Lukaku's Power Man not a good partner for Conte's Iron Fist
Background image: Luginter, CC BY 2.0
If you were to put Antonio Conte’s career on trial, his character witnesses would include Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.
The venerable Manchester United manager wasn’t afraid to rid himself of a player to whom he took a disliking, no matter how integral they were to the team. Jaap Stam was sold to Lazio after writing a tell-all memoir of his time at Old Trafford. David Beckham went to Real Madrid after revealing to reporters that his black eye was a result of the boss kicking a shoe at him in anger. As exiles go, Rome and Madrid aren’t bad places to be sent. Unfortunately, Roy Keane wasn’t rewarded with a sunny Mediterranean destination when his persistent criticism finally sent Sir Alex over the edge. He ended up in gritty, grimy Glasgow with Celtic.
Mourinho feuds with players wherever he goes. He fell out with Mario Balotelli and Ricardo Quaresma at Inter, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, Cesc Fabregas, David Luiz and Eden Hazard on his return to Chelsea and Luke Shaw, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba at Manchester United.
The difference between the two bosses is that Jose lacked the clout to jettison star players as he pleased.
Antonio Conte is more like SAF in that regard. Admittedly, he started small, selling Sebastian Giovinco while at Juventus, then ruling out the diminutive forward when he took over the Italian national team. At Chelsea, he flexed his muscle a little more, ridding himself of Diego Costa.
Conte will tell you Chelsea’s failure to back him in the market led to his dismal second season at Stamford Bridge. Others wonder if things might have been different if he hadn’t sent the irritating but incredibly effective striker packing.
Now at the Giuseppe Meazza, the 50-year-old touchline tornado is going full Mourinho on his new squad. Seeking to impose his authority, he’s exiled three top stars: Mauro Icardi, Radja Nainggolan and Ivan Perisic.
Don’t misunderstand. A club needs everyone pulling in the same direction to win trophies. Icardi and Nainggolan’s self interest is well-documented. The Argentine striker’s wife/agent went on television to make her husband/client’s contract negotiations public, sparking a clubhouse altercation between Icardi and Perisic. Nainggolan’s decision to go clubbing rather than travel back to Milan with the squad following his return to Rome challenged former boss Luciano Spalletti’s authority. His chain-smoking doesn’t set the best example either. Perisic has been less disruptive but his inconsistent form is a concern.
The problem here isn’t that Conte is putting his foot down in the dressing room. It’s that he might be driving it right through the floor. Well-travelled Czech manager, Zdenek Zeman summed it up nicely.
Conte is rebuilding Inter through his own personal convictions and footballing ideas. But he has an obstacle to overcome: he must get everyone in and around the club onside and he must convince his players to follow his instructions and tolerate his training methods. Listening to the rumours you hear, Inter’s dressing room isn’t known for its application.
You don’t reach the top without drive and conviction. Under Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, Inter once had it, winning five consecutive Scudettos and a Champions League. They’ve since lost it. Meanwhile, Conte has won at Juventus, taken the Azzurri deeper into the Euros than anyone anticipated and conquered the Premier League. He couldn’t do any of that without getting the squad to buy into his program.
That said, he lost the clubhouse in his second season at Chelsea, as Mourinho did before him in his third campaign. Like the Nerazzurri, the Blues recently developed a rebellious reputation. Tossing out three stars before his first competitive match doesn’t suggest Conte cares to try a more conciliatory approach to win his new team over.
On the other hand, his biggest coup in the transfer market doesn’t offer hope that he can affect a culture change by ruling with an iron hand. Romelu Lukaku joins the Beneamata from Manchester United in a €65 million deal. It’s a short 90-minute flight from Brussels to Milan [Lukaku was training with Anderlecht after falling out with United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer] but the question is how much baggage the Belgian brings with him?
After he left United, critics called his professionalism into account. Rather than fight for a place when Solskjaer chose to leave Big Rom out of his plans, the player withdrew. The decision echoes his reputation for disappearing in big matches. Conte would also have done well to remember Lukaku shushing team captain Ashley Williams in a match [ironically against United] during his final season at Everton when the defender shouted at him to be more involved in winning back possession.
Ridding himself of troublemakers would make more sense if Conte weren’t bringing another one in on their heels.