Antonio Conte heard the song before. “Pazza Inter Amala,” Inter’s catchy anthem, celebrates the club’s volatile nature. It’s about things happening by chance, last-gasp winners, endless drama, and infinite suffering.
He had heard enough. Inter had spent years doing things off the cuff. For two seasons running, they qualified for the Champions League on the final day. They needed crazy turnarounds to achieve results. Nothing seemed to happen by design. So the song, which usually played before home games, was banned. Conte wanted his new team to get serious. He wanted his team to win because they deserved to win. He wanted control.
The results are plain to see. Inter are first in Serie A with a perfect six wins out of six. Despite a small setback in the Champions League – a disappointing 1-1 draw with Slavia Prague – the Nerazzurri have shown incredible poise and a steely determination that’s been lacking for the better part of a decade.
Certain things had to happen for Conte to achieve that harmony. First, he shipped out the most disruptive influences. Then, he brought in players who fit his mold. A dressing room divided by nationality suddenly became whole. Distractions were shut out entirely. Inter dumped Mauro Icardi – whose wife and agent Wanda Nara regularly aired grievances on Italian television – and even risked a lawsuit to get him off the team.
Conte may not deal with players with the utmost tact – he famously sent Diego Costa packing by text – but he knows when things have to change. He doesn’t have time for niceties.
To reverse the club’s toxic culture, the 50-year-old established hard rules his players and staff would have to live by. He set restrictions on the use of social media and enforced a strict diet. Chicken and salad are the only items on the matchday menu.
“A healthy life and a correct diet count almost as much as kilometers in training,” Carlo Angioni wrote in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Conte also decided to lock down the area around the club’s training ground. Jose Mourinho did something similar when he was in charge of Inter, and the additional privacy helped them win the 2009-10 Champions League. After years of public embarrassment, Inter needed a secure place for team building.
Conte has a knack for saving teams in distress. He found Juventus in seventh place and led them to three consecutive Scudetti. Then, he took over the Italian national team and coaxed unbelievable performances out of the country’s worst team in a generation. And just a year after Mourinho and Guus Hiddink left Chelsea in pieces and Eden Hazard a shell of himself, Conte inspired the Blues to a Premier League title.
His defining principles may seem purely tactical in nature – the Premier League widely copied Conte’s back three during his time in England – but his sense of order and camaraderie is his standout quality. Much like Mourinho, Conte is a manager who builds a strong affinity with a core group of players. The ones who don’t buy in are cast aside.
Conte began to build that trust in July and August. He put his players through double training sessions, not to inflict pain but to foster a meritocracy that champions hard work. New signings aren’t guaranteed playing time – €22-million man Valentino Lazaro is yet to make a start – and fringe players aren’t destined to sit on the sidelines. Everyone has a fair chance.
Who could’ve imagined Antonio Candreva – a winger whose errant crosses became meme-worthy last season – playing a prominent role on this team? But he’s looked good. So good, in fact, one Spanish newspaper picked out Candreva as a player to watch in Wednesday’s showdown against Barcelona.
Conte’s willingness to rotate has stimulated healthy competition. He made seven changes to his starting 11 last weekend and gave Alexis Sanchez his first start of the season. Chances will come to those who earn it.
Now it’s on the players to enact Conte’s vision of football. Signs emerged through the first six games: The wing-backs are pushing up and driving the attack forward, the midfielders are covering ground and fighting for second balls, and the center-forwards are holding up play and pressing from the front. They’re not yet the most exciting unit going forward but they’re the most resolute, having conceded just twice in the league.
What’s important is the way his players interact with each other, the way they live on and off the pitch, and the way they approach their job day by day. The tenets of Conte’s football – professionalism, commitment, and consistency – are straightforward. It just takes a group of players who have discipline.
Thanks to a meticulous transfer campaign, Conte has exactly that.