Juventus’s large army of fans across the globe have been in raptures this season as the Turin giants have produced a superb campaign to capture their 28th Serie A title. Top of the standings for much of their Scudetto pursuit, La Vecchia Signora (Old Lady) are now determined to lay down a major marker in the history of the Italian game by finishing the season unbeaten when they face Atalanta on Sunday.
The club’s return to the limelight has much to do with two men who have endeavoured to revive the ‘Juve spirit’ with a combination of elegance and efficiency. Appointed president at the age of 26 in May 2010, Andrea Agnelli wasted little time in bringing Antonio Conte, 42, on board as coach, no doubt inspired by the example set by Josep Guardiola at Barcelona.
A mainstay of the Juve midfield from 1992 to 2004, Conte made 412 appearances for I Bianconeri before hanging up his boots and was quickly able to communicate his winning mentality to the players. “This is Antonio Conte’s Scudetto,” explained the Turin side’s sporting director Giuseppe Marotta. “He’s restored confidence to the whole club.”
In particular, his methods have had a stunning effect on Gianluigi Buffon, the goalkeeper having been plagued by a herniated disk ever since the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Many thought the 34-year-old’s career at the top was drawing to a close, particularly as back-up custodian Mario Storari had put in a string of fine performances.
Conte immediately put his faith in Buffon, however, and placed his former team-mate back between the posts at the start of the season. Now, with one match to go, Gigi stands as the last line of Serie A’s most miserly defence this term, with just 19 goals conceded and an incredible 21 clean sheets.
Deal of the century
Further forward, Juve pulled off a major coup by luring Andrea Pirlo to the club from AC Milan. Out of contract with I Rossoneri, the 33-year-old made the switch looking for a fresh challenge after ten years of success at the San Siro, just as Conte took the reins.
The new coach did not promise Pirlo miracles; instead, he spoke about imposing a playing style based on the movement of players off the ball and the occupation of space. It was music to the ears of a midfielder renowned for precision passing and laser-guided through balls.
The results have been astonishing, with Juve snapping up a highly motivated player for free and Tinkerbell going on to enjoy the best championship campaign of his career, starting 36 games so far, playing 3,228 minutes of action and weighing in with three goals and 12 assists. Much of that success can be traced back to Conte’s influence too, the man in charge building his midfield around the veteran by teaming him up with 26-year-old Claudio Marchisio – billed as ‘the new Marco Tardelli’ – the solid Simone Pepe and versatile Chilean Arturo Vidal.
"My players and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to attitude,” Conte has said. “I’m also lucky enough to be able to call upon players with huge experience, like Buffon, who helps me pass my messages on. As a result, my squad is very tight and talks more about ‘we’ than ‘I’.”
With or without the ball
On the pitch, Conte’s charges have typically played an ambitious attacking football inspired by the style Barcelona have perfected in recent years – and one completely in line with the coach’s philosophy. “What I like most of all is to dictate the game,” he said.
“I like my team to have possession of the ball and to not restrict itself to lying in wait. I want a clear team framework which then allows individuals to shine. For that, you need to anticipate everything. Not in an obsessive way, but in a well-defined manner. The players need to know exactly what they have to do, with or without the ball.”
To put the icing on the cake, his side will now be anxious to see out their season undefeated. In fact, Milan are the only club to have previously clinched the title without suffering a single defeat, doing precisely that in 1991/92 and going 58 games unbeaten overall under pioneering coach Fabio Capello.
Ending the year with a zero in the losses column would therefore be a supreme achievement for I Bianconeri, and one fitting of a club whose greatness Capello himself understood during his spell in charge. “Juve are Juve,” he explained. “They should always be on top.”