Antonio Conte will fit in at Chelsea, but will Chelsea fit with Antonio Conte?
Antonio Conte is a winner. A relentless, irrepressible winner. Chelsea's new manager doesn't have DNA made up of double helixes but instead, a series of W's. Victory is his life's pursuit; he even named his daughter Vittoria. It explains why he was the perfect captain and coach for Juventus. Their motto? "Winning isn't important, it is the only thing that counts."
And yet Conte sees it in even more serious terms than that, almost as if it is a question of mortality. To him, the difference between winning and losing is the same as living and dying. Every defeat is excruciating. It wounds his pride, and so Conte stops at nothing to win. It's why the notion that he would stand by and allow his Siena players agree to do Albinoleffe and Novara a favour, and not go for the win against them in 2011, offends him so very deeply and cuts to his core.
Conte is a workaholic. "There are 24 hours in a day," he says, "I sleep five of them and devote three to my family. That leaves me 16 to work with." It's why he is leaving the Italy job: he simply has too much spare time on his hands. He doesn't like it, comparing the experience to being left in a garage where he only gets to smell tires and engine oil and not the grass of the training ground, something he misses on a daily basis.
Conte's wife Elisabetta used to wake up in the middle of the night while he was at Juventus and find her husband no longer in bed but downstairs, sat in front of the TV in the dark, remote in hand, pausing, rewinding and replaying their games or those of upcoming opponents. When he was banned for four months after his implication in the Last Bet scandal, she bought him an actual bench for the living room.
Conte sees that coaching has always been his calling. An ordinary player by his reckoning, he considers himself an extraordinary coach, a self-proclaimed predestinato. Someone destined for greatness. "Yes, [I did say that]," he told La Repubblica, "and I know what you're thinking: 'This guy's a bit arrogant.' But I soon understood that the talent I lacked on the pitch I possessed on the bench."
To make up for his "shortcomings" as a player, he had to be smarter than the rest. He had to read the game better.
"I played No. 4 for Lecce and the No. 4 used to mark the No. 10. I remember playing against [Diego] Maradona. He was overweight and at the end of his career. He killed me." And yet Conte would go on and win the Scudetto five times with Juventus. He went to four Champions League finals. The limits in his game were overcome through hard work and sacrifice, grit and sheer determination, and he demands the same of his players.
His meticulousness is legendary in Italy. A part of the thesis he submitted at the end of his coaching badges was on "the educational use of video." While most coaches keep these sessions to 15 or 20 minutes so as not to lose the interest of the players, Conte's have been known to go on for more than an hour. Players would find them tedious if it were not for the fact that games have a funny way of unfolding exactly how Conte told them they would unfold, which only serves to reinforce the cult of the manager and make them hang on his every word.
Andrea Pirlo marvelled at Conte's powers of prophecy in his biography. Lazio's Italy international winger Antonio Candreva also admitted he has never felt so prepared than he did under Conte. "If an opponent stops you," he told Alessandro Alciato, "you have always got another solution to resolve the problem. It's incredible how he manages to foresee all the situations that will come up in 90 minutes."
He is as well-rounded a coach as they come.
"The word 'coach,'" he told Sky Italia, "has to encompass everything. You can't only be good at tactics, just as you can't only be good at motivation, just as you can't only be good from a psychological point of view, just as you can't only be good in how you manage the club and the media. 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."
It's hard to argue that the hierarchy at Stamford Bridge didn't have a clear idea of what they were after. The other contender for the job was Diego Simeone. Like Conte's success at Juventus, his work at Atletico Madrid is underpinned by passion and unflinching aggression. The impression given is that Chelsea believe the players need or respond best to that kind of manager.
Irrespective of Chelsea's track record with Italian managers, there is a sense that the tactical preparation and standard of work you can expect from them, as the testimonials of Conte's players attest, is second to none and has often made the difference in the Premier League. Roberto Mancini and Carlo Ancelotti have been crowned Champions of England; Claudio Ranieri looks to be next.
It was a shock when Conte left the Old Lady 18 months ago. A number of factors were involved, some of which will be of interest to his new employers. First of all, he did not believe Juventus had the resources to go to the next level in Europe, something which left him looking a little foolish when Max Allegri took them to last season's Champions League final.
The straw that broke the camel's back was their apparent unwillingness to buy a player that would provide the team with the ability to alternate between a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 to greater effect than in his first season at the club. That player was Juan Cuadrado, which is indicative of how important width is to Conte; don't be too surprised if he requests that the Colombian be recalled. A lot will depend on the player, of course, and whether he wants to return to the Bridge, but I digress.
This anecdote in particular is revealing for a couple of reasons. First, it highlights the tactical flexibility Conte will seek to bring to Chelsea. Second, it underlines that if you don't satisfy his demands, there will be tension. He will walk away. That was the case at Bari when they wouldn't buy the fourth attacking player that would allow him to play 4-2-4 in Serie A, and later at Atalanta too when they refused to sell Cristiano Doni after he challenged Conte's authority.
The warning signs are there for Chelsea but they also are for the rest of the Premier League because make no mistake about it: Conte won't rest until the Blue flag is flying high again.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.