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Antonio Conte and the Art of Soccer Management

Musto Design
Musto Design

Euro 2016 starts this Friday. All week, we’re highlighting key players in all three phases of the game — defense, midfield, and attack — along with one manager. They’re all among the best at what they do, and the intricacies of their approaches help illuminate how soccer is played today.

Antonio Conte won’t be here for long. He takes over as Chelsea manager in July, but, for a few weeks in France, we’ll briefly get to see one of the best managers in the world compete in an environment that doesn’t attract them anymore.

After taking over Juventus in 2011, Conte oversaw maybe the most impressive one-season improvement in high-level soccer this century. Behind an energetic, innovative system that replaced the traditional back four with a back three and slid attacking midfielder Andrea Pirlo into a defensive midfield role, Juve jumped from seventh to first and didn’t lose a game in the process. (Their underlying numbers were even more stunning.) Conte then improved Juve’s point total in both of the following seasons, as the club won two more Serie A titles. After a falling-out with upper management over player transfers, Conte found himself without a job in July 2014. (In 2012, Conte was also banned for four months by the Italian football federation for match-fixing violations during his time managing Siena, but he was acquitted of all charges last month.) With all the big club vacancies already filled, he signed with Italy through 2016.

In the club game, managing is all about creating a sustainable kind of consistency — a system that’s malleable enough to be effective against different opponents and doesn’t wear its players out come the third game in seven days in mid-March. As former Marseille and Athletic Bilbao manager Marcelo Bielsa famously said, “If players weren’t human, I would never lose.”

Bielsa, who also managed Argentina and Chile, came up against less metaphysical constraints, too. In the international game, which offered only 10 official match days in 2015, managers search for any kind of consistency whatsoever. They don’t get to pick the talent distribution of their squad; there’s a chance the five best players play the same position. And while a manager like Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino can put his players through a summer-long indoctrination of his philosophy (run, run, and why are you not still running?), someone like Conte gets his players after long seasons under the influence of various managers, and he only has a couple of weeks to put something together in time for the Euros.

When he was coaching the Chicago Bulls, Tom Thibodeau had a shower built into his office. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick won’t even trust an assistant to use the copy machine for him. Now, imagine either of them being told that their team was only going to practice 20 times a year, play a handful of competitive games every couple of seasons, and oh, by the way, other guys are going to coach your players while you’re not there.

That, essentially, has been Conte’s life for the past two years, and it must be especially frustrating for the Italy manager, who, according to the Mirror, makes “Jose Mourinho look like a pussycat.” Conte called Gianluigi Buffon, the most-capped Italian player of all time, “a disappointment, a defeat from the moment [he opens his] mouth.” And Andrea Pirlo — this Pirlo — said of Conte’s motivational tactics, “When he talks, his words assault you. They crash through your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within.”

Inasmuch as it’s possible, the ever-demanding Conte has treated his version of the national team like a club team. Rather than choosing whomever seemed to be playing the best for their club teams, he’s called up a very similar group of players for each international break. The current Italian national team is built around the same base Conte had at Juventus — Buffon in goal and the three-towered wall of center backs Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini — and the rest of the team is filled with unspectacular, straightforward players.

Flashier, creative types like Pirlo, Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, and Italy’s Euro 2012 hero, Mario Balotelli, aren’t on the roster, and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne (0.4 goals, 0.3 assists per 90 minutes) was only brought back into the fold in March.

“Many believe that football is about the players expressing themselves,” the legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi, one of Conte’s biggest influences, once said. “But that’s not the case. Or, rather, it’s not the case in and of itself. The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager.”

Today, all the best managers coach club teams because you get the time to create the parameters that you want. While Conte’s already proven he’s a great club manager, this summer might tell us he’s also a great national team manager. Or it could say something else: Maybe such a thing doesn’t even exist.