Conte’s Juventus – Past, Present and Future…

11 Apr

Two years ago, Juventus were approaching the final stretch of a second campaign of failure on the trot. Sitting 7th in the league on 48 points. Already bundled out of the Europa competition through a wretched string of six draws placing us 3rd in a group which included Lech Poznan , Red Star Salzburg and Man City, manager Luigi Del Neri seemed wholly unable to improve on the poor showing of his predecessors in the Juve hot seat; Ciro Ferrara and Alberto Zaccheroni. Unsurprisingly he was sacked when the season drew to a close and in his place came none other than former captain Courageous, Antonio Conte…

Fast forward to today which finds us in 1st position in Serie A, the tally of 71 points keeping Juve 9 clear of nearest challenger Napoli, and soon to face the second daunting leg of a Champions league quarter-final against Bayern Munich in a beautiful new Juventus Stadium.

The complete turn-around in fortunes both on and off the pitch has been spectacular. Economically as well as in sporting terms, Juve are returning to the lofty position of dominance they formerly occupied domestically. On the European front, huge progress has been made, as witnessed by the sparkling group stage 1st place finish, and yet still there is much work to do if Juventus are to catch up with the upper echelon of continental club sides. Anyone who witnessed the defeat to Bayern last week will be of the same opinion.

The new stadium and associated business ventures are already boosting our revenues and with the footballing product blossoming as a spectacle the gate receipts have risen sharply. Agnelli is finding his feet as a President with dignity and obvious affinity with the memory of his Uncle Gianni, who is still recalled today with great fondness and respect by the Juve flock. On the transfer front, Beppe Marrotta alongside Fabio Paratici have completely renovated the youth sector and continue to procure some of the most promising young talents from Europe and further afield. Their work with the senior team has proven a tougher task, through balancing a desire to enrich the squad with better, younger, hungrier players and at the same time deal with the remains of Allessio Secco’s horror-show of a stint as transfer director.

However, more than any other character at the club, it has been Conte who has brought about the massive improvement on the field, in terms of style, conduct and success. His drive, passion and charisma has led him to become a true leader, a captain on the sidelines, as close to the players as if they were his own flesh and blood. This shows on the pitch. The togetherness of the squad and their bond with Conte is clear and constant.

Despite the lack of natural born commanders in the playing ranks there exists a climate of strong camaraderie that the manager has worked hard to engineer and encourage to blossom. The collective always comes before the individual in his tactics, with nobody bigger than the club itself, other than Conte on occasion. His temperament throughout the scommessopoli scandal was at times, somewhat removed from lo stile Juve, but he is young, passionate and was truly dragged through the mincer for no good reason at all. Even saints can get riled if the conditions are rancid.

There is no room in Conte’s Juve for volatile loose cannons such as (former Juve players) Felipe Melo or Zebina and the apparent failure to replace the fantasista qualities of Del Piero is more likely part of Conte’s strategy of employing industry over flair.

It took the manager a short period of altering his tactical ideas to incorporate the talents of Marchiso, Vidal and Pirlo, but once a mechanism was tried, tested and proved to be valuable, he stuck with it. A 4-3-3 formation- which also made use of the hard working and often potent in front of goal Simone Pepe, as well as another Conte favourite Emmanuele Giaccherini – was employed for the majority of his maiden season, yet towards the end of our unbeaten 2011/12 campaign, the 3-5-2 appeared. A formation which continued throughout the summer months and has carried the team all the way through to today.

The manner in which the ‘Old Lady’ were torn apart by Bayern Munich last week hurt and surprised many. Juventus had been touted as a dark horse, a team to avoid, unbeaten so far in the competition, full of energy and belief, dominating domestically and surely on our way back to the top where a club of our historical stature belongs. As supporters we pass, tackle, kick with the team, revel in the highs and cry ourselves into oceans of despair when we are horribly undone. Its part and parcel of supporting a team with all your heart and soul. And I am surely not alone in mentioning the ugly reactions frothing up inside me during the aftermath of the Allianz stadium education.

Although the 2-0 defeat was painful, it was also wake-up call. For we are very much still a work in progress. As is Conte as a manager. His experience of managing a top club stretches to less than two seasons. To retain the scudetto in style, bow out at the quarter-final stage of the champions league at the hands of one of the strongest teams in the world, see Llorente appearing on the horizon, perhaps also Jovetic or Sanchez, the Super Cup victory still fresh enough in the memory to savour…all of this remains a wonderful achievement for the manager and players. Nothing but increased belief, pride and confidence of a strong future should be our stance.

Looking beyond the senior team, although the primavera haven’t fared amazingly well in the Viareggio and NextGen knockout competitions, their league form has been top quality, spending most of the season in 1st place of the U19 league. Several of the brightest youth prospects have found success at other clubs. Gabbiadini, Sorensen and Immobile in Serie A. Boakye, Leali, Appelt, Masi and Rossi in the second tier have all impressed this term.

The present is ever so rosy! But what of the future?? What does the senior squad need to kick on to the next level?

