Three summers ago Juventus was in turmoil. After exploding back into the Serie A after their forced exile from the top flight in 2006, the effects of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal were hitting the club in the mouth. The short-lived Luigi Del Neri era ended in a second consecutive seventh-place finish and out of Europe for the first time since their return to continental competition in 2008-09.
The team was in need of a serious rebuild. The man tabbed to lead it was former team captain Antonio Conte.
The decision to appoint Conte was somewhat controversial because of his spotty coaching record.
He had led Bari to promotion to Serie A, but had not been retained to coach the side in the top flight. He had recently achieved promotion with a second team, Siena, but there were black marks as well. Before that, he failed to keep Arezzo in Serie B during his first stint as a coach.
His only top-flight experience turned toxic halfway through the season when Atalanta's ultras turned on him. There was no certainty that he would succeed in such a high-profile position.
Any doubts, however, have been definitively dispelled. The Conte era as it stands has been a huge success—and who knows what else may be in store.
Only the tenures of Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi have seen more highlights than Conte's three-year reign. His first season with the team saw Serie A's first unbeaten season in a 20-team format. He has since led the team to its first three-peat since the 1930s and, this season, the first 100-point campaign in Italian history.
The key to Conte's success has been his ability to figure out what system gets the best out of his players.
A disciple of the unorthodox 4-2-4 formation when he was hired in 2011, Conte quickly realized that the acquisitions of Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal made that formation an ill fit for the team. He switched to a 4-3-3 that combined Pirlo and Vidal with Claudio Marchisio in midfield. Vidal and Marchisio both had breakout seasons and Juve quickly boasted one of, if not the best midfields in Europe.
But it wasn't enough. The team's defense had a problem. While the long-vulnerable right-back position had finally been solidified with the signing of Stephan Lichtsteiner, the left flank was still a weakness. Paolo De Ceglie failed to make the position his own. An experiment in moving Giorgio Chiellini back to his original position proved that this was only a suitable option in an extreme emergency.
He had no viable left-back, but he had three center-backs that were above average to elite. So he switched from the 4-3-3 to the now-familiar 3-5-2. It put his best defensive players—Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini—on the field at the same time and eliminated the weak left-back position altogether.
The results of all these adjustments was spectacular. The defense, much-maligned the year before, let in only 20 goals all year. The team lacked a top-shelf striker, but the team's midfield compensated. Between the league and Coppa Italia three players scored in double digits.
It all added up to an unbeaten season and the team's first title since the humiliation of calciopoli.
The formation has only continued paying dividends. Kwadwo Asamoah has made the left wing his own. Paul Pogba's arrival on a Bosman only made the team's midfield even more deadly. After two years the front office finally gave Conte front-line strikers in Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente, who combined for 39 goals in all competitions last season and drove the team to the best season in Italian history.
It's helped Conte that he's also been the beneficiary of the biggest competitive advantage in the league. The Juventus Stadium is a palace of calcio. Not only does its design—inspired by soccer-specific stadiums in England and Germany—give it a fantastic match-day atmosphere, it was the first Italian soccer stadium to be owned by its club. That has allowed Juve to take advantage of match-day revenue that teams in municipal-owned stadiums have no access to. It's given Juventus more spending power than any team in Italy, a huge advantage given the financial situation in the country.
That spending power has allowed director Giuseppe Marotta to give Conte the most talented roster in Italy.
It hasn't all been rosy. Juve's return to European competition has brought inconsistent results at best.
In the team's return to the Champions League in 2012-13, Juve drew their first three matches before exploding for three wins to a tricky group that included Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk. They then crushed Celtic in the round of 16 before going out to eventual champions Bayern Munich.
Combined with their second straight title it earned the club accolades as a dark horse contender for the 2013-14 title. ESPNFC's Gab Marcotti evenpicked them to win the entire competition.
But the Italian champions only managed draws against Copenhagen and Galatasaray. They managed to take a point off of Real Madrid in two spirited matches and beat Copenhagen in a must-win contest, but a controversial 1-0 loss to Gala ended their tournament and dropped them to the Europa League.
They had the chance to play the final of Europe's secondary competition in their own stadium, but missed the final after conceding a late goal in the away leg against Benfica and failing to break through Benfica's negative tactics in the return game.
Many have pointed to the same 3-5-2 system that has so dominated the Italian game as the reason they have failed in Europe. They have also pointed to Conte's continued reliance on it as a weakness on his part, even an arrogance.
The first half of that evaluation holds some truth. The second holds none.
The 3-5-2 has indeed proven weak against top-level wing players like Arjen Robben. If a winger is able to slip behind the wing-backs he can run rampant and stretch the back three to the breaking point.
But Conte's continual use of the 3-5-2 in Europe stemmed purely from the fact that it fit his players better than any other formation. His squad lacked a left-back and the wing players necessary to make a formation like the 4-3-3—which could solve many of these weaknesses on the wing—a viable every-game option. He experimented with it against Real Madrid this season with some success, but the players he has available to fill those missing roles don't belong there on an everyday basis.
Juve's failures in Europe come down to squad composition, not coaching. In truth, Conte has brought Juventus success that no one envisioned when he took over three years ago. At that point, the goal was simply to return to European competition. It was expected that it would take at least three years for the team to be ready to contend for a scudetto again.
Instead, Conte has accelerated that plan. The success that he has brought has been a double-edged sword. After so many accolades so quickly, the fans want more, even though the team may not truly be ready for it.
To take a team so deeply seated in crisis to three straight league titles and the brink of a European breakout in such a short amount of time is a remarkable coaching feat. It's one that will leave Conte a place in the annals of Juve's best coaches. His reign has been an unqualified success—and who knows what more may be in store.
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