Mister Gone: Credit Conte But Don’t Dismiss DELNERI

Bewildered, disliked by the majority of supporters and looking ever more out of his depth, Gigi Delneri entered the press conference at the Vinovo training complex last May and informed the audience of reporters that his time in Turin had come to an end. “There will be a new Coach at Juventus next season,” declared the sixty-one year old in his heavy and notoriously difficult-to-understand Friulani accent, going on to add that he had been informed three days earlier, just after leading the club to what was the tenth defeat of the season the previous weekend.

That loss, combined with other results, ensured the Bianconeri would be absent from Europe altogether the following season and compounded what had already been a savagely disappointing campaign. Failing to advance from the Group Stage of the Europa League and being eliminated from the Coppa Italia in a disappointing Quarter Final display against Roma, Delneri’s Juventus were a failure almost any way you judged them.

His departure became inevitable as fans continued similar protests to those which marred the short and ill-fated tenure of Alberto Zaccheroni just twelve months previously. Seats were burnt at the stadium as both coach and players were berated at matches, training and even as they went for dinner with their families. The malaise and depressed air that permeated into almost every facet of Italian football’s grand Old Lady could continue no longer and Director General Beppe Marotta, along with President Andrea Agnelli, made what the former described as a “sad, difficult but ultimately necessary decision” in an interview with La Stampa.

A few weeks later and Antonio Conte swept back into the club he had loved ever since he was old enough to follow football, despite growing up in the deep south of the peninsula. His positive approach, unrelenting desire and surprisingly astute tactical acumen have – despite a number of difficult moments – transformed the club back into the Juventus of old; a ruthlessly efficient, tough to beat side with that intangible winning mentality which seemed to forever elude them under every coach since Fabio Capello’s hasty exit some five years earlier.

Yet to follow the popular narrative and put the achievement down solely to the returning hero while writing off Delneri’s impact on the club and its players is almost too easy. Granted, he oversaw what was one of the most disappointing seasons in the clubs storied 114 year history, but failing to see anything positive that came from his single season at the helm is to ignore some blindingly obvious improvements as well as being highly ignorant of just how poor a state the club was in when he arrived in May 2010. At that same media gathering where he announced his sacking, Delneri made a number of comments which bear reading once again as he went on to say;

I accept this choice, even if I’d repeat everything again. I was proud to be given the Juventus job initially, which is why I gave up on the Champions League with Sampdoria. The club asked me to get the best results we could and admitted the Scudetto was a big ask, especially after so many changes. In any case, I can never consider this experience to be a personal defeat. The Bianconeri bench helped me to mature as a Coach.

Whilst his mindset and understanding of what it took to hold such a prestigious role can obviously be questioned, there are a number of positive factors on display in the side which toppled Milan to become Champions of Italy which are a direct result of that year spent under the guidance of Delneri. Clearly Conte’s arrival has been the biggest factor in the turnaround from the two woeful seventh place finishes that preceded his appointment, but even he would be forced to concede a debt owed to his predecessor.

Perhaps many of these factors are intangible and could indeed have been achieved under any number of coaches, the fact remains they simply weren’t and credit must go to Delneri in each case. A major point of note with the currently out of work boss is the way he slowly reintegrated Gigi Buffon following his return from surgery as well as the arrival of Marco Storari with whom he had worked previously at Sampdoria. By not rushing him back, the Italy number one was able to heal properly and get back on the road to his best form, seen so clearly this term.

The goalkeeper’s have another reason to be thankful to their former boss as he is the man responsible for the presence of Claudio Filippi on the Bianconeri coaching staff and the former Roma and Chievo man has been vital to their continued excellence. Speaking to La Stampa last October Buffon said Filippi “has made us train with an obligation to improve in everything we do”, a focus he brings via a wonderful blend of charisma, humour, innovative training methods and meticulous attention to the small details that makes him among the very best in his profession.

Perhaps of foremost importance is the understanding developed between Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Paolo De Ceglie, a core of players essential to the outstanding defence which was the best in the division this season. The extensive and repeated drilling of the backline throughout last term is every inch as responsible as any changes made by Conte, while the arrival of Stephan Lichtsteiner has removed the problems which arose without a quality right-back in 2010-11.

Indeed, the last name on that list, 25 year old Paolo De Ceglie is perhaps the one man who benefitted most from the presence of Delneri as the coach spent many hours teaching, encouraging and schooling the left-back in the arts of defending both as a team and an individual. Under his tutelage, the Aosta native improved his positional sense, timing and tackling exponentially and it is hard to dispel the notion that the season could have been much different had he not suffered a heart-wrenching injury against Milan back in October.

Despite only making six appearances before his broken kneecap, the months between the coach’s arrival and that ill fated match had been invaluable to the player and his leap in quality is clearly one of the reasons Conte had the confidence to send Reto Ziegler to Turkey as well as seeing De Ceglie rewarded with a new five-year contract recently. His form this season stands comparison with the best left-backs in the league and perhaps should have been enough to see him in contention for a place in Cesare Prandelli’s Euro 2012 squad.

De Ceglie was one of a number of players who responded well to Delneri’s methods, although the other major names would be those of Alberto Aquilani, Felipe Melo and Milos Krasic, all deemed surplus to requirements by Conte following his arrival. Like all his other influences upon Juventus, these improvements seemingly stem from the very nature of the man, a mentality perhaps best described by club legend Dino Zoff – born just fourteen miles from Delneri’s home town of Aquileia – who told La Gazzetta dello Sport that the former Chievo and Sampdoria boss was “like all people from our region; concrete, realistic, highly experienced and knowledgeable about his craft.”

While the ultimate decision to end his stint with Juventus was most definitely the right decision for all concerned, fans of la vecchia Signora would do well to reserve a small debt of gratitude to the moustachioed Mister for any successes enjoyed by the current team. He undoubtedly – and quite rightly – took the majority of the blame for a terrible season but Gigi Delneri did make some invaluable improvements to the squad and deserves to be recognised for it.

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