Antonio Conte continues to seek Azzurri blend on road to Euro 2016
Italy are unbeaten in nine internationals since Antonio Conte succeeded Cesare Prandelli, but four of the last five have been draws.
We’re not talking nil-nils either, and three were in Euro 2016 qualifying, including a share of the spoils home and away against Croatia.
Coral make the Azzurri equal odds-on 10/11 favourites with Niko Kovac’s Blazers to top Group H en route to the France finals, yet Conte and co trail the former Yugoslavian nation by two points.
While there is little doubt Italy will make the European Championship, as the pool also contains Norway and Bulgaria both way off the pace, there is a real sense this is a time of transition for them.
An awful lot of the rhetoric from Rome commends Conte over attempting ‘to change Italian football’ since stepping up from club coaching at Juventus. In six qualification contests he has used 33 different players, as he seeks to bridge a generation gap.
Two Azzurri icons remain pivotal to their nation; long-serving stopper Gianluigi Buffon and deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo both started Italy’s most recent match with Croatia. A couple more 2006 World Cup winners in Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi would have also been involved if fit.
That fantastic foursome of 30-somethings remains the core almost a decade on from glory in Germany. Pirlo is one of a dozen midfielders capped competitively by former Juve captain Conte, who abandoned his beloved 3-5-2 setup for the trip to Split.
In Italian football, playing 4-3-3 is considered highly adventurous. Natural width isn’t something they have ever focused on in attack. Flying full backs of the Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso vintage remain in Torino talent Matteo Darmian, with Europe’s elite linked with taking him from Turin.
Who plays down the other flank of defence remains up in the air. Darmian has delivered, leaving Conte to chop and change Lorezno De Silvestri, Mattia De Sciglio, Manuel Pasqual and Luca Antonelli, while ignoring Ignazio Abate despite the AC Milan man making most assists from such berths in Serie A this season.
Anyone who followed Juventus under Conte will not be surprised to learn that four of the six centre backs employed by him at international level are contracted to the Old Lady. The Champions League final highlighted the importance of Giorgio Chiellini, absent then and from representing his country for recent games through injury.
Barzagli deputised for Juve against Barcelona, but a combination of ageing legs at 34 and ring rust following a campaign dogged by fitness problems only underlined him as a declining force.
Conte may be looking at lauded Inter Milan captain Andrea Ranocchia, who is finally living up to his potential at 27, to be a regular instead, but he is out of contract at the San Siro this summer. Linked with Wolfsburg, a team Barzagli coincidentally played for yet was seldom selected for international duty while serving, this club career crossroads is a complication.
Davide Astori, meanwhile, should be Roma’s to keep hereafter as co-owners Cagliari endured relegation. There is strength in depth here in defence, but midfield dynamism is not something De Rossi and Pirlo in decline can offer Italy.
What Conte could do with trying is taking a leap of faith, leaving loyalty to his old Juve players to one side for a moment and be bold in his selections. Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio still possess plenty of qualities, but the former’s place going forward and looking beyond next summer must go to PSG playmaker Marco Verratti.
Lazio late-bloomer Marco Parolo offers something on the front foot, and the Azzurri have already seen what teammate Antonio Candreva has to contribute in an attacking sense with goals home and away against Croatia from the right.
Genoa also have a real gem in Andrea Bertolacci. While they will do well to keep hold of him, he’s another that would suit more traditional narrow midfield tactics either in Conte’s preferred 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond. There’s still some engine room options open to Italy, then, but what about up top? Serie A’s top scorers chart makes for mixed reading for Conte.
Veteran trio Luca Toni, Fabio Quagliarella and Antonio Di Natale were up there, but young pair Manolo Gabbiadini (a big money move to Napoli happened this winter) and Domenico Berardi (yet to earn a senior call-up and just 20) netted 15 apiece.
Stephan El Shaarawy, who played from the left in Croatia, remains in this up-and-coming bracket too. Southampton striker Graziano Pelle is another that has got better with age, and in his prime looks Conte’s first-choice centre forward.
Three more attacking options come under scrutiny for decisions about their club careers. Ciro Immobile, leading marksman in Serie A in 2013/14, faces an uncertain future at Borussia Dortmund following a debut season that ended with him out of favour.
Sebastian Giovinco, a Conte acolyte at Juventus, is now plying his trade with MLS franchise Toronto, while Mattia Destro preferred to play in mid-table mediocrity with AC Milan on loan rather than fight for his place at Roma.
Almost a decade on from that victorious World Cup campaign, there is simply not the massive choice up front that Italy once had. Back then, it was Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti competing to play off Filippo Inzaghi, Toni or Christian Vieri.
This name-check perfectly illustrates what Conte lacks most. Three of those above names are on the Azzurri’s top 10 all-time scorers list. How is he to handle lacking names like these?
Roping in foreign-born players like Sampdoria striker Eder (Brazil, pictured above) and Palermo attacking midfielder Franco Vazquez (Argentina) may not prove popular with right-wing elements of Italy’s support, but is necessary.
Conte cannot concern himself with such extreme opinion, but should only fear for his job if the Azzurri fail to maintain their place in an automatic qualification spot. The play-offs will be perilous, and the Euro 2012 finals should not be struggling to make the next tournament, though remain a work in progress.