The brilliance of Antonio Conte

As Antonio Conte celebrates his first Premier League title, Adam Summerton looks at what makes the Chelsea manager so special.

Whoever doubted that Antonio Conte had a plan for Michy Batshuayi……? The Chelsea coach can seemingly do no wrong and fully deserves all the praise coming his way after winning the Premier League title in his first season in English football. Though to many who’ve followed Conte’s career, this is no big surprise. He has been, in my opinion, the best in the world for several years now. Not only is he a top coach, he’s also an exceptionally good manager – in that respect Conte is close to the complete package.

To win four successive league titles in two different countries is special – indeed his league record in that time reads – P-150 W-111 D-27 L-12. Even if he had been appointed the head coach of a team of serial winners this record would be impressive, but at both Juventus and Chelsea, Conte walked in to testing situations.

Depending on which account you read, it ranged from stories of disharmony to all out civil war at Stamford Bridge last season – a campaign which saw an admittedly talented squad finish 10th, thirty-one points behind title-winners, Leicester City. Prior to Conte’s arrival at Juventus, the Bianconeri had finished the 2010/11 campaign in 7th place in Serie A, twenty-four points behind champions AC Milan.  His first season at Juventus also coincided with a move to a brand-new stadium, something we’re often told can be problematic. Yet Conte was like a breath of fresh-air – and, making the most of a season outside of Europe, (sound familiar?) led an unbeaten Juventus to their first Scudetto since the Calciopoli scandal.  He would go on to win three league titles in a row and firmly re-establish Juventus as the dominant force in Italian football. Absolutely key to this was his creation of a winning mentality and togetherness that still exists at Juventus, and has arguably been enhanced further still by Max Allegri.

What Conte does so well is give players confidence through certainty and a clear identity. They all know the system, and they are all left in no doubt as to their roles within that framework. You don’t need to be a fly on the wall at Cobham to see this, it’s clearly evident just from watching any of his teams play – they are very well-coached and well-prepared. I can offer no better recent example of the effect all this can have on an individual than David Luiz. Under Antonio Conte, he has gone from a figure of fun to a very serious defender, one of the best around, and that’s no coincidence.

Conte’s coaching ability was clearly evident long before he arrived in West London, but perhaps less spoken about was his qualities as a manager of people, something he’s also proved very adept at. I thought he handled the Diego Costa China situation very well, not allowing it to destabilise the side mid-season – he’s also reinvigorated and united a dressing room without making anything like wholesale changes. Even his man-management of John Terry has proved beneficial – Conte was clever enough to spot the importance of having someone of such authority and experience about the place. Even though Terry’s playing time has been very limited, I’ve always got the feeling he feels involved and valued by Conte, as Friday night’s celebrations showed.

Conte’s man-management hasn’t just been restricted to the playing staff though – and he knows the little touches can make all difference. A couple of days before Christmas, everyone at Cobham, from canteen workers to administrative staff, was given a present by Conte, all with a personalised note. At the end of each note, he had jotted down a quote from the military commander Hannibal, famous for leading his elephants over The Alps. ‘We will either find a way,’ the line read, ‘or we will make one.’

Having carved out a path to the Premier League title so soon, Conte’s next big frontier is the Champions League. It remains, for me, the big question mark over his potential greatness as a coach. Eliminated at the group stage in his final season with Juventus, he’d managed a quarter-final appearance the year before. Had he stayed with the Bianconeri I happen to think he’d have gone on to lead them much further in that competition, but now it’s with Chelsea that he will meet this challenge with the same unmistakable verve and enthusiasm that has captured hearts and minds so quickly at Stamford Bridge.


Inter’s search for Mr. Right

Inter 2

As Inter continue to look for a new head-coach, Adam Summerton assesses the qualities required of Stefano Pioli’s eventual successor

A unifier, a diplomat, a leader – some might even say a magician. The next head coach of one of European football’s biggest names will need the first three of those assets at a bare minimum. He’ll be tough to find, and it may be equally as difficult to persuade that person that they should take on what is one of the toughest jobs in football right now.

