Written off before a ball had even been kicked, media and fans alike suggesting that this Azzurri side is the worst ever to go to a major tournament – on paper, almost certainly. Italy’s squad does not have the talent of year’s past. However; contrasting to league football, luck plays a significant role in tournament football and combined with Conte’s stubborn-fuelled reluctance to alter his 3-man defence, Italy just may have stumbled on the right combination to take them all the way.
In previous blog’s, we have already covered the use of 3-5-2 and its effectiveness against more technical and proactive sides (ie; Belgium), and it’s limitations against lesser sides who are more willing to shut up shop and turn the game into a lottery with early high-lofted balls into the penalty area (ie; Sweden and Ireland), and Italy’s performances so far at this Euros is a clear correlation of what we have already suggested. Commanding against Belgium, Dull and lackluster against Swede’s and the Irish.
In isolated matches, Conte “made” the correct decision to field a 3-5-2 against an attacking-minded, proactive Belgian team employing a 4-3-3. Conte again opted for a 3-5-2, this time against a defensive Swedish side when in a once of match should have used a 4-3-3 or a diamond midfield as it promotes triangles outside the oppositions area that aids to breakdown stubborn defences (as covered in another blog) – something that he never tried with Juventus but as soon as Max Allegri did, the side went from strength to strength on their run to the final as opposed to losing to Galatasaray.
In the tournament’s group stage with its cumulative points system, points earned/missed in previous rounds usually affect a side’s mentality in the next game depending on what is required in the matches to come. In an isolated friendly match, it would make sense for Italy to use a proactive system to combat Sweden’s cautious approach. However after Italy’s victory against Belgium and Sweden’s 1-1 draw with Ireland; a draw between Italy and Sweden would mean that the Azzurri would be on top of the group having 4 points with a fixture against the weakest side (on paper) still to come. Sweden on the other hand would be sitting on 2 points before coming up against the strongest team on paper. Needless to say, even if Sweden had of achieved the draw they seemed to play for in the match against Italy, it still would have left them requiring a victory against Belgium. One could argue Conte understood this and opted for a 3-5-2 in anticipation to an aggressive, attacking Sweden. Although when presented the scenario being already qualified with an opportunity to rotate the squad and experiment with alternate systems against an Irish side that was always going to play cautiously, Conte still decided to stick with his preferred 3-5-2. That I don’t understand.
Whilst the squad’s efforts were not helped by the standard of the playing surface however a 4-3-3 system would have definitely helped the situation. Breaking down stubborn defences often requires taking on opponents in one-on-one contests however the slippery surface made that a more difficult task than you’d imagine with many players losing their footing at crucial times. If Bernardeschi and DeSciglio, Italy’s widemen v Ireland, are expected to beat their marker, asking them to do it in slippery conditions in areas they’d receive the ball as wingbacks perhaps presented a risk greater than one they wished for and opted for a more cautious sideways pass time and time again. If Bernardeschi and Insigne were playing as out-and-out attacking wingers, with poor conditions or not they would have the confidence to run at their man when presented the opportunity in the final attacking third.
Conte has done exceptionally well find a system that is fitting for the strengths and characteristics of the players available to him, without question. Here however this is where luck has played its part – What would have happened if Italy had been drawn to play against Ireland first and an ineffective 3-5-2 saw Ireland runout victors? A shaken Italy goes out requiring a result against another stubborn side in Sweden and a talented Belgium side. If that were the schedule, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Italy finish last in the group –not an exaggeration.
The coincidences do not stop there. In case you haven’t understood what I am suggesting, it is that the greater threat to Italy’s chances is against sides that are more physical than technical – those willing to absorb pressure and hoof the ball causing havoc in the area as opposed to constructing orchestrated attacks that they are conditioned to resist. With a potential run to the final that consists of Spain, Germany and France (almost certainly the hardest run to a final in any tournament’s history) it all looks to be playing into their hands as ridiculously difficult it seems.
Considering the above, their likely opponents from Group D’s runner up looked set to be Croatia – a team that embodies traits that Italy is more likely to struggle against, characterized by their physical strength and organization at the back, pace in midfield, and spearheaded by a powerhouse renowned for winning +80% of his aerial duels. It would have been a contest that Italy would have most likely succumbed to. On Matchday 3, Morata’s early goal seemed to put the Spaniards on their way to topping their group but as luck would have it; some poor marking, a missed penalty, and David De Gea being beaten at his front post produced the unlikely event of Spain finishing runners up.
Flashback to Euro 2012; Italy faced Spain twice in that competition – Matchday 1 and the Final. In Matchday 1, Italy employed a 3-5-2 that was very effective. Spain had the lion’s share of possession, albeit in non-threatening areas while Italy managed to limit their opponent’s chances at goal and produced many of their own and even broke the deadlock to take the lead (although the lead lasted a few minutes after Cesc Fabregas capitalized on a lapse in concentration). In stark contrast to the Final where they fielded a 4-3-1-2, Italy were outclassed as Spain ran away 4-0 victors. The decision to field 2 injured players didn’t help the situation, however if they had the opportunity to replay that Final I’m certain Prandelli would revert to a back 3.
Spain-great, Xavi stated earlier this week that a 3-5-2 is the most complex system for an opponent that wants to press high up the field as seen at the last World Cup where both Holland and Chile opted for a 3-5-2 which caused La Roja many issues culminating in a 5-1 opening defeat and failure to qualify for the knockout stages.
Not to suggest that this is a forgone conclusion, but it’s not entirely improbable to see this talent-stricken Italy topple Spain and perhaps go all the way.