Runners-up at Euro 2012, out in the group stage at the 2014 World Cup – it’s difficult to know what to expect from Italy this summer. Overall, though, the situation does not look particularly positive.
There’s a real lack of star quality in the current Azzurri squad, and it’s hard to see them challenging for the crown as would normally be the trophy-laden nation’s objective. They’ll have enough to get out of the group, but with one of France, Spain or Portugal likely opponents in the last 16, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Italy dropped out early.
Will discipline stifle their free spirits?
Sacrifice, commitment, togetherness and work ethic are just some of Antonio Conte’s favourite words. The tremendous domestic success he enjoyed as Juventus boss owed a great deal to his ability to build a well-organised and cohesive side with everyone pulling in the same direction.
Such an approach could pay off at an international tournament, when a handful of wins is all that’s needed for success. It’s a certainty that Conte’s 23-man squad will contain only those players he feels are fully behind him and willing to do whatever he asks – hence the brush-offs for Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano.
On the flip side, though, Conte’s emphasis on discipline and work rate could prevent some of Italy’s exciting attackers from making their mark. Stephan El Shaarawy, Giacomo Bonaventura and Lorenzo Insigne are all, to differing extents, instinctive players who require a certain degree of freedom in order to play at their best level. Such players have the ability to turn games in an instant – but will Conte give them the licence to do so?
What they’ve learned
You won’t go far if you don’t kill games off. Italy mustered only 16 goals in a group featuring Norway, Azerbaijan, Malta, Croatia and Bulgaria, winning only one game by more than one goal. In the finals, they’ll have to do more to pull clear of opponents if and when they get the chance, with their own defensive mistakes or lapses in concentration far more likely to be punished.
Also, while the tactical flexibility displayed in qualifying was handy – Italy lined up in 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations at various points – Conte should be wary of chopping and changing too much once the big kick-off arrives.
The Old Lady in defence
Conte’s men conceded only seven times in 10 qualifying matches, as all of the clichés about Italian defending came to the fore.
The Juventus quartet of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci makes for a solid rearguard, especially as they’re used to playing with one another every week at club level. Buffon, in particular, had a marvellous domestic season in which he once again defied his advancing years, and the European Championship is one of only two major trophies – along with the Champions League – that the 38-year-old has yet to get his hands on.
Italy’s gameplan will naturally be based on keeping things tight at the back. Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Belgium’s trio of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard will prove challenging adversaries in the group stage, where a couple of clean sheets could be enough for Italy to advance.
Depth of despair
The injury-enforced absence of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti in midfield is a huge blow. In the engine room, 33-year-old Thiago Motta can be overwhelmed by pace and energy; Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi endured difficult seasons at Milan and Roma respectively; Andrea Pirlo isn’t in the squad; Jorginho, Marco Parolo and Marco Benassi are inexperienced at this level and, for the most part, pretty uninspiring.
There’s also a lack of depth at the top of the pitch. Graziano Pelle will probably be Conte’s first-choice striker but, excluding those who played most of the 2015/16 campaign in wide forward roles, the only other options are Juventus’s back-up frontman Simone Zaza, Ciro Immobile – who’s made only 24 league starts in the past two years – and Eder. There was even room for Sunderland’s Fabio Borini in a recent 28-man training group.
Marchisio and Verratti would have been contenders for the title of Italy’s most important player, but now that tag probably falls to Bonucci. Pep Guardiola called the 29-year-old one of his favourite-ever footballers ahead of Bayern Munich’s Champions League tie with Juventus, which isn’t a bad piece of praise for any player to receive.
For all of his defensive qualities, the thing that sets Bonucci apart from most of his fellow centre-halves is his ability on the ball. The Inter academy product is comfortable stepping out from the back in possession, which is vital for teams who play with a three-man defence. Given the Azzurri’s aforementioned midfield issues, Bonucci’s range of passing and willingness to move forward could be essential in France.
Of course, while he has great distribution skills, the 6ft 3in stopper isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when the situation calls for it. Bonucci is strong in the air and in the tackle and is also known to be a practitioner of the dark arts, famously chewing garlic-flavoured sweets and breathing in the face of Francesco Totti when Juve played Roma in 2014. Look out, Zlatan.
Conte has already announced his departure for Chelsea at the end of Euro 2016. He has spent only two years at the helm, but the former Juventus boss admitted that he misses working with players on a daily basis.
Conte is an inspiring and motivational manager capable of creating a siege mentality and getting his troops mentally and physically prepared for any task. There’s a slight concern, though, that his demanding and often volcanic ways could do more harm than good in the intense environment that is an international tournament on foreign soil.