I think, generally speaking, leading up to the Euros, there were two types of fan looking forward to the competition: those who considered Belgium among the genuine favourites and those who had seen Belgium play, with any kind of regularity over the past two years. It’s natural that there should be excitement over such a talented group of players all playing for a country with such a relatively poor footballing history – for the past six years at least, this tournament has been anticipated as perhaps they’re greatest chance to achieve something historic.
Last night however in their opening game, every single one of their flaws was painstakingly evident. They were sluggish, fragmented, poorly organised and ridiculously slow to adapt to the Italian’s strategy. Kevin De Bruyne was near anonymous on the right flank, Radja Nainggolan (still not fit?) looked laboured; Romelu Lukaku was abysmal. Their narrow set up played straight into the Italian’s hands for the entire match also, meaning there was less pressure than there should’ve been on the wing backs to hold a deep position. There really isn’t a single good thing to say about them.
For the Italian’s however, and for Antonio Conte, this was an extremely enjoyable occasion. The press surrounding Italy in the build up to this game was dreadful. The squad having been repeatedly labelled the least talented for as many as fifty years to have been selected for a major tournament, regardless of how poor the Belgians were, last night’s victory represents an impressive achievement.
Not least for the fact that, in addition to being effective and intelligent in their game management, they were also really entertaining. The quality of pressing from their midfielders, the standard of blocking and heading in their own penalty area and the relentless running of their wide men, (especially Antonio Candreva – who somehow manages to make Willian look asthmatic) was fantastic to watch! The one player of genuine world class talent in the side as well, Leonardo Bonucci, was able to produce a moment of outstanding technical quality, lobbing a 40 yard through ball to Emanuele Giaccherini to assist the first goal.
I think the most interesting thing about this game was how it reflected the two extreme examples of how to coach an international side. With one coach cramming in as many big names as he could into the starting eleven and the other ignoring a significant number of his best individual players for the sake of cohesion and the collective benefit.
You could argue Conte had been somewhat forced into this approach with injuries to his best midfielders, and a fairly meagre pot of talent to select from in the first place, he still however made a number of controversial omissions from his side – the likes of Alessandro Florenzi, Jorginho, Giacomo Bonaventura, Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Sharaawy, all arguably being more talented than every one of the front five who started for Italy last night. And so ultimately, credit for the result must largely go to the manager, not just for the way in which he prepared his side but also for having the courage of his convictions, in a way few national team coaches ever seem to demonstrate.
Of course, nowadays it’s very common for big name coaches to take much of the spotlight and be heavily featured in manufactured narratives. What is still unusual however, is for a manager to be billed as the star of a side the way Conte seems to have been by his home media. The responsibility he has taken on himself by picking favourites/trusted foot soldiers over arguably more deserving players, has removed much of the scope he has for the blaming the players should things end badly. He has decided his country has more chance of winning by virtue of his talent as an organiser of less skilful but willing players, than by the playing abilities of his most gifted available options. Fair play to him.
I think from a Chelsea perspective the most exciting thing about this gaem perhaps wasn’t even the team performance, but the way in which Conte’s tactics were able to inspire such impressive contributions from such essentially mediocre players. For a man who spent two seasons on the bench at Sunderland, the influence Giaccherini had yesterday was immense. If Conte can imbue a similar work ethic into a number of Chelsea players (Oscar), the results could be spectacular.
It’s still hard to get carried away with Italy’s chances of progression to the latter stages. They’ll most likely continue to impress but inevitable tiredness and suspensions mean their chances remain slim. If they go on to win their group (likely) the draw will most likely throw them Croatia, Germany and France as a route to the final (not ideal). Still, I’m looking forward to watching them as much as any team in the competition.
In this era of the super-club, where so many of the world’s best are concentrated at such a small number of clubs, the recent successes of Leicester and Atletico are extremely welcome reminders of the virtues of intelligence, teamwork and industry over pure wealth and talent. And it’s good to see Italy look like continuing the trend this summer.