In all likelihood getting the ‘right’ man is going to cost Suning, the club’s owners, an absolute fortune in wages because they’re border-line desperate and aren’t in a position to take a chance on anything but the tried and tested – the candidates know that and they may also see it as ‘danger money’. Many managerial reputations have taken a dent at San Siro since Jose Mourinho delivered the last of the club’s Serie A and Champions League titles in 2010.

Just in the last nine months we’ve seen Mancini, De Boer and Pioli in charge. All of them, even De Boer (remember Juventus?), had moments of hope and positivity. Inter were top of the table at Christmas 2015 under Mancini – the initial turnaround under Pioli was impressive, soon after his appointment they went on a nine-game winning streak. Nothing lasts for long though – as good as things might look in any given moment, the belief of supporters remains fragile because they know a relapse is never far away.

I think it’s pretty clear, even to the most casual observers, that the coaches who’ve been and gone haven’t necessarily been the main problem, yet the ‘right’ one could be the solution. It needs someone who is not just a top-coach but also a great manager to bring together a club that appears, from the outside, disjointed and dis-unified. He has to be the most important person and the best paid person at the club. No member of staff, particularly at a club trying to get out of the situation Inter find themselves in, can be more important or more powerful than the head coach, and the players need to know that.

Improving the mentality of the squad will be extremely difficult, a big job that may require some incisive surgery, but if progress can be made in this respect I have no doubt that good things can happen. The owners are strong willed, determined and well financed, and the existing squad, purely on paper, is hugely under-achieving. If Inter fail to qualify for Europe it won’t be because of a lack of quality. Handanovic is one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Icardi one of the world’s top centre-forwards – Gagliardini is seen as one of Italy’s most promising midfielders, Perisic is admired by other big clubs across Europe – the likes of Kondogbia and Joao Mario have so much more to give.  Far lesser squads have achieved much more, and in the right hands the Nerazzurri can once again start punching their sizeable weight.

Serie A going from strength to strength

As the ink dries on several important contracts, and at the end of a Serie A matchweek that saw 48 goals scored in ten games – Adam Summerton argues the future for Italy’s top-flight is very bright indeed

I, like perhaps many others reading this, grew up on Channel 4’s Football Italia of the 1990s – intrigued and drawn in by an alternate football culture to the one at home – mesmerised by the shows of colour and passion in the stands. But the biggest draw of all was the absolute wealth of top players. Paul Gascoigne’s arrival in Serie A took English interest in Italian football to a whole new level, but he was just one of a galaxy of star-names in Italy at the time, which included the likes of Baggio, Gullit, Batistuta, Effenberg, Rijkaard, Berti, Signori, Sosa, Mancini, Papin, Van Basten, Raducioiu, Vialli, Ravanelli…..I could go on and on, and I’ve not even mentioned a single defender there. To put it simply, Italy’s top-flight was the number one place to be, the world’s single biggest collection of top-class footballers.

The modern day Serie A cannot yet claim to boast such a level of riches, but this is a league now very much on the up and once again building-up stocks of the world’s top players. Just this week Roma confirmed the arrival of Monchi from Sevilla, a world-renowned recruiter – Saturday saw an announcement that Naples-born Lorenzo Insigne had pledged his long-term future to his home-town club – it came hot on the heels of news that Paulo Dybala had agreed a new deal with Juventus. Two other players who agreed improved long-term contracts in the recent past are Mauro Icardi and Andrea Belotti – two of the most valuable assets in world football right now. Whilst delighting supporters of their respective clubs by staying put, all these players will also have pleased those people in the offices of Serie A whose job it is to sell and promote the league’s brand. Top talent attracts more top talent, which drives fan interest, which drives revenues, which attracts more top talent, which drives more interest…you get the picture.

