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Conte vs Sarri vs Ancelotti: The Serie A Title Race

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It’s now two decades since Serie A was Europe’s dominant league, and therefore getting overexcited about an upcoming Italian football season essentially turns you into a mixture of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and an England football supporter.

The spirit of 1999 lives on! Calcio’s coming home!

But this Serie A campaign could genuinely prove to be the most exciting of the 21st century.

Serie A in the 1990s was enthralling not merely because of the outstanding quality of players but because of two other major factors. First, there was genuine competitiveness at the top, with the ‘seven sisters’ all starting the campaign with a genuine chance of winning lo scudetto. Second, there was a deep-rooted tactical debate within Italian football during that period, almost a civil war between those who preached traditional Italian values, and those who wanted a more progressive, entertaining style.

For 2019-20, there are hints of those days. In terms of star players, Cristiano Ronaldo provides global appeal. In terms of competitiveness, there are three sides — Juventus, Napoli and Inter — who have a decent chance of success. And in terms of the tactical debate, those three sides are coached by three men with completely different approaches: Maurizio Sarri, Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte. Again, this can all be traced back to the 1990s, and more specifically, to the legacy of Arrigo Sacchi.

Sacchi, who won two European Cups with Milan in the late 1980s, is often considered European football’s last great revolutionary but the affection for his methods is stronger outside the peninsula than within it. Sacchi was Italian, but not a true product of the Italian game. He was never a professional player, was therefore never influenced by traditional Italian coaches, and instead marvelled over the attack-minded but systematic football played at Ajax.

The Italian game was considered to be defensive, short-termist and results-based. Sacchi hated it. He wanted Total Football rather than Catenaccio, and therefore developed a Dutch style of play at Milan, complete with three Dutchmen in key positions.

Traditional Italian coaches deployed man-marking and a sweeper, which meant a deep defensive block, and then relied on a languid trequartista for attacking inspiration. Sacchi ditched the sweeper and used a ‘flat’ defence to play an aggressive offside trap, and therefore required everyone to press in a compact shape, which meant no room for a trequartista. Sacchi’s methods divided Italy, particularly during his period as national team coach, between 1991 and 1996. Some coaches marvelled at his attempts to revolutionise the Italian game, but many more – most notably Giovanni Trapattoni – were desperate for a return to old-school ‘defensivist’ play.

You can place every Italian coach somewhere on the Sacchi-Trapattoni spectrum. Sarri is on the left, the closest thing to Sacchi. Conte is to the right, similar to Trapattoni. Ancelotti, meanwhile, occupies the centre-ground. The battle between this triumvirate, as much as the presence of Ronaldo, could reinvigorate Italian football.

Conte is a decade younger than both Sarri and Ancelotti, yet is the most old-school, traditionally Italian coach. Inter have appointed him for his focus upon discipline, hard work and tactical acumen, rather than because of any suggestion he’ll encourage spectacular football. Conte played under Sacchi for the Italian national side, and also under Ancelotti at Juventus, but his true coaching inspirations were two classic devotees of the old Italian system, Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi. Conte described Trapattoni as “like a second father” and credits Lippi, who handed him the Juventus captaincy, for instilling his win-at-all-costs mentality.

Conte’s performance as manager of Juve, where he won three straight titles, and Chelsea, where he won the Premier League and FA Cup, was outstanding. His achievements with the Italian national side shouldn’t be underestimated either — Conte took an entirely unspectacular side to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, a run which featured perhaps the best performance of the tournament in the 2-0 second round victory over Spain, and then elimination to Germany only on penalties.

Throughout pre-season, Inter — and the club’s youth teams, upon Conte’s request — have played 3-5-2, a system that harks back not merely to Conte’s spells with Juventus, Italy and Chelsea, but also to the good old days of catenaccio. In Diego Godin, Inter have signed arguably the world’s most formidable penalty box defender, a centre-back distinctly Italian in style,  a battler rather than a technician. He’s now 33 and increasingly immobile, but that shouldn’t be an issue in Conte’s deep defence.

