Due to a number of missing players, many termed Italy as one of the weakest ‘big teams’ in the competition. However, their first game against Belgium showed that this Italian outfit was a force to reckon with.
Italy head-coach Antonio Conte named his 23-man squad for the Euros after seeing many key figures miss out due to injury. Questionably, he excluded two senior figures, Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco, opting to pick youth over experience.
It is fair to say that the current Italy squad that has travelled to France is probably the least talented (at least on paper) bunch the country has seen for nearly half a century. To the amazement of many, players such as Stephan Sturaro, Emanuele Giaccherini and Federico Bernardeschi made the cut. It is one thing to have young blood among your ranks, but it is another to vest faith in players who have never made an appearance in the finals of a major international tournament.
Yet, on Monday, in their tournament opener against a formidable Belgian unit, Giaccherini stepped up to the occasion to give his side a ‘shock’ lead. This wasn’t expected to happen. In all fairness to Italy, they seemed to be a below-par eleven when the two teams were announced. Antonio Conte came under the cosh and was criticized for giving so much importance to the defensive aspect of his team and completely ignoring the offence. This ludicrous claim was immediately put to bed after the Italians dismantled the Belgians in Lyon. The Azzurri dominated the game from start to end and rarely put a foot wrong throughout the course of the match.
‘How did this happen?,’ many wondered. Some even said that it was an off day for Belgium and more of a fluke win for Antonio Conte’s men. But if you managed to catch a glimpse of the robust and organized display showcased by Italy, you would agree that it was far from a lucky victory. It was more a case of playing to one’s strengths, something that would benefit his new employers Chelsea back home in England.
Chiellini, Barzagli & Bonucci’s combined game by numbers
94 passes completed
6 blocks pic.twitter.com/z2d0dY6Cjl
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 13, 2016
Playing with a back three is never easy, more so when you have players like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne in the opposition with a lethal striker in the form of Romelu Lukaku leading the line. Yet, the Everton striker as formidable as he is, did not manage to make a mark against a rather unorthodox defensive unit while the two wide-men were rarely given any freedom.
Despite the Italians winning seven out of their ten qualification games, they were never considered to be one of the favourites to win Euro 2016. Many said they lacked the long-ball midfielders and a striker to get on the end of them, such as the unpredictable Mario Balotelli in the previous edition of the tournament. But Graziano Pelle filled in as an able replacement for the former Manchester City player. Pelle worked tirelessly throughout the course of the game and was finally rewarded with a goal in the dying stages of the encounter. The goal was characteristic of the way Conte had ordered his team to play — a tactical masterclass!
The deployment of Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian as wing backs was a brilliant tactical move. In a side that lacked natural wingers, the duo of Candreva and Darmian gave them everything they needed in the final third. A 3-5-2 on paper was more like a 3-3-4 given the average position of the two wide-men. Their back-tracking too, was carried out to absolute perfection.
Gianluigi Buffon’s presence in goal and his constant marshalling of the defenders undoubtedly helped Conte’s side keep a clean sheet against the Red Devils.
Italy are already looking as one of the favourites to lift the trophy
“Football, bloody hell!”. These words said by the great Sir Alex Ferguson will be remembered for generations to come. Indeed, a week prior to the game, many expected Italy to barely scrape through the group of death and succumb under pressure once the knockout rounds kick in. Given their performances on the day, that belief is soon going to be forgotten. Italy’s masterstrokes are likely to make the critics swallow their words once and for all.
For a side that gives so much priority to their positional play and getting men behind the ball, it is virtually impossible to catch them off guard. Playing all of his three first choice centre-backs at Juventus for the national side, Conte believes in sticking to a winning mentality and may not alter a single thing for their next group game. The presence of wing-backs gives the central defenders a greater role to play and the trio of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli have done that imperiously. Undeniably, Bonucci’s ball to Giaccherini for Italy’s first goal highlighted the superior ball-playing ability of this Italian defence.
A video posted by Italy 🇮🇹🇮🇹. (@callcio) on Jun 13, 2016 at 4:10pm PDT
While playing against a relatively weaker team, rather than building from the back, Conte may ask his defenders to push up, defend a higher line and control proceedings in the opposition area. Even though their defenders are in the twilight of their careers, they certainly look like one of the smartest the Euros has to offer.
Daniele De Rossi bossed the midfield, nullifying the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Radja Nainggolan. Giaccherini, his compatriot in the middle of the park, managed to break the deadlock and also put in a tremendous shift on the defensive front. According to Squawka, he tallied 3 blocks against a Belgium side that was virtually given no room inside the 18-yard-area. The Sunderland man completed 4 crosses as well.
Emanuele Giaccherini’s game by numbers:
26 passes completed
Never stops running. pic.twitter.com/VMOADyU3Lx
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 13, 2016
Eder and Pelle have just 25 caps among them but still look like they’ve been part of the same setup for a number of years. Playing as the focal-point of the Italian barrage, the strike pairing performed beyond expectations and will only get better as the tournament progresses.
For Antonio Conte, the victory against Belgium was a job well done. He picked a squad that suited his philosophy. Despite the inexperience in his side, the team played like a well-oiled machine that has been running for ages. With every player having a pivotal role in the Azzurri lineup, this Italian side may be on the brink of a famous European championship triumph.