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Antonio Conte at Barcelona: Desirable or disastrous?

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Photo via Imago

In the midst of a month with very few victories, rumours about Ronald Koeman’s potential dismissal have resurfaced yet again. The difference is, this time, they feel final. 

When a manager’s reign is coming to an end, the signs are clear as day. Barcelona’s performances are at an all-time low, the squad looks disjointed, and they are playing without purpose, with plenty of problems remaining unresolved.

New reports are surfacing every day, placing the Catalans in the rumour mill with a series of managers. Names like Xavi, Roberto Martinez, and Andrea Pirlo have all been mentioned, but one proven candidate lurks in the shadows, currently without a club. That is, Antonio Conte. 

In the following article, Barça Universal will explore whether the Blaugrana should pursue Conte, taking an in-depth look at his tactical approach, how that would fit in at the Camp Nou, and any potential shortcomings. 

From player to manager 

Before becoming a world-renowned manager, Antonio Conte had an extremely successful playing career. He made over 300 appearances across a 15-year span, captaining Juventus as they won the Champions League and multiple domestic titles. He also played at the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000, finishing with Italy as runners-up in both. 

A staple of Juve’s success as a player and manager. (Photo via Imago)

After retiring, Conte moved on to the managerial scene. He struggled with Arezzo in his first stint in charge but followed that up by winning Serie B with Bari. A few seasons later, he returned to his beloved club Juventus, guiding them to an unbeaten season in Serie A, a back-to-back win in 2012-13, and a record-breaking 102 points in 2013-14. 

Conte’s next stop was the Italian National Team. From 2014 to 2016, he notably led a (relatively) substandard squad to the Quarter-Finals of Euro 2016. 

From 2016 to 2018, Conte took charge of Chelsea. He won the 2016-17 Premier League title (along with the then-most wins in a single season), but was sacked after a poor 2017-18. 

Following his run in England, Conte took over Inter Milan and helped the Nerazzurri win their first Serie A title in over a decade. Since leaving the Italian giants in May 2021, he has been patiently awaiting his next appointment, while Barcelona not-so-subtly look at replacements for Koeman.

Tactical Overview

Conte’s style is demanding, intense, and incredibly effective. His teams are well-oiled machines, fluid yet solid at their best. He is particularly known for his man-management, as there are countless anecdotes and stories regarding his fiery energy and ability to motivate players. Conversely, it can sometimes rub players (and management) the wrong way, leaving behind broken relationships whenever he leaves a club. 

Brilliant manager, difficult man. (Photo via Imago)

Tactically, Conte has been a pioneer for the resurgence of the 3-5-2 formation in European football. The blueprint he established with his early-2010s Juventus sides and league-winning Chelsea have since been emulated by various managers. 

Utilizing the 3-5-2 (sometimes 3-4-3), Conte has played defensively, very attacking, and balanced, making him an overall pragmatic and flexible manager. In all, he prefers to play a high-tempo and direct brand of football, requiring squads full of pace and power. Still, his teams are not always high-pressing, as they often settle into a mid-block instead – but more on this later. 

With his general tactics in mind, let’s take a look at how Conte’s teams play in more depth. In the build-up, centre-backs are key for advancing the ball up the pitch, whether through carries or long-balls. With the latter, they can look for on-going runners or target men like Romelu Lukaku at Inter Milan or Diego Costa at Chelsea. In addition, the number 6, Marcelo Brozovic for the Nerazzurri, plays a vital role in this stage as well, distributing possession and dictating passages of play. 

Wing-backs – who basically play as wingers – are also instructed to push high-up. In fact, they are integral to attacks, offering width and constant runs down the flanks. In 2020-21, Inter’s first-choice wing-backs of Achraf Hakimi and Ivan Perisic combined for 24 goal contributions. They also tallied the team’s third and fourth most shots on goal. 

Wingbacks are instrumental in Conte’s system. (Photo via Imago)

In between the wing-backs are typically two or three midfielders who act as the engines of the team, both in terms of defensive pressure and offensive supply. Marcelo Brozovic and Nicolo Barella were stalwarts in the starting eleven whilst the last slot rotated between Christian Eriksen, Alexis Sanchez, and Arturo Vidal.  

