Full of determination, discipline, energy, intelligence, passion and tactical acumen. Italy’s performance throughout their 2-0 win over Spain in the second round of Euro 2016 represented all of the qualities that the Azzuri’s manager Antonio Conte has gradually instilled in the team since taking charge in August 2014.
Prior to the finals Conte was cautiously optimistic and quite reserved about Italy’s prospects of performing well. “We’ll start with our headlights turned off because this is maybe not a good moment for Italian football but, as the tournament goes on, maybe we will light up and shine into other teams’ faces,” Conte revealed in an interview with Paddy Agnew of European Sports Media, during the Azurri’s preparations for Euro 2016.
Subsequently Italy’s campaign is currently evolving as Conte suggested it might, with the manager compensating for the lack of individual talent within his squad by building a tactically masterful team who are able to control a game’s dynamics and tempo, so it is played out in a way with which they are comfortable.
Conte’s approach to achieving that against Spain was to remain loyal to his favoured energetic 3-5-2 formation, within which full-backs Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi played a vital role. Specifically the majority of the Azzuri’s attacks featured a quick pass being played out to either of the wing-backs, who then exploited Spain’s narrow 4-3-3 formation to surge down the flanks, before delivering quality crosses into La Roja’s box.
Also instrumental in the perfect execution of Conte’s master plan by licensing De Sciglio and Florenzi to attack, was the unwavering defensive solidarity of the Juventus quartet of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci & Giorgio Chiellini, with the 31-year-old centre half scoring the Azzuri’s first goal.
Thereafter on the astute instruction of Conte, Italy reverted to a 5-3-2 formation and comfortably defended their lead throughout the second half, whilst also launching several dangerous counter attacks, the last of which resulted in a second goal.
After nullifying another futile Spanish attack, Italy quickly broke out of defence, as Matteo Darmian – on as a replacement for Florenzi – found space on the right flank before measuring a fine cross to Graziano Pelle, which the Southampton striker finished emphatically. That goal was thoroughly deserved and capped a tactically superb Italian performance, which earned the highest of praise of Conte.
“It was a great performance. I am pleased this’ a team that plays football. We are very organised defensively, but equally going forward. Often people just think that Italy are a defensive side, but that is not the case,” declared Conte, who will now prepare his side to play world champions Germany in the last 8.
The game represents a repeat of the Euro 2012 semi-final between the two countries, which Italy won 2-1 in Warsaw courtesy of a wonderful double from Mario Balotelli.
Given the strength of Joachim Low’s German side, in order to overcome them, the Azzuri will require to produce a performance similar, if not higher, in quality than the one which they delivered to beat Spain, as recognised by Conte himself.
“We need the players to be 130 per cent against Germany. We will need something absolutely extraordinary, as simply extraordinary may not be enough”, remarked Conte, who learnt from Italy’s 4-1 friendly defeat to Germany back in March that playing a 3-4-3 formation against such strong opposition left his team too exposed defensively.
As such it was on the basis of that experience that Conte reverted to the more cautious 3-5-2 formation, with that system being the one which is most conducive to allowing the Italian players to energetically, intelligently and passionately express themselves, as proven by their performance against Spain.