Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@sandro_pugliese)
There were many skeptics of the Italian National Team heading into UEFA Euro 2016. Injuries leading to the absence of star-midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio certainly made matters even more difficult for Antonio Conte, who already announced he is joining Chelsea after the tournament. Some of his call-ups were questionable and received criticism from the Italian media. Expectations for the four-time World Cup winners are probably at an all-time low. ESPN commentator Ian Darke even mentioned before the match kicked off that, “Some critics say this is the worst Italy team they can remember.” But with a stout defense and exceptional organizational ability maybe this Italian side shouldn’t be written off.
Antonio Conte lined up with his well-known 3-5-2 formation utilizing wing backs on the flanks. Personally, I was disappointed to see Eder in the starting XI as his form has been quite poor since his January move to Inter, having scored one goal in the last six months. I did like the inclusion of Marco Parolo who offered a different dynamic in the center of pitch. I would hope to see Alessandro Florenzi inserted into the midfielder probably for Parolo or Emanuele Giaccherini but the Roma man was possibly left out since he became a father the day before. Matteo Darmian was given a start at the left wingback spot and did a solid job going up against Kevin De Bruyne. With more ability to hold possession and be more attack-minded in the next two group stage matches, you could see Conte play Federico Bernardeschi or Stephan El Sharaawy there. Lazio winger Antonio Candreva put in a very solid 90 minutes on the right flank, looking dangerous in attack while also contributing well defensively. Graziano Pellé offers a big body up front who can play well enough with his feet and also be a dangerous threat in the air. Playing off of the Southampton striker as a seconda punta ("second striker" - someone who plays alongside a central striker or targetman but is comfortable dropping deep or wide), Eder wasn’t too effective going forward but worked hard and made a defensive contribution.
Importance of Juve Trio
The formidable BBC (Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini) partnership has been exceptional in Serie A over the last three to four years. The chemistry and understanding the three defenders have together is something special. In playing this 3-5-2 formation it is important to have central defenders who are comfortable on the ball and can play out of the back. While Chiellini is certainly the weakest in this department, he’s still serviceable despite the fact he might look a bit awkward on the ball at times. However, Bonucci and Barzagli’s world-class talent make up for what Giorgio might lack. Playing in the center of the back three, Bonucci was spraying the ball all around the field, drawing comparisons to Andrea Pirlo. His sublime 40-yard ball to the foot of Giaccherini in the 32nd minute propelled Italy into the lead.
Leo’s long ball passing has improved dramatically from a couple of years ago. I recall when most of his long balls in the air would hardly ever reach the target and would be a poor waste of possession but now those balls are a real threat. Meanwhile, Andrea Barzagli played some terrific diagonal passes out of the back to start the attack. Italy broke through Belgium’s midfield line with vertical and diagonal passes and then used quick one & two touch lay-offs. While it was the first match, the touches and passes in the final third need to be sharper and more effective for Italy as this tournament progresses. Not only will Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci be vital for the Azzurri defensively but also in building the attack with their passing.
Defensively, Conte’s side remained very disciplined and compact giving the Belgians little time and space in the middle of the field. The Italians did a commendable job of shutting down passing lanes and forcing Belgium to play the ball around the back only going side-to-side. Both the defensive and midfield units were always on the same page, pushing and squeezing up together in unison.
When not in possession, the wing backs essentially drop in and become full backs, essentially having five defenders across the back. It was quite impressive how De Bruyne and Eden Hazard never really had opportunities to dribble into space and take a defender on 1v1. Dries Mertens did look dangerous when he came on, running at defenders but his threat was handled well enough. Romelu Lukaku struggled to find space with Bonucci doing a great job on him defensively. Lukaku did have a golden chance created by a counter attack but the Everton man sent it just high and wide of the post. Daniele De Rossi played well in the holding-mid position, anchoring in front of the back three, clogging lanes and closing down space. While Belgium was certainly disappointing in attack, Italy deserves credit for executing their structured game plan to perfection. As Belgium looked more like a collection of individuals on the field, Italy played like a cohesive team, which was evident after their second goal when everyone, including the bench, celebrated together on the pitch.
It was just about as perfect a start to Euro 2016 as Gli Azzurri could’ve asked for; out-playing, out-working and out-coaching a Belgium side ranked 2nd in the world by FIFA, who are amongst the favorites to win the tournament. Conte and his squad have deservedly received much praise for their performance and it’s important to build upon this match going forward. The Italians will travel to Toulouse on Friday, June 17 to face Sweden, where a win would just about guarantee them to advance past the group stage.
Extra Video Clips of the Match