You can pardon Antonio Conte for not focusing all of his attention on Italy’s Euro 2016 campaign. With his Chelsea position made even more challenging by having Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho joining the Premier League, his new job would require full time attention in any situation. Yet the manager who theoretically should have nothing to prove now has to justify his controversial selections for an Italian squad that, on paper, should challenge for a Euro title.
The best thing about being the manager of Italy is that one third of the field is likely set at all times, and this squad is no different. The ageless Gigi Buffon mans the net while the Juventus backline switches black and white for azzurri. If Conte sticks with a variation of the 3-5-2 that he used at Juventus, and the team avoids injuries, the Italian defense could be the best in the tournament.
The rest of the squad is the question mark, and here is where Italy is going through the most transition. Gone is the aging Andrea Pirlo and his loss is compounded by injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti. Thiago Motte and Daniele De Rossi are cleared to play, so there will be a veteran defensive presence in the midfield.
After these names, however, the Italian squad is full of names known to fans of various clubs but not as revered as the names of Italy’s past, much less some of the other teams in the tournament. Their inclusion, as expected, as invited controversy but not just the usual griping in Italy. The Giovinco exclusion has been covered ad naseum but, as Kris Heneage pointed out on the EuroCopa podcast, Conte did call up Lorenzo Insigne who not only has a similar skill set, but is younger and has performed well for Napoli, a top club in Serie A. In his last 34 starts in the league, he has 12 goals and 11 assists. He excels as a playmaker who can play on the left or middle and set up the attack or score himself.
The real controversy comes with the forwards and attacking midfielders called into the squad. Leonardo Pavoletti, the surprise of the 2015-2016 season, was left off the roster despite scoring 14 goals in just 25 appearances. Added instead were players like Simone Zaza, a supersub from Juventus whose statistics were lackluster, Stephan El Shaarawy, who has failed to live up to his potential at any level, and Eder from Inter Milan. As noted here, Conte stated that he “picked the best at his disposal” but statistics refute this statement.
Why has Conte gone to these names from the larger clubs? The obvious answer is he is leaning upon the big clubs (ala Roy Hodgson) but for a man who has never been afraid to challenge convention, this would seem an odd departure from his usual tactical approach.
When you look at the included players, you see a common thread. Italy as always will rely on its strong defense to get results, but when the opportunity presents itself it will rely on veteran players with international experience to steal a goal. Take for example Simone Zaza, who by all measures should not have made this team. His defining moment of the season was his goal off the bench in Juventus’ win over Napoli that vaulted them to the top of Serie A for good. Expect him to play the same role for Italy. How Italy will play was shown in their 1-0 victory over Scotland; in that match, the goal was scored by Graziano Pelle off of build-up play begun by de Rossi. This is a team that will play stout defense and when they have possession, they will build up the attack and need players who can create opportunities on their feet to snatch goals.
The second aspect is the experience on this team. For a normal Italian squad, it is inexperienced; besides de Rossi, the average number of caps by midfielders and forwards is 15. Contrast that with France, where the average number of caps by midfielders/forwards is 26. But while many of these players do not have an extensive number of caps, they have played under Conte for Italy and they know what to expect. In a tournament where the coach has limited time to experiment and a need to advance from a tough group, he has chosen to rely on players he knows on the national level and who know his system to win.
The Italy Euro 2016 roster is a bit of a gamble, relying on known commodities rather than in some cases players who have produced over the past 6 months. But with Conte, you have a coach who has succeeded throughout his career, and one more time he is asking Italian fans to trust him.
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