Antonio Conte: An Astute Tactician Whose Perfectionist Philosophy Reinvented the 3-5-2 Wheel

Antonio Conte is number 44 in 90min’s Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next 10 weeks. 

Winning a league title as a manager is hard.

Retaining a league title as manager is even harder.

Moving abroad and replicating that success in a league you are unfamiliar is harder still.

Winning that league at the first time of asking – that’s special.

Antonio Conte

So that is perhaps how we should best describe Antonio Conte. Special.

A fiery, passionate and iron willed central midfielder, Conte has enjoyed a lengthy career at the top of the game – spending the majority of his playing career patrolling the midfield of Juventus to great success.

Under the guidance of legendary managers Marcello Lippi, Giovanni Trapattoni and Carlo Ancelotti, he probably picked up a thing or two en-route to winning multiple Scudetto titles, a Champions League and UEFA Cup, as well as a glutful of Supercoppa Italiana crowns.

Known now as one of the most tactically shrewd managers of the current era, Conte was pretty handy on the field too. You usually have something about you when you make almost 300 Serie A appearances for Juventus alone.

His boundless energy and industrious playing style went largely unrewarded on the international stage, however, with competition for places in Italy’s midfield during the mid to late 1990s. 

By the turn of the millennium, Conte had forced his way back to the Azzurri’s first team reckoning – scoring in a Euro 2000 qualifier against Denmark, before his more artistic style was painted in the tournament itself – in the form of a bicycle kick against Turkey in Italy’s opening group game.

Antonio Conte

Injury would force him out of the quarter-final win over Romania, and Conte’s international exploits ended there. Only as a player mind you.

Retirement from the game four years later led to his first off-field role, serving as assistant manager at Siena to Luigi De Canio.

A first managerial appointment followed at Serie B side Arezzo soon after, but Conte’s two spells (he was sacked before being re-appointed) at the club ended in misery and relegation to the third tier of Italian football.

Determined to put that setback behind him, Conte next took charge of Bari in Serie B – assuming control with I Galletti struggling in the lower reaches of the table. It didn’t take him long to turn their fortunes around and by the end of the season, they had comfortably secured a place in mid-table.

It’s from here that Conte’s managerial career began to take off. Playing an expansive brand of football that was often perceived as an attacking 4-2-4 formation, Conte encouraged his wingers to push up on the full-back at any given opportunity.

Antonio Conte

This subtle tactical tweak led the club to promotion by way of winning Serie B – four points ahead of nearest challengers Parma, and a whopping 12 points ahead of third-placed Livorno.

Rumours surfaced that Conte would be approached to take over at former club Juventus, but he initially pledged his loyalty to Bari – only to see the offer of a new contract rescinded. He joined Atalanta as a result, but didn’t stay long, enduring a fractious relationship with the club’s fanbase.

A return to Serie B with Siena, whom he had assisted at the started of his coaching career, brought a second promotion to Serie A and finally landed Conte the job he had been waiting for – a return to Turin with Juventus.

It’s there that Conte honed his craft, and became regarded as one of the most tactically astute managers in the current game.

Not afraid to experiment, Conte frequently changed formations and approach during the early stages of his Juventus stint. Keen to find a system that best suited his high-pressing, relentless work-rate mentality, he finally adopted a 3-5-2 formation – sparking a return to prominence for a system that, at the time. was largely discarded at the highest level of the game.

Antonio Conte,Leonardo Bonucci

In settling on this formation, Conte helped Juventus master a new identity that would form the backbone of what has gone to become an unprecedented era of Serie A dominance for La Vecchia Signora.

Three sturdy centre-backs, typically in the form of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, formed the backbone to his team.

Wing-backs, who scampered up and down the line for 90 minutes operated as attacking wide midfielders in possession, before tucking in to form a compact back five when under pressure.

Career Honours

​Serie B (2008/09)
Serie A (2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14)​
​Supercoppa Italiana 2012, 2012
​Premier League 2016/17
Premier League Manager of the Season 2016/17
​LMA Manager of the Year 2016/17
​FA Cup 2017/18

The midfield core was equally as important and hinged on the talents of the mercurial Andrea Pirlo. Playing at the base of midfield, his deep-lying playmaker role allowed for more expansive contributions from Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, as well as Paul Pogba a year later.