Up front, Conte has employed both a front three and a pair. At Inter, Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez were a formidable duo, totalling 49 goals and 18 assists. They were given freedom to roam and drop into midfield, which in turn would throw defenders off track and give the other space to score. 

In terms of attacking play, Conte’s teams are, as aforementioned, extremely direct. His teams go from one goal to another at breakneck speed, needing only a few short, quick passes. Incidentally, Inter Milan scored more counter-attack goals in the 2020-21 Serie A season than any other team. This frequency also adds to the notion that Conte is not afraid to have his teams sit back and absorb pressure. 

Defensively, Conte’s sides are not high-pressing. Looking at last season’s Serie A, Inter had the seventh-lowest pressure rate, per fbref.com. Instead, they would form a mid-block, allowing opponents to pass around the back, all while waiting to capitalize on mistakes or dispossess them using their compact shape. 

Now the question is, how would his tactics (theoretically) translate to Barcelona? In many ways, Conte’s direct football would be a refreshing change of pace for a slow and dilapidated Blaugrana squad. Pushing that idea further, his potential starting lineup could include a three-man backline of Ronald Araujo, Eric Garcia, and Gerard Pique, along with attack-minded wing-backs Sergiño Dest and Jordi Alba.

Barcelona could offer Conte the player profiles he likes. (Photo via Imago)

The midfield trio would be Sergio Busquets, Pedri, and Frenkie De Jong, along with an attacking duo of Memphis Depay and Ansu Fati. Whether this squad at hand could play in his preferred systems is another problem entirely. Clear to most, Barcelona’s defence is not sturdy enough to absorb pressure, nor do they have enough pace to play on the break.

Positively, Conte could also bring balance and stability to a team that desperately lacks an identity. Additionally, Koeman proved last season that a 3-5-2 can work with the players at the club too. 

On the other hand, some would oppose his pragmatic tendencies and apparent comfortability with playing on the break. Still, being solid defensively does not necessarily make him a defensive-minded manager. 

Biggest Question Marks

One of the biggest questions that come with pursuing Antonio Conte is his reported salary demands and desires in the transfer market. In regards to the former, Barcelona are – for obvious reasons – in no position to offer any manager substantial wages.

The same point applies to the latter as well. If Conte wants a squad overhaul or mobility in the transfer market, the Catalans can simply not offer that either. Further, he is not exactly a stabilizing presence and could add to the distress already at the club. 

Barcelona are in no condition to splurge cash. (Photo via Imago)

It is also important to consider whether Conte is the right choice to lead a long-term project, one that necessitates patience and nurturing plenty of youngsters who need polishing and time to grow. Throughout his career, he has often been a short-term manager, rather than having prolonged exposure to one team. 

Setbacks on the biggest stage

Despite winning multiple league titles, there is still one stain on Conte’s résumé: a lack of success in the Champions League. The furthest he has led a team is to the quarter-finals (Juventus in 2012-13), and he has had countless early exits with squads that have warranted deep runs. 

In 2019/20, Inter admittedly made it to the Europa League final, but they lost to Sevilla 2-3. 

Last season, his Inter side failed to make it out of the Champions League group stages– or even to the Europa League – as they finished last to Real Madrid, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Shakhtar Donetsk. That disappointing run saw them win only once. 

Barcelona have not impressed in the Champions League either, but looking for a manager with a proven track record in the competition is important. 

The Champions League rut has to come to an end (Photo via Imago)

Closing thoughts

In all, wanting Conte at Barcelona comes down to whether one would rather prioritize (potential) short-term results, or exercise patience and think long-term. His credentials are nearly flawless and one can not argue against his merit as a manager or tactician.

After all, his résumé and tactical know-how speak for themselves, even if he has admittedly struggled on the biggest stage. However, he is not the optimum choice to stay put and help drag Barcelona out of the gutter – for good. 