The signings of Italian youngsters Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi provide promise of technical quality in midfield, and Conte will support them with hard-working, versatile, unfashionable workhorses — the type of player he was. Up front, meanwhile, there is genuine quality in the form of Romelu Lukaku, the type of classic striker Conte loves (especially when compared to Sarri). Mauro Icardi remains at the club, while Alexis Sanchez may yet join. Conte will devote considerable time on the training ground to developing combination play between his star forwards.

But for Italian traditionalists like Conte, no one is bigger than the manager. Having won the title in his first season at both Juve and Chelsea, who had finished seventh and 10th respectively the season before his appointment, the task of taking Inter from fourth to first seems less daunting. What is required, though, is a change in attitude. In recent years, Inter have seemed indisciplined, unfocused and often lacking a clear identity.

Conte will go back to basics, and while the clubs’ name celebrates its internationalism, Internazionale will be the most typically Italian of the title contenders.

Of these three coaches, Ancelotti is the only one who was in position last year, taking Napoli to second place. Much as expected  — which has largely been the story of his career. For all his European success and his impressive track record of succeeding abroad, Ancelotti has only won a single Scudetto from 10 seasons where he’s been in charge of a title-challenger.

When Ancelotti started his coaching career in the mid-1990s (while Conte was still captaining Juve and Sarri was working in a bank) he was the closest disciple of Sacchi, having starred in his great Milan side and then retired to become his assistant for the Italian national team. Ancelotti initially concentrated on following Sacchi’s template, which meant no trequartista. In his first Serie A role, with Parma, he famously sold Gianfranco Zola and turned down Roberto Baggio, because his system simply couldn’t accommodate that type of player.

Today, it’s difficult to get your head around that version of Ancelotti — he’s now the go-to coach for managing superstar players and cramming them into the same side. He credits his re-thinking to his experience with Zinedine Zidane at Juventus. The Frenchman was such a talented playmaker, and his team-mates were so happy to indulge him that Ancelotti changed his formation and subsequently changed his approach to team building: he learned to love superstars. Zidane, naturally, now coaches in the manner of Ancelotti.

Thereafter, Ancelotti was a different manager entirely. When moving on to Milan, he sometimes fielded four playmakers in the same side and at Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich was appointed because of his reputation for managing stars. At Bayern he encountered serious problems with key players, however; not because they disliked Ancelotti personally but because they were shocked by the lack of specific tactical direction in training. Ancelotti has now come to be regarded as a laissez-faire coach, certainly by Italian standards. As Sacchi explained last year, Ancelotti “inspires confidence and trust — he might not have the obsessive nature that I had with tactics, which I think Pep Guardiola also shares, that perfectionism.”

Sure enough, last year’s Napoli weren’t particularly interesting tactically. Ancelotti initially continued with Sarri’s 4-3-3 before switching to 4-4-2 and sometimes 4-2-3-1. Arek Milik, Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne all reached double figures in Serie A goals but it was difficult to argue that the system maximised the ability of the star individuals.

The imminent signing of the speedy Mexican Hirving Lozano provides yet more attacking quality while Kostas Manolas’ arrival forms the most solid centre back partnership in Serie A, with Kalidou Koulibaly. These arrivals aren’t truly transformative, however, and if Napoli are to win Serie A, it will probably involve them winning a similar number of points to last season, and Juventus falling away.

And that — more than at any point in recent years — could well happen, because Sarri’s appointment is absolutely fascinating and a complete step into the unknown for Juventus.

The closest figure to Sacchi since the man himself, as an outsider with no professional background whose raison d’etre is transforming Italian football, Sarri proved inspiration for Europe’s elite coaches at Napoli, where he transformed a structured, slightly dull side into a relentless attacking machine, with clever movement, quick interplay and a willingness to provoke the opposition’s press before playing through it. His season-long spell at Chelsea was peculiar; he won the Europa League and finished third, all that could have been expected, but supporters disliked his emphasis on possession play, and few of them were disappointed when he departed.

