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Changing Mentality: Conte Needs To Coach Winners

“For me, winning isn’t something that happens suddenly on the field when the whistle blows and the crowds roar. Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream” – Emmitt Smith

They left the field to rapturous applause having paid respect to their fans under the curva Scirea. shortly after completing a backs-to-the-wall win over a club that, despite being destined for relegation, did what all Serie A clubs do and raised their game for a visit to Turin. The Bianconeri had Gianluigi Buffon to thank for the win as he single-handedly kept a creative opponent at bay after Vincenzo Iaquinta and Claudio Marchisio had taken Juve’s only chances of the first half. The 2-0 victory saw Juventus open up a three-point lead at the top of Serie A and life with the Old Lady was seemingly as it always was.

Now for the bad news – that win came on September 19 2009 against Livorno and marks the last time Juve managed to win three games in a row (it was actually the fourth game of the season and the club had taken all three points in each). A sorry statistic for one of European footballs truly giant clubs and another sounding of the death knell for those who insist on a doom-laden outlook on the prospects of a return to the greatness that has eluded the side since its promotion to Serie A in 2007. With only two seasons of Champions League football in that time it is proving a much harder comeback than was first believed.

Part of that stems from the feelings of injustice at the circumstances of relegation while much of the blame – if that is the correct term – lays with the ease at which second place was achieved in just the second season back in the top flight. Both gave false hope to a fan-base desperate for a return to dominance, the default status of Juventus for many of today’s fans who have never gone two seasons without seeing their heroes lift a trophy, and also to the men charged with running the club at that time.

A quick-fix has never been the way at this grandest of clubs however. Rivals Milan have often found a solution that has seen a boom-and-bust existence since the clubs all-conquering early 1990′s era, winning just three Scudetti in the last sixteen years. Juve have built slowly and patiently, eventually creating a dynasty that would last, described always in Italy as a ‘cycle’. The club has enjoyed six such periods in its illustrious history, all under the stewardship of an Agnelli and the latest family member to oversee the running of la vecchia Signora seems determined to continue in those traditions.

While a healthy balance sheet can never replace trophies, the advent of UEFA’s Financial Fair-Play regulations means it will have an ever-increasing impact on how we view football and its teams as the rules come into effect. The recent losses posted by Juventus (€39.5m) have been widely used as further evidence of failure, but given the €121m cost of the new stadium – not to mention the revenue it will subsequently generate – it remains a healthy position. Given that the cost of building the stadium is not governed by those FFP rules it is an even more impressive indicator of the work done by both Beppe Marotta and especially former CEO Jean-Claude Blanc.

None of that truly matters to many fans however, their only concern being the clubs position in the league table and the likelihood of winning a trophy as soon as possible. That possibility has perhaps never felt as distant as it does today and the transfer strategy of last summer is widely condemned as being the major contributing factor. Many believe three players could have been added to last years squad and seen a more competitive team than the current one, but that misses the point of what is being built as the average age of the squad was significantly reduced while the wage bill was even more dramatically reduced.

The other complaint is that there are too many players from Italy’s provinciali – the smaller clubs – with insults about Juve turning into Udinese or Sampdoria never too far away. There is some truth here, but not in the belief the players lack the ability, skill and determination necessary to succeed. That accusation does a huge disservice to some excellent players like Leonardo Bonucci and Simone Pepe who have come to embody the oft-invoked ‘spirito Juve’ more than most.

Where the point carries weight is with the mental ability of these players to adjust to being a club where winning, as Giampiero Boniperti would have it, ” Winning is not important. It’s the only thing that matters”. Having to deal with that pressure is something a player at Udinese or Bari does not have to consider and that has often shown in the players approach to some matches. While eradicating complacency rests with the Mister, a coach is powerless to prevent mental lapses that are wholly acceptable at a less pressured club.

Perhaps it is in recognition of this that the owners – both club President Andrea Agnelli and EXOR chief John Elkan – have chosen to bring back Antonio Conte. The former captain is, to many of the clubs younger fans, the very embodiment of ‘Juventinita’.

The wide-spread opinion is that at least he will bring the winning spirit back to the club, but in order to succeed he will need much much more than that. His name will buy him some breathing space if required but, even once the initial joy and nostalgia wears out, supporters have quickly altered the last word of his old chant.

Will the new stadium reverberate to cries of “Senza di te non andremo lontano, Antonio Conte è il nostro allenatore”? We will soon find out.

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