In his six full seasons as a club manager, Antonio Conte has won the league five times. The one time he didn’t win, he was in charge of Serie B side Siena: that season he came second and won promotion. The title wasn’t really the aim.
The cups are a different story, though. Defeat in last weekend’s FA Cup final means Conte is yet to win a major domestic cup competition as a coach. Two Italian Supercups, and a Coppa Italia runners’ up medal in his first season with Juventus is about the best the Italian coach can do on that score.
Indeed, even during his playing career, Conte wasn’t one for cup competitions: he won five league titles in a dominant Juve side, but won no major cup competition more than once. That will hardly keep him up at night. After all, he did win the Coppa Italia, the Champions League, and the UEFA Cup. He was on the losing side in a World Cup final and a European Championship, but even then it was only on penalties in 1994 and to a golden goal in 2000. Both those finals could really have gone either way.
Still, it’s clear that Conte deals in league titles.
That leads to a tantalising comparison with another Italian to take charge of Chelsea in the Roman Abramovich era, Carlo Ancelotti. In many ways, Conte is the anti-Ancelotti. Whereas Conte wins league titles, Ancelotti has won only – only! – four league titles as a manager. To put that into context, though, this is a man with only one fewer Champions League victories than league victories. Four league titles in 20 years as a football coach, taking charge of some of Europe’s top clubs doesn’t look bad on a CV. But it’s hardly Conte levels of consistency, either.
Ancelotti’s autobiography is called I Prefer the Cup. Conte prefers the league.
Perhaps the explanation for this lies in their shared pathway to becoming a coach.
Both men attended the fabled Coverciano management course – an intense education at the Italian FA’s headquarters in the Coverciano suburb of Florence. It’s a four-week course where prospective managers work hard to earn their pro-licence, but such is the rigour of the oral examinations at the end of the process that the programme is known as Il Master – the master’s degree.
But how it produced two managers of such diverse ideas is all down to the ethos of the course: the ‘philosophy’ of Coverciano is that there are no philosophies. The course assigns no set texts, there is no ‘teaching’ in a formal sense – you learn by talking, by doing, and by forming your own ideas. In the end, it’s not about training managers – the retired players who turn up having done their early coaching badges are already managers. This is about training managers to think for themselves.
As a result, the fact that both Conte and Ancelotti have such opposite styles of management shows that the course is about allowing its students’ personalities to shine through more than anything else.
In the same vein, though, you wonder – if they have any designs at all on being managers – why John Terry would even think about leaving Chelsea while Conte is still the manager, or why Frank Lampard isn’t sprinting back to Chelsea at break-neck speed to beg the club to take him on as any coach at all, even the lowest of the low, earning minimum wage handing out towels to reserve team players. Whatever gets him in the door to see how Conte acts, thinks and works is sure to make him a better coach.
But Coverciano, and the philosophy that there are no philosophies, doesn’t explain the disparity in Conte’s abilities as a league manager and as a cup manager. It only explains why it’s possible for such a disparity to exist.
And maybe that’s where the self-expression comes in. In the end, you have to look at Conte’s character and how it contrasts with a man who prefers the cup.
When you compare Conte and Ancelotti, it’s the intensity levels of the two men that jumps out. One is famed for his relaxed demeanour, the other known as an intense winner. Whereas Ancelotti is the world’s greatest baby-sitter for inflated egos, you get the feeling that Conte would rather lose a kidney than lose a football match.
Conte’s intensity might work over a long season, keeping his players’ minds focused on their tasks and making sure that they put as much effort into a trip to Watford as they do when Arsenal come to Stamford Bridge. But in a way, cup games break that intensity. Just like a thunderstorm breaks the heat built up over days of humidity, a cup fixture changes the landscape and skews the focus.
But, just like at Coverciano, where there are no philosophies, perhaps there are no explanations in football. Maybe Conte has just had bad luck, and will prove his cup-winning credentials in the coming years. Or maybe no amount of laid-back baby-sitting will ever help his players to win cup competitions, as Conte is ‘doomed’ to go his entire career winning league title after league title. Or maybe, in contrast to Ancelotti, Conte just prefers the league.