“They had a great togetherness, they deserved to win and good on them. The coach got a nosebleed, that’s how much they are enjoying it and the team have a plan. I love how [Italy] played today.”
Plaudits such as this from Thierry Henry rolled in for Antonio Conte and his men after Italy’s comprehensive 2-0 victory over Belgium in their opening Euro 2016 group game, but their win against the Red Devils came as a surprise to some.
Having already announced that he will join Chelsea for the 2016-17 domestic campaign, the coach received heavy criticism before the tournament after he formulated his squad – and indeed his starting lineup – without some of Italy’s brightest young talent. With an average age of 31 years and 196 days, Italy’s XI included Daniele De Rossi (32), Emanuele Giaccherini (31) and Éder (29), three players who had largely disappointed at club level last term.
The latter had endured six months without a goal for Inter but would eventually came good in the second match against Sweden, his late strike helping the Azzurri secure qualification to the knockout rounds. But the performance up until that point left a lot to be desired. Bypassing the midfield entirely, the defence continually looked to spread the ball out wide. Tellingly, central midfielder Marco Parolo made just 30 passes in 90 minutes, in comparison to defender Leonardo Bonucci’s 75, according to Whoscored.com.
Such methods may come back to haunt Conte’s side in the knockout stages against teams such as Spain, Germany or France whose strength is to play the ball through the midfield, but even if Italy do defy expectations at this tournament, their approach to personnel selection is hindering their chance of success in the future.
Injuries to key midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti were unfortunate, yet the lack of quality in the middle of the park remains somewhat self-inflicted. Sitting at home and omitted from Conte’s final squad is Napoli’s Jorginho, a 24-year-old who made the highest number of passes (102.6 per game) in Europe’s top five leagues last season.
The same could be said for Empoli’s Riccardo Saponara – linked with moves to Arsenal and Liverpool – who created 72 chances and provided 11 assists for the Tuscan side in 2015-16. Conte could have tapped into the talent of many other young players, with Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi and Alessio Romagnoli of AC Milan just two of those whose exclusion has been lamented by regular viewers of Italian football.
Milan’s first choice goalkeeper this season was 17-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma; however, he was left out of the Italy squad in favour of Salvatore Sirigu (29) and Federico Marchetti (33). While Donnarumma certainly wouldn’t have started, Euro 2016 would have presented the ideal opportunity for him to learn from the immensely experienced (but not immortal) Gianluigi Buffon, but sadly this chance was overlooked.
Federico Bernardeschi is the rare exception in Conte’s side. He deservedly earned a call-up to his first senior tournament but is likely to be deployed as a wing-back in the coach’s favoured 3-5-2 system. The 22-year-old regularly featured there for his club side, but the Fiorentina no.10 is far more comfortable and effective when fielded further forward.
Once Italy had already qualified for the knockout stages, Bernardeschi was handed a start against Ireland in the meaningless final Group E fixture, but there was still no place for Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne or AS Roma’s Stephan El Shaarawy. Both had outstanding domestic campaigns but remained on the bench until the final minutes of the second half, the latter registering his side’s only shot on target of the entire match while the former almost put the Azzurri ahead with a shot curled against the post.
The FIGC have appointed 68-year-old Giampiero Ventura – a coach with a wealth of experience at club level – as the man to replace Conte. Over five seasons with Torino, he fielded young Italian players such as Marco Benassi (21) and Andrea Belotti (22), and has hinted he may move in that direction with the Azzurri. On the other hand, he frequently preferred Juventus flop Cristian Molinaro (32) in defence over highly regarded Davide Zappacosta (24), a player with infinitely more potential.
“Ventura and Conte have many similarities,” Zappacosta told Tuttosport back in May. “They both work tactically and they love to help their players grow.” When Italy need such a radical overhaul in order to flourish, it is alarming that a member of the new man’s former Torino side has made such a comparison to the current Azzurri boss.
One young Italian manager with experience in reconstructing a squad in this fashion is Vincenzo Montella. Arriving at Fiorentina at the beginning of the 2012-13 campaign, he oversaw the departure of 12 players and the arrival of no less than 17. Two of those signings – Borja Valero and Gonzalo Rodriguez – remain key to the squad as the former AS Roma and Fulham striker built a team who would go on to finish fourth in each of his three seasons in charge.
After losing to Juventus in the last 16 of the Europa League in 2013-14, Montella took the Viola even further in Europe the following year. On the scoresheet in the early rounds versus Dynamo Minsk was Bernardeschi, who had been deployed in his more natural attacking role. “He can play as a forward; a central one at that,” Montella told Firenzeviola after the game. “Today he showed his qualities as a player but he also showed that he must improve.”
Just a month later, Bernardeschi suffered an ankle fracture that would keep him out for the rest of the campaign. But thanks to Montella’s focus on team spirit and his ability to garner the maximum from his squad – while getting by on minimum investment – Fiorentina reached the semifinals. They defeated well-respected teams like Tottenham, AS Roma and Dynamo Kiev along the way, before eventually crashing out to winners Sevilla.
It was that defeat that led to a breakdown in the relationship between the coach and Fiorentina’s owners. Montella pushed for investment in order to achieve tangible success, a move which ultimately resulted in a sacking that came as a shock to many.
The national team does not depend upon these financial matters in order to thrive, but instead must integrate their youngsters into the squad gradually as the current crop of players retire. “Could Montella leave for the national team? Yes, it would be a gift, and important continuation of the work done by a great coach like Conte.” Massimo Ferrero, owner of Montella’s current club Sampdoria, told the press in May before Ventura’s eventual appointment.
The selection of a 42-year-old Vincenzo Montella may have been a risk for the Azzurri, but the risk of wasting the sublime talent of a generation, whilst the current squad continue to age, is far greater.