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joetweedie | February 25, 2016

Antonio Conte

The Man to Rebuild Chelsea


It would be surprising, at this point, if Chelsea did not appoint Antonio Conte as our next permanent manager. The media speculation has gathered pace and correlation among reports, sources and information is developing. All signs intimate that the Gli Azzurri boss will grace the Chelsea dugout next season. Chelsea's history with Italians is overwhelmingly positive. Vialli, Zola, Ancelotti and Di Matteo: their names forever woven into the tapestry of Chelsea Football Club. Like incredibly well-made pasta some things just work.

CARLOS TEVEZ:
I think he's already on the same level [as Sir Alex Ferguson]. He's not lacking anything. He shows that in every game and in every competition he's involved in. He's a top, top coach.

Michael Steele / Getty Images

Chelsea and its association with the King's Road conjures up a certain level of sentiment. A fashionable, iconoclastic part of London that is sartorially elegant and refined. Gianfranco Zola embodied that style as a player: an artistic genius who treated the ball like an extension of his body. Moreover, Roberto Di Matteo provided some of the defining moments in Chelsea's history both as a player and manager. His celebration with Eddie Newton on the touchline of the Camp Nou personified that unique bond Chelsea has with overseas players who get it. The image of Robbie clutching the European Cup in his immaculate Dolce & Gabbana suit was about as Chelsea as you could imagine.

There is an inherent synergy that exists between Chelsea and Italy. Something that Antonio Conte will look to tap into and exploit. The man credited with rebuilding Juventus after a tumultuous period in their history will look to replicate that success with Chelsea. Conte brings the same level of desire that admirers of José Mourinho will love. His will to win, drive, determination and ferocity are qualities that lend themselves to Special One comparisons. Unlike the post-Madrid version of Mourinho, who appeared tired and not quite as we remembered, Conte does not seem to antagonise his squad in the same fashion. The contrary is more likely to happen; Conte seems to breed confidence and inspire his players.

GIANLUIGI BUFFON:
I must say, though, that Antonio Conte is definitely the best coach I've worked with. In a short space of time he has managed to breathe new life into a team that in two seasons could do no better than seventh place. And he was immediately successful.

This is a man who is obsessed with football: tactics, patterns of play and most importantly his players. A large part of Antonio Conte's fallout at Juventus centred around his displeasure at the extent of their pre-season travels. I understand the commercial pressures placed on the club to engage in world tours, but surely this summer Chelsea will look at a less is more approach? Given that Conte would only join up post Euro 2016 can we afford to be playing in Australia, Canada and America? Will we be having another friendly days before the season kicks off?

From a playing perspective Conte is certainly fascinating. A reputation for primarily using a 3-5-2 is largely founded in his success at Juventus. However, Conte used around six formations while at I Bianconeri. The variety in his approach and flexibility are hallmarks of a manager who crafts a system to suit his players. While he generally settled on a 3-5-2 Conte has used a 4-2-4, 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 3-3-4 and variations of 5-3-2 in the past.

I like how Conte spoke about his love of the 4-2-4 formation and in turn revealed his mentality:

We reached this situation gradually, putting in two attacking wide men and two strikers. You know this is a style of football that I like. I used it at Bari and Siena, winning the Serie B titles. I wanted to do it at Juventus too, but didn’t have the players suited to this tactic."

Unlike coaches who have a set way of playing Conte does not attempt to pigeonhole players into unsuitable roles. Conte builds his tactics around what is available. For example, do Chelsea truly suit a 4-2-3-1? I particularly liked Conte's openness concerning the inability to replicate an approach that worked at Bari and Siena with Juventus. Without true wingers the tactic was never likely to succeed, as such he chose to explore a system that focused on Juventus' strength in central areas with support by willing wingbacks. This eye for detail saw Juventus return to prominence.

Other Candidates – Is Conte the best available?

The obvious place to start is by looking at Pep Guardiola. Perhaps the worst kept secret in football was finally revealed when Guardiola confirmed that he was to take over Manchester City for the 2016/17 season. The Spaniard leaves Bayern Munich to become, I would imagine, the best paid coach in world football. Were Chelsea contenders? Have we in fact dodged a bullet? Would the rebuilding process at Chelsea have been something out of Guardiola's comfort zone?

Guardiola is undoubtedly a ridiculously talented football coach. Anyone who thinks otherwise clearly has not seen how one man has essentially redefined football over the past 5-10 years. The idea that he somehow needs to turn Bolton into Barcelona to "prove himself" is absurd. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Guardiola likes managing front runners and teams at the peak of their powers. For this reason, he may not have entertained managing Chelsea. He managed arguably the greatest club side in history and then took over Bayern Munich who had just won the Champions League (something he has yet to achieve there, but may well do this season).