Conte will be wiser for the defeat against Munich. It was the only time a team has completely dominated us from start to finish since Antonio returned to the ranks as manager. As my Sri-Lankan comrade at work always says, with odd glee…’I like complaints…it sheds light on something which can be improved’, and I suspect Conte understands this. He has changed the shape before to accommodate key players and the lack of them. His 3-5-2 has been good enough to place us in a marvelous position in the league, and I am of the opinion that merely adding Llorente to the starting XI would distance the team even further from the chasing pack. Profligacy has been a common concern, with the talents of Mirko Vucinic needed to help create chances in the box, but the same player’s terrible tendency to waste goal-scoring opportunities and often perform shockingly makes him hardly a shoe-in for a team we wish to build for the long term future. The attack has problems, and this must be addressed during the Summer, not only with the arrival of the Spaniard but also, I hope, Conte will push for a second striker who can play to his strengths consistently.

Giovinco has struggled to impose himself on games as much as he did whilst at Parma. Matri has only really come to life in 2013, before which his form was pasty. Quagliarella, a player I personally find the finest marksman, has not been given many chances to find momentum and match sharpness. Why? Well, his Neapolitan ego may have something to do with it, as could his disrespectful rant towards Alessio late last year. Conte projects an impression that there is only room for one strong ego in the club and that is the ego of Antonio Conte!

Much of the swagger and vigor of our success has been down to the magical M-V-P (Marchisio-Pirlo-Vidal) triumvirate in the middle of the park. Pirlo will soon be 34 and other than Marrone, whom Conte has deployed as Bonucci’s apprentice/back-up in defence, there is no other regista/deep-lying play-maker in the squad. Something which must be addressed in the Summer.

The revelation of the midfield, of the squad as a whole this season has been Paul Pogba. Signed for a nominal fee from Manchester United last Summer, via Mino Raiola, the French midfielder has proven a wonderful purchase, offering plenty of high velocity first team appearances, fighting hard for the cause, scoring several wonderful goals and leaving nobody from Juventus or any other club unaware of his dazzling potential. At 19 years old he truly has the world at his feet, and we can only hope that Conte has the means to bring out the best of a player who surely ranks as one of the most promising in Europe.

The defence and goalkeeping situation is perfect, although the wing-back areas remain in need of fine tuning. Asamoah, playing out of position as a left wing-back, was a monster before jetting off to South Africa to represent Ghana in the ACON. Since his return his form has been generally miserable. The signing of Peluso has done little to help the matter other than to put a more competent player in between the ideal starter (Asamoah) and the worst possible option (De Ceglie). On the opposite flank Isla has failed to find the match sharpness and form which persuaded us to earmark 18m for his signature. The jury remains out on his value, and the hope must be that with a solid pre-season he will hit the ground running next August.

To truly make the step up in quality I believe that Conte needs two extra ingredients in the mix. Firstly there appears a lack of natural leaders. When the Bayern bombardment was in full swing, it seemed that every Juve player on the pitch suffered mentally, as well as physically. All except one player; Arturo Vidal. That is simply not good enough for a team built in the image of the former Captain whose never-say-die attitude was a hallmark of his glittering playing career in his colours. The question is not whether we can find the kind of mentality I am referring to in a quality player willing to join ranks, the question is whether Conte actually wants characters in the squad as strong as himself. Conte as a player would spit blood for the cause, his head would never drop, there were constant winds in the sails of his determination to succeed. Juventus lack that special kind of tenacity on the field at times and its something which needs to be addressed, for the more deeply we venture into European competition, the higher the chance of us facing teams who on their day will tear chunks from us. In such circumstances we need a Conte or three on the field.

The major problem of profligacy in front of goal will be remedied with Llorente. The Spanish international should be the nearest we have found to a replacement to Trezeguet. A player of top drawer talent anywhere in the box. As comfortable scoring with his head as his toes. The transition from Spanish to Italian football may well prove testing, but given the player’s problems with his present club and subsequent seclusion, its fair to assume that Fernando will be champing at the bit to get out there and score come goals. He will also be fitter and more injury-free than players who have been slugging it out for a whole season.

My own appreciation of the differences between the best teams in Europe and ourselves is focused mainly on the lack of players available to Conte who are both comfortable on the ball and superb at moving forward and past players with the ball at their feet. There are no natural dribblers, and at times it shows. The ball is worked to Pirlo, he looks for runs in the box. The ball moves left, right, left, right, perhaps Marchisio or Vucinic can play a clever lay-off; they grind teams down through sheer persistence more often than through moments of magic. Generally the game plan is rather predictable and solid opponents can pull back into their own half and frustrate. Its common knowledge that the most simple way to hurt Juve is to mark Pirlo out of the game and play at a very high tempo, applying constant pressure to the back-line. Taking into account Conte’s unerring demands to play the ball out from the back, Juventus often run foul of opponents who send runners high up the field to cut off the supply between defence and attack. In essence there is a need for greater quality on the ball across the squad and ideally a player capable of breaking a deadlock with a moment of genius inspiration.

Regardless of how we fare in Turin on Wednesday, in our bid to overturn the 0-2 deficit presently in favour of the Germans, I will remain mightily content with the immense progress Conte has brought about in such a small space of time and look forward to the future with welcome enthusiasm. He has has not only transformed the style of football and ethos, he has created a Juventus which brings us all so much pride to feel a part of. In Conte I trust.

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