Antonio Conte’s Juve: The beginning of a dynasty

There wasn’t a single empty seat. Over 41,000 people were celebrating on their feet, as a pin-point through ball from Andrea Pirlo dissected the Parma defence to reach Stephan Lichtsteiner, with the Swiss full-back bagging the first goal in the new Juventus stadium.

Juventus won their first game of that season with four goals, but it wasn’t just another victory. It was the start of something magnificent in Turin, a remarkable journey for La Vecchia Signora, and she has been enjoying her reign over Italian football ever since. 

Yet the first hand that led the Old Lady to her throne is now aiming to depose her from her seat, and grant the command to her worst enemy.

Antonio Conte, now into his second season at Inter, has assembled an experienced squad hoping to put an end to his former team’s dominance over the most prestigious trophy in the country. But how did it all start? How did Juventus become the longest reigning champions in the history of Italian football?

Following the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, Juventus were sent to Serie B for the first time in the club’s history, a stunning decision that convinced seven of their mega-stars to leave, with only a few top-flight players agreeing to replace them.

Yet one man’s curse is another man’s blessing. A number of the club’s finest players may have left, but a few of the academy’s brightest talents recognised an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.

We spoke to the club’s former left-back Paolo De Ceglie to tell us more about this experience:

 “It has been my dream since I was a little child to play for Juve’s first team and the fact that it actually happened was quite incredible! This was the best adventure in my life and what made it even better was that I could share it with Claudio [Marchisio] and Seba [Sebastian Giovinco],” he said.

That year in Serie B was a walk in the park for the Bianconeri. They topped the league, finishing six points clear of Napoli, and swiftly returned to compete with the best. The problem was they were not equipped to go toe-to-toe with Italy’s box office clubs.

The San Siro sides dominated the title race at the time, as Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho created an invincible Inter side, before Massimiliano Allegri clinched the Rossoneri’s last Scudetto title to date in 2011.

In the meantime, Juventus had four different coaches in four seasons, failing to grab any silverware. Their final two campaigns of this period saw them finish in seventh position, some way short of earning Champions League football.

The side needed a change of direction. President Andrea Agnelli stepped up, and with Juventus moving into the Allianz Stadium, he decided it was time to start a revolution. The club signed 12 new players in the summer, and brought in 42-year-old Conte from Siena.

We quizzed Turin-based journalist Lorenzo Bettoni on the feedback from the city when the appointment was made.

“He had won the Serie B title, but he was still only a promising young manager, but the fact that he was a Juventus player, it made the fans really happy and since the very first game against Parma he proved that his Juventus side would be something different from the last two seasons.

“Ferrara was also a Juventus man, but he had been in charge for less than one season two years before. Juve fans hoped Conte would be different but the general feeling was that Juve needed one of their legends to get back to greatness.”

As the former captain took the driver’s wheel at his beloved club, he selected Cristian Stellini, Angelo Alessio, Claudio De Filippi and Paolo Bertelli to join his coaching staff.

Bertelli was the fitness coach at Roma, before moving to Juventus. He was voted the best in his role in 2008, and has worked with the very best in the business, including Luciano Spalletti, Roberto Mancini, Maurizio Sarri before most recently joining Claudio Ranieri at Sampdoria.

We asked Bertelli about how he joined Juventus, his tenure with Conte and what makes him different from all the other coaches he worked with.

“AS Roma were changing their owner, so I had a meeting with Antonio Conte. He was looking for a fitness coach, and after that Juventus called me to join the club.

“I’m lucky that I have worked with a lot of great coaches in my career. What makes Antonio different is his pure energy on the field, he always asks his player to give their all, he asks for full commitment. His favourite saying is ‘Head, Heart, Legs’.

“I realized that energy from our first training session in Bardonecchia [where Juventus start their pre-season], he leaves nothing to chance and he controls everything. That includes the players’ diet and body weight, he is literally a hammer,” Bertelli said.

Conte’s zebras hit the ground running, kicking off the season with seven wins and four draws, including triumphs over Milan, Inter and Lazio. Then, at the end of November, Conte made a decision ahead of facing Napoli, that would mark a transformation in his coaching career, as he switched from his treasured 4-4-2 (4-2-4) formation to his now trademark 3-5-2 lineup.  

Bertelli added: “We switched to the 3-5-2 formation to make it possible for Marchisio, Pirlo and Vidal to all start in their most useful position. Of course, with this formation we had to adjust the training load, especially for the full-backs!

“The fact that we did not participate in any European competition made our job easier to plan the season in the right and steady steps.” 

The club focused on making their midfield trio start all the matches for the rest of the season and whether it was a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3 lineup, no one was able to stop the boys in black and white strips.

De Ceglie said: “I remember it was around February when we thought, wow, we can actually win this thing, and day by day, victory after victory, it happened!”

That was after clinching a controversial point from a draw against Milan, where a header by Sulley Muntari was disallowed even though the ball crossed the line before Gianluigi Buffon knocked it back out.

Football Italia’s Bettoni gave us his thoughts on the game: “People are still talking about Muntari’s goal here in Italy which is widely recognised as the moment when the season turned upside down. Juve would have been 2-0 down in the first half with that goal, but somehow it was not allowed.

“It changed a lot, for sure, but AC Milan still had an edge to win the Scudetto in the following months and they didn’t. It’s not the only reason why Juve won the title that season and definitely not the reason for AC Milan’s downfall ever since.”

The Rossoneri kept the title race tight for much of the season. Then, in the first week of April, ex-Juventus striker Amauri scored an 89th minute winner for Fiorentina to help his former club open up a clear lead over Il Diavolo.

Bertelli commented on that time saying: “Redemption! We started the season working very hard every day, with only one target in mind, redemption from these two past horrible seasons. Only after we defeated Palermo and Milan lost to Fiorentina were we really aware that we could win this, at the end we won the Scudetto and we were unbeatable! Sometimes dreams do come true.”

Reflecting on that remarkable season, De Ceglie pointed out the difference between Conte and the rest of the managers he worked with: “Deschamps, Ranieri, Ferrara, Zaccheroni, Delneri, each of them taught me something, but Conte taught me the most important thing: how to win.

“Conte taught us how to develop a spirit of sacrifice, how to not just work hard, but how to push our game to the very limit.”

Bettoni told us about the celebrations in Italy back then:

“The feeling among Juve fans was the same everywhere in the world. At the beginning of the season nobody thought Juve would win it after two successive seventh place campaigns. Arturo Vidal was an unknown midfielder bought for 10 million, Chiellini had never proven himself as a solid CB nor Bonucci did.

“But during that season, also thanks to the tactical invention of Conte, Juve went beyond expectations. There was enthusiasm throughout the whole season. It was the first Scudetto since the Calciopoli era and you had the feeling that everything had returned to normality with that Scudetto win.

“People gathered in many squares in Italy because Juve have fans everywhere in the country. People had the feeling that the dog days are over. Juve were back.”

Conte managed to orchestrate this stroke of genius, taking an underachieving Juventus side and making them undefeated champions in the space of a season. The club have gone from strength to strength since, lifting a further eight successive titles in the years after that breakthrough campaign.

In the omnipotence paradox, philosophers ask if an all-powerful God can create a prison so secure that he cannot escape from it. Today in Serie A we ask: has the mastermind Conte built a beast that even he cannot destroy? 

Words by Ramez Nathan: @RamezYNathan