PAUL POGBA:
He told me, "With me, there's no youth, it's the best who plays. If you think you can establish yourself here, come, and we'll see if you're able to do it, show us what you can do." He pushed me, he struck where it was needed to convince me. I like being given challenges like that. I like indirect provocation. That's my goal: to be the best in my position, then the best in Europe and then the world.

Valerio Pennicino / Getty Images

Given the level of rebuilding Chelsea require, does Guardiola therefore come to mind as a coach who would be a perfect fit for us? It is not an obvious answer. Tactically Guardiola is incredible to witness. The unique way he coaches and deploys players is cerebral. But I have reservations about him rebuilding a side who are far off the level he is usually comfortable working with.

While there has been a tangible push to create a squad hand crafted for Guardiola the individual pieces are underwhelming. For everything we know about Guardiola we have no illustration of him taking a team in need of significant work and taking them to a level far above what anyone felt possible. He remains one of the world's elite, but his particular set of skills may not translate quite as we would hope to this set of players.

I certainly look upon with interest at how Guardiola handles City in the Premier League. He may very well destroy the league - but this is expected. Anything but a title win is surely a failure at this point? City have gone all in and are looking to hit a royal flush. We may, in fact, look back a year from now and wish we could have appointed him. Yet, my opinion remains that for where we are right now Guardiola is not the right fit.

Diego Simeone is another candidate who has seemingly been appointed Chelsea manager at least fifty times now. What the Argentinean has achieved at Atlético Madrid is astounding. To break the dominance of a two-team league is one of European football's biggest achievements in the modern era. A wonderfully passionate coach, whose team commit dogmatically to his philosophy and are selfless in their execution. Atlético Madrid may presently be a better side than Chelsea, but Chelsea would only suffer trying to imitate them.

I know there is a section of Chelsea fans who would welcome Simeone's disciplinarian ways as some sort of punishment to the players who downed tools. Simeone would "whip them into shape". But we have been here before and with a better version of Simeone. Why sack José Mourinho to bring in a manager cut from the same cloth? Simeone's methods are barely removed from Mourinho. Atlético Madrid's agrarian style of play certainly is effective, but that largely reflects the character of the squad.

Realistically if you have enjoyed Leicester's kick'n'rush style of play then you would equally love Simeone. Admittedly I am generalising Leicester, but by and large this is what they are. Atlético Madrid are a team who play direct, reactive and defensively rigid football under a manager who demands sacrifice for the greater good. I enjoy aspects of the #AntiFootballTM approach that Simeone implements, but Madrid are largely dour to watch.

I cannot see how Simeone's approach would work with this Chelsea squad. Yes, Mourinho Ball did produce a league title but it burned the players out beyond recognition. Can you play this hyper intensive style of football weekly in the Premier League and survive? Jurgen Klopp does not seem to think so. His nature works with the personality of Atlético Madrid's squad - I cannot see that being duplicated at Chelsea.

MARCO VERRATTI:
I've learnt a lot by spending time with him and from a tactical point of view he's the best manager I've ever had. I don't feel any pressure.

Lastly we look at both Massimiliano Allegri and Jorge Sampaoli. I see one being an easier choice to dismiss and one being an unknown that I would like to have entertained. Allegri has moved Juventus up a gear since taking over, but his starting point was incredibly high. Is he, like Luis Enrique, a beneficiary of significant work before him? Would he be able to rebuild this Chelsea side? The jury is out for me. Sampaoli, on the other hand, was my wildcard. A manager who plays insanely relentless attacking football would have been fun one way or the other.

If Antonio Conte is hired, then he is the best possible appointment Chelsea could have made given our current predicament. Too far behind the curve for Guardiola; philosophically at odds with Simeone; uncertainty around Allegri's credentials as a coach who can rebuild and Sampaoli conceivably being a step too far. Mauricio Pochettino was a complete non-starter due to the Daniel Levy implications; Ronald Koeman was another solid season away from being a serious contender and Guus Hiddink does not want to be considered beyond the summer. If this does materialise I think Chelsea have picked appropriately given the realistic options in front of them.

Style of Play

I touched upon it earlier but there are certainly a few misconceptions floating about concerning Antonio Conte as a coach. Perhaps being Italian and drawing comparisons to Arrigo Saachi and José Mourinho have firmly planted this image of a hyper defensive coach looking to win 1-0. The reality is far from this simple narrative and it goes back to Conte’s days as manager of Bari and utilising a very attack-minded 4-2-4 system.