The Premier League’s achieved these desirable conditions better than any other league in the world, but I believe Serie A is catching up, and I don’t just mean in terms of the proliferation of star players. It’s taken a lot longer that many would’ve wanted, but several Serie A clubs are now beginning new stadium projects, well aware of the huge benefits it can bring, as proved by Juventus who, as ever, were well ahead of the curve on this. Smaller but much fuller venues is the way forward, and, as Serie A attempts to attract a greater global audience, this matters hugely. TV viewers in another country switching on to see vast empty stadia are quite understandably going to question why they should spend an hour-and-a-half watching a game that even the local population don’t appear inspired enough to go and see. The recent Milan derby was played in front of a complete sell-out at San Siro which looked absolutely magnificent in the sunshine, and while the 12:30 kick-off time was criticised in some quarters, it helped attract a record global TV audience in excess of 800 million people, who were treated to one of the games of the season.

Attacking spectacles like that are absolutely crucial to spreading the word far and wide that this is a league not just with great rivalries and tremendous history but hugely entertaining football and goals – lots and lots of goals. It still never ceases to amaze me how many people still think Italian football is slow, ultra-defensive and low-scoring – it couldn’t be further from the truth. Six players have already scored 20 goals or more in Serie A this season – at the time of writing the Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1 each have two, and the Bundesliga has three. There have been 17 hat-tricks scored in Italy’s top-flight this season – that’s compared to 13 in the Bundesliga, and nine each in the Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1. Serie A averages 2.87 goals-per-game, of Europe’s top-five leagues only La Liga (2.89) exceeds that.

All this said, it’s perhaps a little ironic that right now the country’s best team is being quite rightly lauded for an ability to defend majestically, and on the biggest stage too. Juventus made Barcelona’s much celebrated front-three look relatively toothless in the Champions League quarter-finals and haven’t conceded a goal in the competition for 531 minutes. But this isn’t a defensive Bianconeri, far from it – the country’s standard bearer right now seems to have found an almost perfect balance between defence and attack. They are good enough to win the Champions League, and if they do, for the first time since 1996, it will be another big boost to the image of Serie A and its world-wide marketability. You could say something very similar about the kudos that a strong national side brings, and the future looks very bright in that respect too. Players like Donnarumma, Romagnoli, Caldara, Rugani, Gagliardini, Verratti and Belotti all have several tournaments in them potentially. Donnarumma might even make the 2038 World Cup!

All but one of those players plays their football in Serie A, which still has ground to make-up in terms of attracting the best ‘off the peg’ talent from elsewhere – but so far as developing and retaining top players is concerned it is right up there with the best already. Italy’s top-flight of the near future might look a lot different to the one many of us enjoyed greatly on Channel 4 in the 90s, but I think it’s got the potential to be just as good to watch.


The Making of Marcos

I think it’s fair to say that the arrival of Marcos Alonso at Chelsea last summer was met in England, by and large, with a degree of bemusement and scepticism. “The old Bolton left-back?!” was a fairly standard reaction. Many couldn’t get their heads around why Chelsea would pay a reported £23m for a player who was generally perceived not to have set the world alight in the Premier League, despite obvious improvements during a loan spell at Sunderland. Antonio Conte, and regular watchers of Fiorentina knew exactly what Chelsea were getting though.

Marcos Alonso has now played 25-times for Chelsea and been on the losing side just twice, on both occasions in North London – a 3-nil defeat to Arsenal at The Emirates in September and a 2-0 loss at Tottenham in January. Respected statistical website has his average rating in Premier League matches as 7.39 (out of 10) – just behind him with a rating of 7.27 is a certain N’Golo Kante, only Diego Costa and Eden Hazard rank higher than Alonso in the Chelsea squad.