He may not be a long-term solution, but as a short-term fix, he stands shoulders above the rest. The only problem is, Barcelona should steer clear of short-term thinking.

Throughout my life of constant change, one thing has never faltered: my love for FC Barcelona. Whether through watching every game, listening to pundits, or playing FIFA and Football Manager, I've always wanted an outlet to express my passion for the team. Barça Universal gives me the perfect opportunity to do so, as I can combine my love of writing with my love of Barça and the sport.

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  1. olcay seref

    28/09/2021 at 13:49

    I think, Conte is not the right man for barca right now, I would suggest letting koeman finish his work, giving him the time he need s, the team is not that bad right now, especially with the comeback of important players (dembele, agüero, Bälde). And barca should trust also their young talents, if Conte arrives, he will buy new players, and that is something I don’t like. The future of barca should be somewhat an independence of that absurd player-, overpriced, overrated, overhyped transfermarket

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      30/09/2021 at 21:12

      I agree that Koeman should stay rather than letting Conte in, but I don’t see Koeman as a long-term choice still.

  2. Twum

    28/09/2021 at 17:52

    I would go for Erik ten Hag and Alfred Schreuder. Master tacticians. Both understand the type of play needed for Barcelona……Cruyfistas

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      30/09/2021 at 21:11

      I was particularly impressed with Schreuder during the Levante game, regardless of how much advice Koeman was giving him. I’m curious to see how the team will perform against Atletico this weekend under him.

  3. Steve johnson

    28/09/2021 at 21:29

    Conte would be an interesting choice, but as you say could be a great gamble abd could lead to disaster for Barca especially if Laporta medles with whatConte does. Although Conte record so far is amazing. Juve, Chelsea, Inter, comparing the year before Conte took over and his first year the average championship points difference his team achieved was over 18 points, and if one compares his 2nd year to the year before he took over then it becomes 24 points! On all of those 3 times he has taken an “average” team, spend quite less than what man city or psg spend on average, or for example what chelsea spend last year, and he has improoved the team by 18 points in his first year and then by another 6 on his second. Comparing with Pep, Barca, Bayern, Man City, on his first year he only managed an average of extra 9 points compared to the points the club had reached the year before he took over!

    • Jan-Michael Marshall

      30/09/2021 at 21:13

      There’s no doubt Conte is one of the world’s best. I’m sure he could squeeze out the best from this Barca team, but I only see it as a short-term solution again.

      • Steve johnson

        30/09/2021 at 23:46

        The best solution is maybe a short term one, one that ensures that Barca finish 4th or better in la liga for the next couple of years and ensure playing in the cl groups stage, even playing poorely. A solution that buys time, time for revenue to increase and financials to recover. Time to short out the scouting and transfer desission making process at Barca that has been so bad since the end of 2016. Even time to wait until the end of 2023 and try to get Pep back, however difficult that maybe.
        A long term solution may become a huge trap. One or two mistakes in the first few years of a long term solution and a 5th or lower place in la liga for a couple of years and one starts missing out the 40-50 million per year from the cl groups stage. Then things spiral out and the long term solution becomes very much long term like it has been for Milan or Man United (around 10 years long term).
        The problem with Conte or Tuchel is that the moment someone will medle with their plan, or try to interffere or change what was promised, they do not give much of a 2nd though about leaving (unlike for example Murinho who probably overstayed at Man United). If one could make sure to keep Conte for 2 or 3 years, and forgets about things like club identity or playing with the 4-3-3 formation, and consentrates simply on getting points (however bad the type of play looks compared to Barca the last 15 years or so) then maybe this kind of short term solution would lead faster to recovery and can be followed quicker by a longer term stolution.
        The major problem with Conte is probably that he would ask for certain spending levels for transfers and other modifications on how things are done at Barca while he took over. Laporta would not be able to guarantee or even give any indications of what could be expected and then Conte would simply walk away. And that coukd happen even if he had won la liga 10 days earlier, and then Barca would have to find another short or long term solution. And probably that is the main reason things are unlikely to work between Barca and Conte.