At the heart of everything Conte looks to play "good football at an intense tempo". He can implement a system that allows Andrea Pirlo's considerable talents to orchestrate proceedings or play in a manner that consistently operates on the front foot with width and pace. Conte likes attacking football and perhaps more importantly he does not simply equate attacking football with endless passing.

JUPP HEYNCKES:
[Conte is] a very good coach. I figured seeing his team; you see the hand of the technician, his signature. It is a homogeneous team – a united team. You can also see from the body language of the players, they leave little room, possess a defensive attitude of great quality, but also imagination in creating offensively. I like his temperament on the touchline.

Marco Luzzani / Getty Images

His Juventus side were incredibly strong in central areas, able to play out from the back, between the lines and create passing angles for an aggressive attacking approach. At Bari and Siena he exploited wide areas due to the natural width and quality in his squad: his 4-2-4 (which was really a very aggressive 4-4-2) left teams unable to cope. A coach who has shown he is capable of constructing winning sides under a variety of shapes is someone to be admired.

Arguably there are a lot of similarities to Juventus' resurgence under Conte and the Chelsea side who were unbelievable from 2004/10. A side blessed with technique, pace, power and an ability to win a variety of ways. Who am I talking about? It could be Conte's Juventus or the 2004/10 Chelsea side. Conte's football is both technical and powerful: it encourages creativity while remaining functionally very robust. In essence he feels tailor made for the Premier League.

What will certainly be apparent is that Conte will arrive at Chelsea with a set way of playing. Although he likely has ideas surrounding who he wants to sign, it will likely be a case of extracting the maximum from this set of players in a shape that works. Conte unlocked Carlos Tevez's devastating potential by playing him in a slightly freer role behind a centre forward. Could this type of freedom be afforded to Eden Hazard assuming the Belgian international remains at the club? Tevez, interestingly, compared Conte to Sir Alex Ferguson and talked glowingly about the atmosphere the Italian cultivated - "I feel like I am back home again".

Tactically we can expect to find a system that utilises the players in a manner that lets us control games. Where we can see Juventus benefitting from their three-man defence domestically, these advantages did not necessarily translate to Europe. Defensively you are vulnerable down the flanks in his 3-5-2 shape, but it allows you to be compact centrally and almost dares the opponent to throw crosses in or exclusively try to beat you wide.

Oftentimes, teams could not outplay Juventus and thus this inherent risk was often left unpunished. Nevertheless, there is a class of team in Europe that you simply just have to play differently. I am all for imposing your game on an opponent - but there are exceptions. I would hope that Conte can figure out his European model, as this is the only real knock on him. When we eventually meet someone of Munich's calibre or Barcelona, how do we beat them?

A well-coached version of the 3-5-2 with the right players gives many advantages considering the majority of English sides play with a sole forward. For a manager that obsesses over tactical details you can certainly bet that whatever formation Chelsea pursue (and it could be multiple) that it will suit the players and the opponent. Conte remains an incredibly versatile and well-rounded coach, capable of playing in almost any fashion. While his teams are not as possession hungry as Allegri's Juventus, they were arguably more incisive and dynamic. It is this fundamental goal that translates to English football so well.

Profile of Player

I think this is where we really begin to see just how Antonio Conte fits into the rebuilding process at Chelsea. Our squad lacks dynamic playmakers, physicality and an edge. While at Juventus Conte signed Carlos Tevez, Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, amongst other notable figures. With the WAR CHEST being prepared for the arrival of a new manager, I would feel comfortable entrusting Conte and his evaluative methods to get us the perfect style of player.

ANDREA PIRLO:
When Conte speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently and settle deep within you. I've lost track of the number of times I've found myself saying, "Hell, Conte said something really spot-on again today".

Claudio Villa / Getty Images

In terms of defenders Conte's favoured approach is pretty clear. He likes physical centre halves (Juventus had centre backs all over 6'2" / 1.87m) who have solid fundamentals first and foremost. Ideally he will have defenders who are comfortable bringing possession out from the back. If Andrea Pirlo is marked and an out ball to a wingback or a centre forward is not on, then Conte will ask his centre back to gallop forward with the ball. This is something Leonardo Bonucci did wonderfully while at Juventus. It is one of the easiest ways to disrupt an opponent's defensive structure - as they do not anticipate the centre back stepping beyond both the lone forward and the number ten.

Full-backs are expected to contribute in all phases of play and while their defensive responsibility lessens somewhat in his 3-5-2, well-rounded players are definitely required. Players capable of linking in terms of build-up play, especially in the final third, are definitely a bonus. If you watch any Juventus game you will note the amount of times that both wingbacks are in advanced positions. They are there to help create space and provide width, rather than just aim Moyes-esque crosses into the penalty area. Juventus often created shooting opportunities from moves that involved their wingbacks linking play.

