Conte correct to abandon approach as Italy name no playmakers for Euros?
Holly Thackeray | May 25, 2016
Pirlo absence increases Azzurri playmaker problem
It’s been 10 long years since European heavyweights Italy last tasted trophy success on the international stage, with this summer’s Euro 2016 marking a decade since the decorated nation lifted the 2006 World Cup amid the domestic Calciopoli scandal.
Since that dramatic final against France, the Azzurri have failed to navigate two successive World Cup group stages in the tournament they have triumphed in four times, while the European Championships have seen them make the final and quarter-final.
So, after bowing out in Brazil, Italy were supposed to have a point to prove. With Euro hosts France losing defenders left, right and centre, World Cup winners Germany and European champions Spain looking far from the same forces (and England, well, England), now looked as opportunistic a time as any for 18/1 tournament shouts the Azzurri to come good on their price.
Yet, Chelsea-bound coach Antonio Conte’s second squad selection, for the provisional 30-man roster rather than the first training camp picks missing key players with cup duties, has left a fair few Italy fans scratching their heads.
Most puzzling, more than the absence of say, Juventus-owned Sassuolo starlet Domenico Berardi in the face of persistence with Brazil-born Inter Milan striker Eder, is the omission of pass-master Andrea Pirlo.
True the evergreen midfield dictator is now 37 and plying his trade in the MLS for New York City, but this time last season the veteran conductor was about to play his socks off in a Champions League final for Juve.
Pirlo’s absence, being that he has not turned out for the Azzurri since September, would not be so noticeable if there was someone else to pull the strings. But who is left to act as a proper playmaker for ambitious Italy at these France finals now?
Conte to ditch three at the back?
There have already been several blows to the Italians’ midfield balance, with all-rounder Claudio Marchisio and Pirlo’s heir apparent Marco Veratti both ruled out of the Euros with injury.
This leaves few choices left to dictate midfield to an adequate standard, as though Pirlo may not have been a starter he would surely have been a handy option, always with a pinpoint, game-changing pass in him to pluck from the bench late on.
With a tough Pool E to navigate safe passage from, with opponents such as fashionable attacking unit Belgium, a determined Republic of Ireland outfit and Zlatan Ibrahimovic-inspired Sweden, Conte’s crew cannot rest on their laurels or simply the strength of a tried and trusted rearguard.
Former Juve tactician Conte was renowned for sticking much more rigidly to three at the back than Old lady successor Massimiliano Allegri, and has mainly continued the trend of 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 variation, with a few experiments including four at the back.
However, the royal blue shirts have seen banks of three at the back in both of their last two outings against tough opposition in Germany and Spain, suggesting Conte will still stick to his usual approach. The selection of so many centre backs with Davide Astori, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Angelo Ogbonna and Daniele Rugani, all called up to the first 30 certainly seems to suggest so.
To play three at the back, though, everything must be finely tuned, and a playmaker present to make that extra man in midfield count and control the middle. Yet Italy (11/4 to at least reach the semi-finals), as already mentioned, are rather bereft of options in that regard, so it makes much more sense for Conte to alter his approach.
Motta and Montolivo a potential pair
Last time out, a rather attacking 3-4-3 saw the Italians double up on the flanks with adaptable Emanuele Giaccherini and Alessandro Florenzi as wing backs, and Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne ahead keeping width. As all four are first and foremost midfielders by original trade, this didn’t quite work and the Azzurri were thumped 4-1 by the Germans.
It’s unlikely such an ambitious formation will be attempted against Belgium, especially as Manchester United man Matteo Darmian, still trusted for country despite club troubles, can return to the wing back role after covering the centre of defence.
While defensive security should be restored through Juventus trio Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci, with Darmian and Florenzi wide, it is the midfield pairing which troubles most.
PSG plotter Thiago Motta (33) and AC Milan schemer Riccardo Montolivo (31), no spring chickens themselves, were the duo torn apart by Die Mannschaft and still look most likely to hold down the engine room due to a real lack of options in the middle of the park.
Uncapped Italy Under-21 pair Marco Benassi and Stefano Sturaro are all-action options, far from the Pirlo mold, but look unlikely to make the final cut for France anyway. That leaves Lazio’s Marco Parolo, Roma stalwart Daniele De Rossi, the Rossoneri’s Giacomo Bonaventura or one-capped Jorginho of Napoli to compete, with none a true playmaker and nowhere near Pirlo’s calibre.
De Rossi is an ageing shield with a pass in him and talent still in his toes but should not start, meaning Motta and Montolivo will probably be tasked to be more creative than usual. This may be the best option, with the tidy and accomplished if not exactly adventurous passers behind Antonio Candreva roaming in to add creativity from the wing.
Graziano Pelle is a striker with great link-up play but who needs to also be fed, meaning we may for once see an Italy side reliant on young and energetic widemen providing the option to change to a flexible four in midfield, with wide attackers as Candreva providing much of the creativity in the absence of a great Italian playmaker.
With no Pirlo pinging balls from deep as the cornerstone of the team, nor a trequartista type like Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero able to provide a moment of magic further forward, could there be a new era of far from traditional Azzurri wing focus on the way with Stephan El Shaarawy and Federico Bernardeschi touted as the next big things?
Euro 2016 Italy preliminary 30-man squad
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (PSG).
Defenders: Davide Astori (Fiorentina), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United), Daniele Rugani (Juventus), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan), Davide Zappacosta (Torino).
Midfielders: Marco Benassi (Torino), Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Giacomo Bonaventura (ac Milan), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna), Jorginho (Napoli), Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan), Thiago Motta (PSG), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma) Stefano Sturaro (Juventus).
Forwards: Eder (Inter Milan), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Graziano Pelle (Southampton), Simone Zaza (Juventus).
Read the latest on Italy in our Euro 2016 Azzurri archive.