Of course match-ratings are very subjective, but there’s little doubting the important role Marcos Alonso has played in Conte’s winning machine. And that’s a key thing here – he knows his role. That’s because he’s an intelligent footballer with a good tactical understanding – the later something that time in Serie A will have helped to hone. He also has a top Italian coach who will have left him in absolutely no doubt as to his responsibilities on the pitch. Players in a Conte team know what’s expected of them, and that clarity helps breed confidence, which in turn leads to positive results.

What also appears important to Conte, a notoriously demanding coach, is that his players are mentally tough. A winner like him will always, almost naturally, gravitate towards those of a similar mindset, and Marcos Alonso is from good stock in that respect. His Dad, Marcos Alonso Peña, was briefly Spanish football’s most expensive player when he signed for Barcelona from Atletico for around £800,000 in 1982, winning La Liga in 1985 under Terry Venables. His Grandfather, Marcos Alonso Imaz, won five European Cups and five La Liga titles with Real Madrid between 1954 and 1962.

Both Dad and Grandad played for Spain and surely that will be the natural progression for Marco Alonso Mendoza, who is still awaiting his first senior-cap. Julen Lopetegui says he’s watching him and acknowledges the players’ form, but highlighted Chelsea’s “slightly different” 3-4-3 system as a reason for his non-inclusion for this month’s internationals, with Nacho Monreal and Jordi Alba the two players picked for that left-sided role.

Whether he should be ahead of one or both of those players in the Spain pecking order is debateable, but there’s surely little argument that this is a player starting to fulfil the promise he once showed at Real Madrid’s academy – so much so that it’s been widely reported there may be a desire at the Bernabeu to bring him back to the city of his birth. Despite featuring regularly for the B-team for two years, he only made one La Liga appearance before leaving for Bolton in 2010.

It was Manuel Pellegrini who gave Alonso his Real Madrid debut – his other coaches include Owen Coyle, Dougie Freedman, Vinenzo Montella and Gus Poyet, but a key role in the player’s elevation to his current status was played by a man that Chelsea coach Antonio Conte knows well. He and Paulo Sousa won a European Cup together with Juventus in 1996, and while those Bianconeri connections have never done Sousa any favours during a decidedly mixed time in Florence, Marcos Alonso is one of his success stories. Upon leaving Fiorentina, the player wrote a letter thanking everyone at La Viola, which included the following tribute to Sousa.

‘I want to dedicate a special mention to a great person and a great coach, Mr Paulo Sousa, who taught me a lot on and off the pitch and with whom I hope to be able to work again in the future.’

Prior to Sousa’s arrival at Fiorentina, Vincenzo Montella had also played a role in the player’s improvement, but it was Paulo Sousa who most tapped into Marcos Alonso’s more forward-thinking attributes, bringing extra an dimension, improved discipline and confidence to his play in Serie A – helping to develop the powerful and direct runner seen at Stamford Bridge this season. His maiden campaign in England looks almost certain to end with a Premier League title – it would be Marcos Alonso’s first major honour, and if family history’s anything to go by, it could be the first of many.

Kevin Strootman – a remarkable Roman revival

It was Albert Einstein who once said; “adversity introduces a man to himself.” If that’s the case, Kevin Strootman must have been on quite the voyage of personal discovery over the last few years.

Always a gifted footballer, right from his formative days in the Sparta Rotterdam academy, Strootman has also never been short of self-belief, determination and motivation – qualities that have perhaps been essential to a remarkable comeback from injury that should be both celebrated and admired.

Strootman is, in his own words, at the start of a “second life in football” – the first one really began to take off in the summer of 2011, when PSV signed him for €7.5m, only six months after he’d joined Utrecht for €1.5m.

Upon signing his contract at the Philips Stadion alongside a certain Dries Mertens, who’d made the same move at the same time, Strootman told reporters he “expected a lot” from the transfer, and was “eager to show” what he was capable of. It proved to be a wise move, and after two seasons of further development in Eindhoven, Strootman joined Roma for a fee of €16m in July 2013.

