The ex-Juventus boss has taken the country's top job with something to prove despite his success in TurinOn the face of it, fortune couldn’t have landed more favorably for the Italian federation (FIGC). They needed a coach, and the reigning Serie A champion needed a job. Antonio Conte looked ready made for the role.
But question marks have been raised by some in regards to the new appointment. Conte is moving into the Italy role at the age of just 45 during a time when common wisdom suggests national team coaching is an old man’s game.
Having walked out on Juventus in mid-July, Conte left himself with few obvious options in the short term. With the top clubs in Europe having already chosen their direction for the coming campaign, he was left with two main options: a year out of the game, or a push for the Azzurri job under the same people who banned him for 10 months in 2012 for failing to report match-fixing.
As a man with a serious thirst for football, it was clear which Conte would choose. Yet the decision by the FIGC to make the ex-Italy international their chosen one deserves more scrutiny than might be immediately obvious.
The capture of three straight Scudetti as Juve boss would suggest that he is cut from the finest of coaching cloth, but the Bianconeri’s issues in Europe show a potential flaw in preparing his team for opponents of differing tactical and technical backgrounds.
Juventus was transformed from calcio’s also-ran to runaway king under Conte, with the Lecce-born coach bringing out the 'Juventinismo' that had been sadly lacking under the likes of Claudio Ranieri, Ciro Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni and Luigi Del Neri.
"It’s time we stopped being crap," he told the players upon his arrival at the club, as relayed by Andrea Pirlo in his autobiography. "We need to do whatever it takes to pull ourselves up and start being Juve again. Turning round this ship is not a polite request; it’s an order, a moral obligation."
He got the players wearing the black and white shirt with pride again, formed the kind of siege mentality Sir Alex Ferguson had woven into the fabric of Manchester United and coaxed a consistency of results out of his squad in return.
Yet when he took his team abroad, he found that motivation wasn’t quite enough. In his first Champions League campaign it took three straight wins in Juve's final three group matches to dig out of a huge hole after drawing its first three games. Having his back to the wall suited Conte’s coaching style, and he used it to get the best out of the players. They came up woefully short against Bayern Munich, and while they were far from the only ones, there was a tactical naivety running through the Juve side over both legs.
The following season the Italians were favorites to progress with Real Madrid from their group when heading to Istanbul to face Galatasaray. Conte's men couldn’t see the job through with motivation alone, failing to come up with a convincing plan for the threat of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder and being dumped out as a result. They had long since been found wanting in their 3-5-2 by then, but Conte wasn’t much for changing.
Over and out | The snowbound exit at Galatasaray underlined Conte's shortcomings
Now it is also time for Italy to 'stop being crap and become Italy again', but can he use the same approach as a national coach that he used at Juventus?
It is likely that he will assess his options before plumping for one tactical shape and sticking to it. He was well known for his use of the 4-2-4 at Siena before arriving at Vinovo and picking the 3-5-2 as the formation of choice to take his beloved Bianconeri forward. But once he decided on an approach, he would rarely stray from it and that proved to be an error in Europe in particular.
Not only might he have to be more flexible in his tactics as Italy coach, he will also have to come to terms with the inability to gather his players regularly. As a leader who thrives on bringing his team together as a unit, he will find the approach much harder to pull off in an international environment which leaves a lot of time for thumb-twiddling in between training sessions.
Yet if there’s one certainty, it is that Conte deserves his chance. As Italy’s champion coach, he is the one best placed to gain the respect of a national team badly in need of a new direction.But he still has something to prove, and he will now be asked to do so at the highest level possible.
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