As a player for Juventus in the 1990s, Antonio Conte himself would admit to being the least gifted of a midfield unit which featured Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Vladimir Jugovic and Edgar Davids.
Upon signing for the Bianconeri from Lecce in 1991 he confessed to being overawed by the figures around him in the dressing room: “There was the great Trapattoni. There was Roberto Baggio. I was very emotional. I was a player-fan.”
But Conte’s significance to that squad in turning them into the premier force in Italian and, for a period, European football while ending AC Milan’s dominance of Serie A lay in a sheer bloody-minded determination to be better.
Maybe it was fuelled by a belief to make up for any apparent shortcomings or the fact he was playing for the boyhood club of his dreams, but Conte’s work ethic and energy proved infectious as he became club captain in 1997, a position he held until retirement in 2004.
However, it wasn’t just a desire to run himself into the ground and make the absolute most of every opportunity he was given in the black and white, another of Conte’s great attributes was his brain.
Three giants of Italian management: Giovanni Trapattoni, Marcello Lippi and Carlo Ancelotti made him their on-field lieutenant; mirroring the message of hark work and defensive diligence in leading by example. Where Conte ran, others followed and his determination to place such high demands on himself and those around him also led to a natural progression in his own game. As he soaked up knowledge, those apparent technical failings eroded and he became a more accomplished midfielder as he advanced in years.
Conte was always a prime candidate to go into management and it’s little surprise he’s been drawn to players who he sees a bit of himself in and can vicariously play the game though.
Arturo Vidal was one of his first signings as Juventus coach, in 2011, labelling him a “complete midfielder”; the Chilean now established as one of the foremost box-to-box midfield forces in world football who also pertinently said of his coach in 2013, “Conte has enhanced my qualities and has got me to see football in a different way, a much more professional way. He is obsessed by a culture of work.”
Complete was the adjective he has also afforded Paul Pogba after turning the France international from an overlooked talent at Manchester United into the world’s most expensive footballer.
Il Polpo (the Octopus) was a bit of everything: a passer, playmaker, industrious tackler, goalscorer, but most of all he got up and down the field with boundless vigour.
And for all Pogba’s failings at United this season – of which many have been exaggerated – a lack of work ethic is not one. Although sharing similar qualities to Vidal and Pogba, N’Golo Kante is perhaps the closest Conte has come to the embodiment of him as a player.
A slow-burner, he was a tackling workhorse at French overachievers Caen before then-Leicester director of football Steve Walsh brought him to England. Walsh revealed Kante’s own Conte-like self-doubt recalling in the Sunday Times how the midfielder approached him at Leicester for advice of playing internationally for Mali over France because he felt he wasn’t good enough for Les Bleus.
We all now know that to be nonsense and Kante’s development has taken him to the very top of the English game as he was rightfully named PFA Player of the Year.
Conte’s change to a failing squad has been minimal in personnel, which perhaps emphasises his own effect on the dressing room, but those few that were bought in – Michy Batshuayi aside – have made seismic impacts. None more so than Kante who with every tackle, interception, lung-busting run and block sets the tone for how Conte wants his team to play.
He is a continuity player who sets the tempo and allows them to break quickly in transition with his quick and decisive use of possession – Chelsea lead the league in counter-attacking goals.
What’s more, he is still only 26 and as a relative late bloomer and given his rise in the game so far, with Conte behind him there is every reason to suggest he can get better; become more creative and offer more of an attacking threat.
That all depends on what his boss wants to do with him but what is clear is that as long as Conte remains in the Stamford Bridge dugout, so Kante will be on the pitch. It’s the closest the Italian can get to being out there himself.
As he said last month: “I was this type of player. And I always appreciated this type of player, with great generosity, great ability to work for the team. I think it’s important to have this type of player if we want to win.”
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