Sarri’s problem, though, is that having failed to overhaul Chelsea’s traditional identity, he faces an even tougher task in Turin. Juventus, of all European football’s major clubs, place the greatest importance upon the simple concept of winning. Traditionally, Juve have little interest in being entertainers or tactical innovators. It’s about winning matches and winning trophies, and if that means defensive football, focusing upon nullifying the opposition, deploying players out of position for tactical reasons, or entirely less savoury practices altogether, so be it.

Sarri, even with his first-ever medal clinched in his final game in that unhappy spell at Chelsea, couldn’t be a less suitable fit. He’s unquestionably the most attack-minded coach Juventus have appointed since 1990, when they recruited cult figure Gigi Maifredi on the back of three outstanding seasons at Bologna, football so thrilling that Sacchi would regularly encourage his Milan to play more like Maifredi’s side. At Juventus, despite the fact the club had just broken the world transfer record to sign Roberto Baggio, Maifredi flopped dramatically. Juve finished seventh, their worst season for three decades, and would never again turn to ‘champagne football’ — Maifredi had previously worked as a wine salesman — again. Until now.

Sarri will stick resolutely to 4-3-3. Ronaldo, who has become more of an outright centre forward with every passing season, will be fielded in that role but encouraged to drop deep and participate in build-up play rather than merely waiting in the box for crosses. Sarri’s approach may bring out the best from the tricky Federico Bernardeschi — still considered a promising youngster but now 25 — and Paulo Dybala, who Juventus seemed content to sell this summer but could become Sarri’s new version of Lorenzo Insigne or Eden Hazard.

The midfield has been boosted with the signing of Aaron Ramsey, who offers powerful forward runs, and Adrien Rabiot, who will operate deeper. But the major signing is Matthijs de Ligt, who only turned 20 last week yet will, if all goes according to plan, prove the new symbol of Juventus: he’s technically exceptional and perfect for Sarri’s possession play yet ultimately, is an old-school, no-nonsense physical defender who excels in the air and is therefore typical of Juve’s traditions. If there was any question about the ‘Spirito Juve’, the return of 41-year-old Gigi Buffon after a poor campaign with PSG will provide extra dressing room experience.

Ultimately, Juventus should win the title. They’ve won it eight times in a row and bookmakers consider them odds-on favourites this time too, but this season is about Juve’s style as much as their success, and there are essentially four possible outcomes.

If Juve win the title in style, Sarri will be celebrated. If Juve win the title without style, no-one will bat an eyelid. If Juve don’t win the title and don’t play with style, Sarri will be sacked. But the most intriguing possibility is the fourth: Juventus don’t win the title, but do play with style.

Will supporters embrace the new philosophy? Will the players stay behind their coach? Will the board give Sarri the opportunity to build a long-term project?

In a funny way, failing to win the title but being granted a second season would represent the greatest possible success for Sarri — he would have transformed the approach of Europe’s most stubborn, results-based club.

Conte v Sarri v Ancelotti: this could be the best Serie A title race for years.

By Michael Cox

The Athletic - The New Home of Football Writing

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Three managers all virtually different in philosophies. Genuinely hoping Conte makes a difference to the league 

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I’d love it to be Ancelotti. Napoli should come in second minimum. 

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First one has to ask; what the hell is Juventus doing? They are an odd club right now, you could be safe to say that they are more focused on brining attention to the club than trophies. Changing their logo to the easy to reproduce and infinitely scalable (for mobile usage) Jj; to putting all their eggs in the basket of an aging superstar. They are absolutely stacked with players, they could field a B team and win second and first place in the league. 

I wonder how long Juventus can keep up the spending on transfers and huge contracts. You'd have to this bubble will pop soon, with so much money being spent on players they aren't even starting every week. You could argue a starting spot for all twenty-six players they have.

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Also INTER MILAN, have more Italians players in their squad than Juventus. What sort of bizarro world are we living in?

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