Change is in the air at Chelsea with Maurizio Sarri reportedly in line to replace Antonio Conte, but it is a switch that has happened before – at lowly Arezzo back in 2006. Featuring an exclusive interview with one of the players who was there at the time, Adam Bate details the story of an extraordinary season in which the pair swapped places twice.
When Arezzo were relegated from Italy’s second tier in June 2007, few would have been in a hurry to claim the club had been managed by not one but two world-class coaches. Certainly not Piero Mancini. The Arezzo president will surely go down in history as the man who sacked both Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri in the same season.
Conte began the campaign at the helm but went winless throughout the first nine games and was promptly replaced by Sarri. When he could only muster 19 points from the next 18 matches, Arezzo went back to Conte in desperation and despite a dramatic upturn in fortunes, the club were sent down by a goal elsewhere in the final minute of the final day.
It was cruel on Conte after he had presided over seven wins in those last nine games but he has enjoyed himself since, winning five league titles. Sarri, meanwhile, has been hailed as one of the game’s most exciting coaches thanks to his work with Napoli. “Evidently, they had not yet reached their full potential back then,” Mancini would later reflect.
In Conte’s case that is hardly surprising given the circumstances. The role at Arezzo was his first in management and while his trademark intensity was evident, his ideas about how best to prepare a team were still being formulated, as Arezzo’s goalkeeper Walter Bressan explains. “That season was his first real experience as a coach,” Bressan tells Sky Sports.
“In the initial months, the most obvious thing about him was his desire to want to play without giving the ball away. He never spoke about the opposition before games, he only chose to concentrate on our own team. We got a glimpse of the fact that he was a leader but the results were not good while he was in charge and he was soon sacked.”
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Defeat to Conte’s home-town club Lecce convinced Mancini made the change. In came Sarri. Ten years older than his predecessor and with a season at Pescara behind him, he did not have Conte’s playing pedigree. He’d been in banking at the same age. But he did bring with him considerable knowledge – and some foibles now familiar to Napoli fans.
The superstitions are the stuff of legend. At Arezzo, he regularly scattered salt on the field and once made his wife Marina stay on the bus throughout a draw at Bari. Mancini called it his “mania” but Bressan had other words for it. “He was like a sergeant,” he recalls. “We were only allowed to wear black shoes and he did not let us have any bands in our hair.”
Despite this, Bressan remembers Sarri as a “great coach” and there were some notable highs during his time in charge. Arezzo secured 2-2 draws at Juventus and Napoli – both in Serie B at the time – as well as a narrow 2-1 aggregate defeat to AC Milan in a Coppa Italia quarter-final. “The good thing about him was that he had an incredible work ethic,” he adds.
“You did not find him unprepared in anything. He already knew all about us and he knew all about our opponents. He was a human encyclopaedia. We would arrive for the game on the Sunday and we knew what the other team had eaten. We were very well prepared both individually and in terms of the concepts for the team.”
Even so, a defeat to Triestina in mid-March left Arezzo dead last, with a six-point deduction following the Calciopoli scandal – for which they were subsequently cleared – only making it more difficult. Sarri discovered Mancini had sacked him while watching the news in a service station. “The players were tied to Conte,” the president would later explain.
Bressan would not go that far but the results upon Conte’s return were spectacular. He won his first home game 3-0 and put a run of five consecutive victories together soon after. Twenty-two points from the last nine games was title-winning form and it was all down to Conte. “When he returned to the club he was a completely different coach,” says Bressan.
“It seemed like five years had passed instead of three months. He was a different animal. He was very well prepared and our 4-2-4 formation worked like pistons in an engine. Nothing could get past us and we played very well. We would have stayed up if it were not for the points deduction.”
Indeed, Arezzo would have made a relegation play-off were it not for Spezia winning 3-2 at Juventus in extraordinary circumstances. Their rivals needed the three points and, with Conte’s former club having not been beaten at home all season, the odds were against them. But an eyebrow-raising last-minute winner saved Spezia and sent Arezzo down.
Conte was fuming. “There is profound disappointment and deep bitterness,” he said in the immediate aftermath. “I respect the Juventus fans but I have little respect for the team. In football, everyone is good at talking. It looks like we got rid of the bad guys and now the game is clean. We can all be happy with that. Three cheers for our new clean game.”
Arezzo have not been back since, even having to reform due to financial difficulties in 2010. Conte and Sarri have fared rather better. The former won promotion from Serie B with Bari in his next job, the latter achieving the same feat with Empoli. It was a tough year but Bressan, now working at Chievo, has fond memories. “I was lucky to have them,” he says.
“If you had asked me at the time which one would go on to have a great future I would have picked Conte because he transmitted a winning mentality to everyone, but they are both great coaches. They have very different styles but they also have the same dedication and ferocity in achieving their goals. They deserve all the success they have enjoyed.”
The two men are yet to coach against each other but Chelsea could be about to make the same change that Arezzo once did. In an interview with Sky in Italy, Sarri was once asked about the pair’s relay. “We laughed about it,” he said. Whether the two men will one day be able to share a joke about their next little job swap remains to be seen.
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