By 9 March 2014 he was really turning heads – touted as one of European football’s biggest prospects, and lining up in a Roma side that had travelled to Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo on a seven-game unbeaten run in Serie A. But his former Utrecht and PSV teammate Dries Mertens, in the Napoli side that day, was one of those forced to look on in anguish as Strootman suffered a cruciate ligament injury just thirteen minutes into a 1-0 defeat.

The Dutch international’s season was ended prematurely and he would also miss out on being part of the Netherlands squad that went on to reach the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup. Far from the end of his troubles though, this was only the beginning.

What followed was an injury nightmare that involved three separate knee operations in the space of eighteen months – Strootman made six league appearances in 14/15 and five league appearances in 15/16. Some speculated whether he’d ever play regularly again, but despite repeated setbacks, the player himself met the physical and psychological challenges head-on.

The moment when perhaps his Naples nightmare finally ended came as a substitute in the latter stages of a 5-0 win over Palermo in February 2016 – it had followed 390 days on the side-lines and launched a truly inspiring comeback.

After that game, Strootman said to Roma’s official website; “Finally, I feel like a footballer again.” He also hinted at darker times. “I never [feared] about stopping, but I was certainly afraid,” he said.

It’s a little over a year now since that night at the Olimpico, and what we are seeing is a player not just grateful to be on the pitch, but regularly turning in excellent performances and once again reaching the lofty heights he’d managed pre-injury.

Only three of Roma’s outfield players have managed more minutes on the pitch in Serie A this season – he was, in my opinion, the man-of-the-match in the Giallorossi’s recent 3-1 win over Sassuolo, and is displaying more leadership qualities and game intelligence than ever before. Kevin Strootman truly is back, and, if Einstein was right, perhaps even a bit more self-aware too.

It’s all in the head for next England coach

Yes, the Iceland performance was very poor, but English football isn’t in need of major surgery, I’m tired of hearing it is, fed-up of the national self-loathing. England is producing good young players, players with the natural ability to potentially go on and compete at major tournaments. Chelsea recently retained the UEFA Youth League with a starting XI all qualified to play for England. England won the 2016 Toulon tournament and are top of their qualification group for next summer’s U21 Euros. The raw materials are there for England to be competitive at all levels – not necessarily win, but be consistently competitive.

A winter break would help, more overseas exposure would too, but the overriding problem with England players when they reach major international tournaments is psychological. So many freeze, so many can’t handle the pressure. It’s not a new thing, it’s been happening for almost 20 years, yet nothing changes – in fact the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. Fear of failure, passed down through the England generations continues to limit fine young footballers – so what needs to change?

The FA must finally appoint and empower a head coach with a strong personality who’ll pick a team, not a collection of the 11 ‘best’ players – a coach who won’t feel pressurised to shoe-horn in star-names, or to pick a formation to accommodate certain individuals. Players who are part of a cohesive team frame-work, players in no doubt about their role/responsibilities have far less to fear and much more to believe in – just look at Conte’s Italy, Coleman’s Wales.

The latter spoke so eloquently after his side beat Belgium about not being afraid to fail. A mindset he’s clearly transmitted to his players. The perception is England have been ‘failing’ for 20 years at major tournaments, so why couldn’t a head coach with good leadership qualities convince his team they’ve actually got little to live up to, and everything to gain by bucking that trend?

Hype, unrealistic expectations and a bizarre sense of entitlement have always been a big barrier to that. When it comes to the England team there are still so many people with precious little sense of perspective. It is a national side judged seemingly game by game – they go from world-beaters to chumps and there’s little in between. This is a part of this puzzle where fans and the media have a big role to play. Building them up to knock them down has to end. But those in charge can also do things to halt the hype too – something obvious to me would be to hugely tone down the significance of the role of England captain. Put simply it’s eaten itself, attracts attention and carries way too much kudos and commercial significance for the individual concerned. It also limits the coach and potentially affects the team dynamic because that individual becomes almost ‘undroppable’. Do what many other nations do and give the armband to the player with the most caps in that particular starting XI.