In midfield there is a real nod to Chelsea sides of years gone by. Equally, the freedom and protection afforded to someone like Andrea Pirlo and by extension Cesc Fàbregas is of particular note. Conte surrounded Pirlo with energy and pace in terms of wingbacks. More importantly was the profile of player he supported Pirlo with: Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio are a trio that screams technique, power, pace, aggression and quality. All are capable of shooting from distance, playing killer passes, metronomic recycling of possession and winning the ball.

Given the sort of time Andrea Pirlo enjoyed, Cesc Fàbregas could become a dominant figure every week. The option is also available to ditch the Pirlo/Fàbregas role and go with pure power. These midfield tanks that Conte so clearly enjoys would explain the recent links to Radja Nainggolan and Arturo Vidal. Technical players with a physical edge are sorely lacking - if Conte has identified that already, we should be thankful of the direction he appears to want to take the squad.

As attacking options go Conte favours a varied approach. He loves wingers who can stretch play - pacey skilful dribblers who take the game to their opposing full-back. Unlike Mourinho, who seemingly judged his attackers on their defensive contribution, Conte takes a contrary viewpoint. He will not play a system that encourages width (4-4-2 / 4-2-4 / 4-3-3 etc.) without the necessary pieces in place. This will certainly be something to watch when it comes to Italy in the upcoming European Championships.

I would suspect that Diego Costa fulfils the requirements of what Conte likes about a centre forward. It would be the supporting role that seems up for grabs. Carlos Tevez's role was that of an unrestricted second striker. He could dribble from deep, play higher up or pop up wide. In many respects it is something that could both free and energise the talents of Eden Hazard: though at this point the links with Mauro Icardi make sense. Having Icardi dovetailing with Costa would be truly frightening.

Coaching Quality

Here is where I feel Antonio Conte separates himself. His work with Leonardo Bonucci turned the Italian into one of Europe's elite centre backs. He paid less than €1m for Andrea Barzagli and his coaching prowess elevated the centre back to a level of play well beyond what anyone could have envisaged. Paul Pogba went from Manchester United Academy graduate to Europe's golden boy. He reinvigorated Andrea Pirlo and got him playing at arguably the finest level of his career. The play of Carlos Tevez was exemplary. Vidal and Marchisio became European powerhouses. He tangibly makes players better.

PAVEL NEDVED:
Conte has played a decisive role. We did not know how good he was as a coach. In fact he is not just good, he is a champion. I hope [what he has built] stays with us throughout our time.

A lot of his success comes from a formidable relationship he forges with his squad. When Mourinho spoke about players getting an opportunity, we saw it as nothing more than empty words. When Conte suggests he will pick players based on form and not the name on their shirt, he actually means it. This level of accountability is something that multiple articles state as being one of his key strengths. He may rant and rave in the manner that Mourinho often did, but the way it translates to his players is seen as instructive rather than destructive.

Importantly Conte has an ability to create belief within young players at his disposal. Pogba, speaking in 2013 said, "I didn't think I would be where I am at this stage, with 20 games. My progress has been quicker than I expected. Conte told me he believed in me and that I would be useful to the team". Compare and contrast that with Mourinho promising players a run of matches before subsequently not playing them for months on end.

It will be interesting to see what type of conditioning regime he employs at Chelsea. I could not find anything that suggested Juventus were an injury prone team nor unfit. So I assume that Conte has a lot of modern methodology around keeping players at the required level. An incident involving Claudio Marchisio appears to crop up as significant, but this was on international duty. Many players and articles suggest he favours an intense level of training - but given Juventus' consistency with him and then with Allegri, it does not appear to have burnt his players out.

Final Thoughts

Much of what I have read, watched and listened to has reinforced my view that Antonio Conte is an excellent manager who is uniquely placed to immediately transform the fortunes of Chelsea. Maybe it is the Italian connection, maybe it is that he seems to have all of Mourinho’s positive traits or maybe it is because I feel as a coach he is just excellent – but I have a very good feeling about his potential appointment.

Conte is certainly not without his flaws – his relationship with the media can be described as tetchy at best (and this is without the incessant tripe aimed at him by British media every week). He is headstrong and you wonder how this translates into an environment that has serially rewarded yes men. The European issue may certainly be an angle that those who are not keen use against him. But given those available you would be hard pushed to logically argue that there is a better appointment to be made.

Time to get to work - Forza.

About the Author

Plains of Almería Editor & WAGNH Features Writer.

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