Only 71 days have passed since his team last played Arsenal in a Wembley showpiece and the Antonio Conte you might expect to see would wear the sun-tanned exuberance of an individual whose side won last season’s Premier League so emphatically.
There is none of it. The forced smile on the Italian’s face spoke volumes as he sat down to discuss today’s Community Shield, and the ensuing conversation had none of the warmth of pre-season optimism.
There are shades of internal strife at both of the clubs who meet today and, five days from the new Premier League campaign, the unmistakable sense that the Manchester clubs have the momentum with their summer transfer business.
Conte spoke, with loaded significance, about the strengthening that happened at Juventus after he had taken them from obscurity to the title in his first season, six years ago — an achievement mirroring last season at Chelsea. ‘Juventus after the first season continued to increase their quality and instead the other teams dropped from this,’ he said. ‘Juventus increased every season and stayed at the top... ’
There were shades of truth in his recollection. Two years on from that first Serie A title, Conte returned to Juve’s Vinovo training ground for the new campaign and — unhappy about the lack of spending, as he saw it — walked out on the club within 48 hours.
‘You cannot eat at a 100 euro restaurant with just 10 euro in your pocket, can you?’ he said at the time. His three-year stay in Turin remains the longest stretch of his 11 years in management.
Once again, the Italian finds himself unhappy about his club not building from a position of strength, as he sees it. And it is not just incoming business which unsettles him.
There is the departure of Nemanja Matic to Manchester United, which he did not sanction. There are his mere 17 first-team players. A £130m lay-out, including £100m on Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Baka-yoko, seems inadequate to him, following the loss of Bertrand Traore, Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah. There are the injuries Eden Hazard and Pedro take into the new campaign.
Conte even indicated that keeping Hazard is a decision out of his hands. ‘If we are not able to buy the players it won’t be easy... but we must be ready and open for every situation,’ he said.
The tension was less palpable when Arsene Wenger sat down to talk, though his own side are the more obviously troubled. The arrival of Alexandre Lacazette does fortify them, yet Arsenal are a club populated by a generation of players who offered rich promise once but are in limbo now.
They include Alexis Sanchez, of course, a player so set on leaving that he is now beyond worry. But a further nine are out of contract next summer. They include Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is in no rush to sign a new deal and looks for all the world like an individual ready for a new start, away from the atrophied place that the Emirates has become.
It reflects the diminishing value of Mesut Ozil that he has attracted no interest — not even from Germany, where you thought Bayern Munich might be tempted by one of the nation’s World Cup winners.
And then there is Jack Wilshere — for so long the great Arsenal hope and now marooned, as he recovers from a leg break. He did not set Bournemouth alight last season and is still a long way from England contention. Wenger did not sound like a man desperate to keep the 25-year-old out of Sampdoria’s clutches.
‘That decision is not completely made,’ he said. ‘I made him start at a very young age. He has gone through difficult times. I want him to have the career he can have and I am quite open on that.’
Wenger blamed the market for the contractual uncertainties at his club. ‘I warn you that you will see that situation more and more,’ he said. ‘For one single reason: the inflation rate is so high [that] the agent will speculate for very high wages when you start to negotiate two or three years before the end. And the clubs can’t afford to do it.’
But this argument lacked all logic. If these Arsenal players remain out of contract next May, they will be able to leave for nothing, at a potential loss to Arsenal of £130m in transfer fees. Never have the club known a situation like it. Wenger presides over a side who seem adrift on a tide of uncertainty. There was no irony intended when Conte observed: ‘Arsenal have the same potential as last season.’
Wenger did seem the more comfortable of the two men, though. The most telling moment in Conte’s discussion of today’s game came when he was asked if he had ‘patience’ and mistook the word for ‘passion’.
‘You are putting me in great difficulty with this question,’ he eventually responded. ‘In Italy, the people know me, that I haven’t great patience, but I’m learning in England to be more patient and then to discover in myself, patience.’