After two consecutive seventh place finishes, Juventus reached back into its past for someone who knew how to win.
It needed it. Following the humiliation of Calciopoli, Juve has been timid and kowtowing, finishing limply in seventh place the last two seasons.
Cue the swaggering return of Antonio Conte.
"Let me repeat this: I am very proud to have been around before being given this great opportunity," he told Sky Sports. "Coming back to Juventus is indeed a great opportunity, but let me also state that I have earned this opportunity on the field."
The 42-year-old isn't talking about his playing career, when he won five scudetti and a Champions League with the Old Lady, but his coaching credentials. He's brought two clubs up from Serie B – Bari in 2009 and Siena last season – but left in each case to interview for the open Juventus gig.
In 2009, Juventus instead opted for Ciro Ferrara, a former teammate of Conte. It was the wrong choice. Juventus had four coaches in three seasons prior to this year, whereas the club enjoyed boasting it hadn't fired a coach in 40 years prior to dismissing Claudio Ranieri in 2009 when he failed to win seven games in a row.
Conte didn't hold a grudge. Back when he earned a move to Juve as a 21-year-old, he described himself as a "player-fan."
Given Ferrara's failures and bold claims by Conte that he would persist with a 4-2-4 formation, expectations were muffled, despite the opening of Italy's first club-owned stadium, Juventus Stadium.
"I have an technical and tactical archive of articles and interviews and every so often I look back at what was said before the season began," Conte said this week. "In August we were a disaster, we hadn't signed any top players and the coach was considered the Taliban of tactics."
Now Juventus sits one point back from AC Milan with a game in hand, the only unbeaten club left in Serie A.
|"From an elegance or style perspective I don't expect lessons from any other coach."
- Antonio Conte
All throughout the first half of the season, Conte and his players refused to say "the S word" but, with a win on Saturday possibly opening up a 10-point gap on third placed Udinese, Juve club personnel has begun admitting that a scudetto is a real possibility.
What's changed in six months?
Aside from bravado, Conte isn't nearly as tactically naïve as his mooted 4-2-4 suggests.
"In actuality it's a 4-4-2," he admitted to Sky Sports. But, he noted, they wouldn't be talking about an apparent 'innovation' if he hadn't put it like that.
Since then he's shifted twice more – first to a 4-3-3 to optimize the three impressive central midfielders on the roster and mitigate the lack of quality wingers, and then to a 3-5-2 to nullify the left back problem, where he had tried six different players.
"We are fortunate enough to have players in the team that may permit us to change and use something different. The general idea on how we should play remains essentially the same, though," he told Sky Sports.
"What is a team? It is one thing above all: an assembly of players who, under all circumstances, positive or negative, moves like a single unit."
Team cohesion has Juventus in its first title charge since the Calciopoli-induced relegation of 2005. Three players have three assists, not including Andrea Pirlo's team-leading six. Central midfielder Claudio Marchisio is second on the team with six goals. Industrious winger Simone Pepe has five. Andrea Barzagli, who cost 300,000 euros, is the only player to feature in every league game.
"I see hungry faces, even those who have a long list of honors. Last year there was never such desire," Barzagli told La Repubblica. "This year we are all much more aggressive." The 30-year-old defender recently earned an Italian national team recall after a three-year absence.
Though the team has excelled with bargains and refurbished components (Pirlo arrived for free this summer and now leads the league in passes per game), that's not to indicate it doesn't want an elite attacker. Juve openly pursued several striking options in the summer and January transfer windows.
"Conte has to take care now. The stress of it all could see his hair fall out again."
- Ruud Gullit (to La Gazzetta dello Sport)
Six draws out of 11 away matches underlines that there's plenty of room for improvement. Five Serie A teams have scored more goals than Juventus, despite Juve shooting 18.4 times per match, some two and a half more attempts every game than the second highest in the league, Roma.
"So the 25-30m euro champion did not arrive at Juventus, but neither did he at any other Serie A club," Conte told Sky Sports. The difference is, they were already in place. Edinson Cavani would surely pull in that much if he left Napoli. And Milan considered Zlatan Ibrahimovic a bargain in that price range.
Conte recently compared Ibra to Gulliver among his Lilliputian teammates. The comment served as a barb toward the Ibradipendenza side, but also hinted that sometimes the Old Lady could use a towering shoulder to lean on in the tight matches.
Until Juve can bring in that sort of player, Conte will continue leaning into team cohesion, grit, bravado and sheer desire.
"The more you hurry, the stronger are the gusts of wind," he said, poetically summing up the increased struggles at the top. With a potentially title-deciding match against an Ibra-less Milan Saturday, Juventus better hold on tight to its toupe.
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