Antonio Conte is demanding and intense but earns loyalty rather than resentment
‘Italian Mourinho’ will come as shock to Chelsea players, writes James Horncastle
Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30
Mattia Destro's first night of marital bliss ended with a 5.0am wake-up call. He kissed his bride goodbye and left for Florence. Italy training awaited.
"If it were down to me," Antonio Conte smiled, "he would have already been on his way back after cutting the cake."
The Italy manager would cancel Christmas too if the rules allowed him to, as his former Siena players will tell you. Second in Serie B at the time, they had lost to Varese in their last game before the winter break in 2010. When they returned to work on St Stephen's Day, they were in for a shock. Pack your things, they were told. A punitive training camp had been organised 400 miles away in Sicily. What remained of the festive period was spent doing the dreaded bleep test.
If Leicester City's players were wary of cuddly Claudio Ranieri and the reputation of Italian coaches for drilling their teams hard, Chelsea's better brace themselves because, in retrospect, these last few months with Guus Hiddink will probably come to be seen as a walk in the park.
In Italy, Conte is known as a martello: a hammer. He pounds away at you and never stops. It does not matter whether you are John Terry or Kenedy. Reputations interest Conte little. Nor, as former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli has found out, is talent enough on its own.
You are only as good as your last game, your last training session. Conte wants you to sweat. "Eat grass" was the maxim at Juventus. He expects you to cover every blade and make the same sacrifices he did as a player. Fail to do that and you are out.
"The doors to (Italy's training base in) Coverciano are like the revolving ones in your hotel," Conte likes to the Italy squad. "They can send you home as fast as they brought you in."
Those words have stayed with Manchester United full-back Matteo Darmian ever since. It is also why Conte will always pick a player such as Southampton's Graziano Pelle over Balotelli because what he lacks in celebrity or natural ability he makes up for in hunger and hard work. That is how to win Conte's respect.
Frank Lampard will no doubt be getting texts to ask his New York City team-mate Andrea Pirlo what they can expect. Terry, in particular, must be mindful of how Conte was unsentimental about moving a club legend such as Alessandro Del Piero on at Juventus. One imagines Pirlo's first piece of advice will be for whoever has the locker next to the dressing room door at Stamford Bridge.
Trade places while you can. Pirlo recalls only too well how the same spot at the J Stadium was "the most dangerous in all of Turin".
Still water became fizzy as Conte threw bottles of it against the wall. Marker pens went flying too. So many things were launched in Conte's time there that the Juventus changing room got the nickname Cape Canaveral.
It all served a purpose of course and that was to get his players' undivided attention. Drawing their focus to him so his instructions would be taken on board. Psychology is a Conte specialty. He knows how to appeal to his players' sense of pride.
Before a qualifier with Croatia, he stuck an interview that their captain Darijo Srna had given to 'La Gazzetta dello Sport' on the wall at the Azzurri's training base. "Lads, this is what they're saying about us," Conte said.
His team talks would make Al Pacino's character from 'Any Given Sunday' blush. As Juventus entered the final stretch in his first season in charge, he told his players that if Milan wanted to dislodge them, "they will have to s*** blood".
That came after he expressed concern at all the plaudits Juventus were getting. He feared his players were relaxing.
"That's all great," he said. "But what's the reality here? The reality is out on the pitch. The reality is in our sweat, our sacrifice. That's what has got us this far."
He keeps the tension high. And yet for all the intensity Conte imposes and demands, rather than resentment he inspires fierce loyalty. "If I had to go to war, I would take Conte with me," Arturo Vidal has said.
Pirlo rates him as the best coach he has ever had. "If Arrigo Sacchi is a genius, what does that make Conte?" he asked in his book I Think Therefore I Play. A measure of it is Conte's knack for telling his players how he believes a game will unfold.
They have lost count of the number of occasions things have gone exactly how he said they would and are left in awe. By anticipating the problems they will encounter, he is also able to give them the solution they need to prevail. The preparation is meticulous.
A general rule of thumb with opposition analysis sessions is that they should never last any longer than quarter of an hour otherwise the players lose interest. Conte's have been known to go on for an hour and 20 minutes.
As such the players have everything they need to win - and win they do. Pirlo claims to have learnt more from Conte than any other manager. Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez likened working with him to going to "the university of football".
The job Conte did at Juventus is a strikingly similar brief to the one at Chelsea now. The Bianconeri had finished seventh in back-to-back years. She was out of Europe altogether. But Conte immediately and improbably restored the 'Old Lady' to her throne, where she has sat ever since. In his first season, they went undefeated in the league, a run lasting 49 games, the same as Arsenal's 'Invincibles'.
In his second, Juventus picked up more points, scored more goals and conceded fewer. Then in his third and final campaign they won every game at home and became the first team ever to break the 100-point barrier in Serie A.
To ensure they achieved it, Conte did the unorthodox, as Alessandro Alciato reveals in his book Metodo Conte. Juventus had already wrapped up the title. A party atmosphere surrounded their final home game against Cagliari. Conte feared they were taking their foot off the gas. A team meeting was called. Gigi Buffon, the captain, was only a minute or so late but to everyone's surprise, Conte ripped him to shreds for it.
Buffon was perceived to be untouchable. Conte knew his status as such would make this all the more shocking and it had the desired effect, shaking everyone out of any complacency. The next day, Juventus beat Cagliari and made history. Rather than begrudge Conte for it, Buffon later recognised it as a great psychological ploy.
He was happy to be the target. The ends justified the means and that relentlessness is exactly what will be required of Chelsea in a league that will definitely have Pep Guardiola and possibly Jose Mourinho back in it next season.
Winning is in Conte's DNA. He has made victory such an integral part of his identity that he even named his daughter Vittoria. It is why nothing is more painful to him than his implication in the Last Bet scandal. To be clear, Conte is not accused of being involved in the fixing of games against Novara and Albinoleffe while in charge of Siena. His alleged misdemeanour is a "failure to report" it, which would not even bring sanction in most other countries.
The credibility of his sole accuser, Conte's ex-player Filippo Carobbio, has also been called into question. It is alleged he has an axe to grind and, tangled in other threads of the investigation, was in so much trouble already that he cut a deal with prosecutors in Cremona by implicating a big name.
Carobbio's version of a team meeting in which he says Conte told the players a draw had been agreed was not corroborated by any of the other players who attended.
Unfortunately for Conte, the burden of proof is on the accused rather than the accuser. After serving a four-month ban in 2012, he has asked that the criminal trial be brought forward to this month so that it does not distract and become the focus of his press conferences in the build-up to and during the Euros.
Conte has always maintained his innocence and though disillusioned by the affair remains confident he will be cleared. It is another thing for him to win. A must-win.
Uncompromising, controversial and brilliant, if Chelsea were after a younger, fresher Special One, who better than the coach Italians think of as their Mourinho.