If Roman Abramovich wants a coach with a different approach from Jose Mourinho, should Antonio Conte really be his top choice?
Like Mourinho, Conte is fond of creating an ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality and has a combustible, confrontational style. Like Mourinho, the Italian has a forceful personality and likes to keep his players on the edge.
Like Mourinho, he prefers to emphasise the work of the collective over the flair of an individual — something he has highlighted during his time with Italy by giving little space to players like Mario Balotelli, Lorenzo Insigne or Domenico Berardi. So why would Abramovich want Conte? First, the prosaic reasons: he is available — no compensation package would be required to hire Conte — and he knows how to win league titles, if not Champions League ones.
When he took over at Juventus — where he played from 1991 to 2004 — the club were drifting, struggling to shake off the effects of the 2006 ‘calciopoli’ corruption scandal, which saw them punished with relegation to Serie B. With Conte in charge, Juve won three successive Serie A crowns. Yet it was rarely a smooth ride. In his autobiography, Italian great Andrea Pirlo said Conte “becomes a beast [at half-time] and is never happy. He will throw anything he can get his hands on, almost always plastic bottles of water — even when we are winning.”
Italy expect to lose Chelsea’s No1 target Conte as they seek successor
It is not only the players who feel the sharp edge of Conte’s tongue. Even though Juve were successful, there were tense moments with the club hierarchy — meaning it was no surprise when, in the summer of 2014, Conte resigned. Juventus had just won the league and his contract had one year to run but still Conte walked — because, it is believed, of frustration over transfer policy.
Pirlo also recalls Conte’s penchant for cutting out newspaper articles that were critical of Juventus and urging his players to read them. But Conte does not rule only by fear. “I thought he would be a coach with a lot of grit and charisma,” admitted Pirlo. “But he has much to teach in terms of tactics and technique.”
This tactical flexibility will appeal to Chelsea. With Juventus, Conte was a strict 3-5-2 man and redeployed the system when he succeeded Cesare Prandelli as Italy coach, shortly after quitting Juve.
Yet Conte realised quickly that, with limited talent available, he needed other plans. During Euro 2016 qualifying, he also introduced 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or even 3-3-4. Conte relies heavily on his wide players and likes a big centre-forward to lead his attack. Italy’s football has been solid and qualification achieved but there has been tension.
Conte even thought about quitting less than a year into the job, so frustrated was he that the national team was considered secondary to the top clubs, but was talked round.
So this, then, is Conte: a manager with a record of success in domestic football but not in the Champions League. A man not afraid to speak his mind but who may fall out with players and employers. A coach who values effectiveness over attractiveness. It does not sound much like Abramovich’s dream of a team playing expansive football, enjoying success in Europe and managed by someone who prefers to stay in the background.
If Conte does end up at Chelsea, it is hard to escape the feeling that he is a compromise option.