“I always wanted to go to Juve. For me, it's a homecoming... The main objective is to get Juventus back challenging for honours. Juve’s history demands this and through work, 100 per cent commitment and the right attitude I will look to bring this club back to where it deserves to be and where the fans want it to be.”
That was Antonio Conte speaking at his inaugural Press conference as Juventus Coach in May 2011. A year later – after months of not uttering the S-word and keeping championship ambitions under wraps – Conte has led the Bianconeri to the top of the calcio mountain. With one match remaining Juventus have secured Lo Scudetto, remain undefeated, have conceded only 19 goals and kept 21 clean sheets.
The triumph in Trieste ended years of pain following Calciopoli and relegation. The long road back, which had taken a decidedly bumpy form in the past two seasons, has been smoothed out by the former captain and idol.
Hired after guiding Siena to promotion from Serie B – his second such achievement after Bari in 2008-09 – Conte had numerous questions to answer. Consecutive seventh-placed finishes were underpinned by defensive issues and underperforming stars. Conte, whose only previous Serie A spell ended disastrously after three months at Atalanta, had to rectify the troubles within the squad and instil a winning mentality.
He was marked as a disciple of 4-4-2 and the arrival of Andrea Pirlo did not appear to fit his system, but Conte showed his development as a tactician by ensuring versatility. “There will be always be space for great players,” uttered the multi-time Scudetto winner. Conte was true to his word as rather than pigeon-hole Pirlo into a position and drop one of Claudio Marchisio or Arturo Vidal, he found space for all three. This led to the rise of their customary 4-3-3. However Conte’s attention to tactical detail meant he was prepared to alter to suit the opponent. Juve initially fielded a 3-5-2 to mirror Napoli and Udinese, but the formation was additionally utilised a number of times in 2012.
When Conte arrived the pieces of the jigsaw did not quite fit. And despite some hiccups along the way – Milos Krasic and Eljero Elia did not adjust to the pressing and short passing, possession-based style – he now oversees a united team built from a strong defence. The backline is reliable and a source for attacking forays, whilst the trio in midfield are the heart and soul. Juve lack a world-class striker but in keeping with the team ethic and unity, the goals were shared between 18 members of the squad.
Conte worked closely with previously criticised players – Leonardo Bonucci, Pepe and Marco Borriello amongst them – and his impact on the group was telling, with many rushing to offer an embrace when celebrating a goal. Pepe spoke of the trust Conte placed in his abilities and it is a quality the Lecce native radiated throughout the squad.
Debate will rage as to whether this is Scudetto number 28 or 30, but for Conte the number is clear enough. “What number Scudetto is this? Number one, because it's the first I've won as a Coach.” And he will insist his players remain focused in order to add further triumphs to their glittering season – to remain undefeated and claim the domestic double in the Coppa Italia final. Not bad for his first season back home.