The current England captain, Wayne Rooney never played a single game for the England U21s – he made one appearance for the U19s. I also wonder whether the cream of the crop are promoted to the senior side far too quickly. Surely it can only help a player’s mental development to experience international/tournament football in a less pressurised environment. Again, it all comes back to the coach. It requires a strong personality and good communicator to hold a young player back for their own good – especially in the face of public/media pressure to pick them.

The English rugby and cricket teams are evidence right now that much can change relatively quickly. But the FA, like the RFU and the ECB, need to get their coaching appointment right, and just as importantly create the environment for that person to empower England’s footballers. The players are already there to do much better, but when it comes to major tournaments it requires someone special to turn the light on in what’s currently a darkened room.

Bony’s ‘organic development’ could pay dividends at Swansea City

Predicting how a foreign player will adjust to life in the Premier League is from an exact science. Get it right and there are bargains to be had, as Swansea City found with Michu last season. However, history is also littered with many expensive mistakes – players who arrived in England with emerging reputations but departed bereft of confidence, the word ‘flop’ ringing in their ears.

The Swans’ latest acquisition, Wilfried Bony already knows how it feels to leave these shores feeling unfulfilled, having been turned down by Liverpool after an unsuccessful trial in 2007. Still just a teenager at the time it would’ve felt like a dream being snatched away for the young Ivorian, but in reality they probably did him a favour.

Not yet considered ready for one of Europe’s elite leagues, Bony took himself to the Czech Republic and Sparta Prague. It was the start of a much more organic approach to his growth as a player, one which has encouraged steady development and helped establish an impressive level of consistency.

To begin with, Bony’s move to Sparta Prague was a loan deal – but after impressing in their ‘B’ side’s title win in 2008, a permanent transfer was agreed with Cote d’Ivoire Premier Division club, Issia Wazi. His debut season in the first team (08/09) was far from spectacular, scoring three goals in sixteen matches, eight of those appearances from the bench. But knowing that they had a rough diamond, Sparta Prague kept faith and more first-team opportunities followed in 09/10, with Bony scoring 10 goals in 35 games, helping his club to the Gambrinus Liga title. The 2010/11 campaign began with a brace against Liepajas Metalurgs in a UEFA Champions League qualifier, and by the time of the winter-break in December, Bony had scored 17 goals in 24 matches.

Vitesse had been monitoring Bony’s progress and had a €4m offer accepted by Sparta Prague on 30 January 2011. Injury meant the Ivorian had to wait until 20 February to make his debut, but unperturbed by the ‘false-start’ to his Eredivisie career, Bony managed to score as a substitute in a 2-0 win against De Graafschap. Three goals followed in his first four games and the GelreDome had a new hero. That soon turned into cult status when Bony managed 18 goals in his first full season in the Netherlands (11/12).

Despite inevitable interest from around Europe, Bony decided to continue his development in Arnhem and it proved to be a wise decision – ending the 12/13 campaign with 37 goals in 36 games across all club competitions. He’s also found his feet at international level, scoring in each of his last three games for the Ivory Coast, as they look for a long-term successor to Didier Drogba.

It’s comparisons with the former Chelsea forward that have inevitably dominated conversation about Bony in England, and there are undoubted similarities between the pair, yet it’s lazy, simplistic and creates unnecessary pressure on Bony, to label him the ‘new Drogba’. That said, a good start in England is vital if that tag isn’t to prove a burden. Supporters of rivals clubs like nothing more than sneering at the ‘new so-and-so’, who turns out to be anything but, especially when they’ve cost big money.

I honestly don’t expect that to happen with Bony though – this is a player who is very much his own man – his physical strength mirrored by an equally strong personality. A man with a firm belief in his own ability, which is partly borne out of a patient and methodical route to the top. Aged twenty-four now, the current Dutch Footballer of the Year is surely as ready as he’ll ever be for a shot at one of European football’s ‘elite’ leagues.