Adopting a higher press up the pitch, Conte’s Juventus team stifled their opposition and enjoyed vast swathes of possession in the majority of their matches. Soon, he had his players unwavering support and the rewards were soon reaped by the Old Lady.

Three successive Serie A titles, the third with an unprecedented record points tally of 102, and two Supercoppa Italiana crowns made their way onto Conte’s mantelpiece, laying the foundations of a winning mentality in Turin.

Antonio Conte

“The fans in the Matthew Harding Stand spent the second half bellowing Antonio Conte’s name, making it perfectly clear that they have a new hero at Stamford Bridge.” Jacob Steinberg, The Guardian (November 2016)

Some five years later, Juventus are yet to surrender their crown – though Conte would play no further part in the club’s journey after opting to resign in May 2014, having failed to conquer in a similar vein on the European stage.

A turbulent two-year spell in charge of the Italian national team followed, before he was thrust back into the furnace of club management – taking the reins in 2016 at trigger happy Chelsea, who had steamrolled their way through 11 managers since Roman Abramovich took charge of the club in 2003.

His tenure began with a narrow win over West Ham, but soon he was under the cosh after a dismal performance at Arsenal resulted in an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium – a week after losing to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge.

Conte went back to what he knew, and revamped the Blues’ style of play – introducing his now famed 3-5-2 formation to devastating effect.

Soon, Chelsea had turned things around and set a new club record of 11 consecutive league wins in a row. By the turn of the year, they were six points clear of Liverpool at the top of the table and on course to win the title – with their playing style and absolute domination earning plaudits from all around.

Relentless in his pursuit of success, Conte refused to let his players take their foot off the gas. They lifted Premier League title at the conclusion of the season – beating neighbourhood rivals Tottenham to the punch by seven points, racking up 93 points after lying eighth in the league at the end of September – six points behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Antonio Conte

You have got to be good at everything. You have got to try and excel at everything. To do this you have got to study and since I became a coach, for me, it has been continuous study.” Antonio Conte.

It was a far cry from the dismal league campaign that Chelsea had endured the season before. Defending their fourth Premier League crown, won under Jose Mourinho, the Blues had seemed outdated, past it and a shadow of their former selves as they mustered a 10th place finish.

Now, under Conte and working with a near identical squad of players, they were winners again. The heavily criticised David Luiz became an instant star as he assumed the role of ball-playing defender, whilst N’Golo Kante continued his rise to superstardom at the base of midfield. Eden Hazard flourished under the guidance of Conte, and like him or loathe him, Diego Costa was near impossible to handle up front.

Sadly, the wheels came off somewhat in Conte’s second season. 

A frosty relationship with Costa led to a highly publicised feud, and the Italian boss appeared at odds with the club too. These off-the-field shenanigans dented Chelsea’s hopes of defending their title, and the now distant Italian could only steer his side to a fifth-placed finish, some 23 points off the pace they had set the previous season.

Not even a FA Cup triumph, in what turned out to be Conte’s last game in charge, could bring much of a smile to his face. 

What is undisputed, though, is his legacy in English football alone. 

He may have only graced these shores for two seasons, but Conte’s introduction of playing three at the back was soon adopted by almost every other Premier League side – a testament to how difficult his side were to play against.

Now, he’s about to embark on a new journey in Italy – where he’ll hope his organised and disciplined methods can help the Nerazzurri break Juventus’ stranglehold over Italian football.

Number 50: Marcelo Bielsa – El Loco’s Journey From Argentina to Footballing Immortality in Europe

Number 49: Vic Buckingham – How an Englishman Discovered Johan Cruyff & Pioneered Total Football

Number 48: Claudio Ranieri: A Ridiculed Tinkerman Who Masterminded One of Football’s Greatest Ever Achievements

Number 47: Bill Nicholson: Mr Tottenham Hotspur, the First Double Winning Manager of the 20th Century

Number 46: Sven-Goran Eriksson: The Scudetto Winning Shagger Who Never Solved the Lampard-Gerrard Conundrum

Number 45: ​Sir Alf Ramsey: The Man Behind the ‘Wingless Wonders’ & England’s Sole World Cup Triumph


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