN figures, no team at the tournament committed more fouls than Chelsea.

Through it all, Conte stood on the touchline, screaming incessantly, sweating through his club polo shirt, losing his voice. “Conte is a hammer,” Bonucci had said at the Euros, according to Football Italia. “When it comes to training or a game, a friendly, a qualifier or a big tournament match, he is always the same.”

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