It’s a cliché that surfaces every tournament: never write off the Italians. On paper Belgium were the class of Group E but tournament experience counts for a lot. Antonio Conte drew up the perfect game plan and complied the most professional performance of the Euros so far.
Most teams competing in France over the next month boast blockbuster attacks yet look flaky at the back. The best form of defence is attack seems to be the status quo for many but not the Italians. The best form of attack is defence.
Conte went with a back four (including the goalkeeper) that plied their trade all with Italian champions Juventus. Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini provided the bedrock of a solid 2-0 victory in Lyon.
If the Italians are to go the distance and remedy their Euro 2012 final hammering at the hands of Spain it will come through all the things they displayed on Monday night.
A stout, smothering defensive display such as the one Chiellini and company produced would not have been possible without such a great understanding. The Juventus defence conceded just 20 goals on their way to winning their fifth Serie A title. It was a lesson to all watching how a great unit operates. Seamlessly transitioning and covering it was like seeing the inner workings of a fine Swiss watch.
The very few times one of the defensive trio was caught out of position their experience immediately kicked in. Clever fouls and taking yellow cards for the team helped stifle Belgium. Unsporting though it may be in the eyes of purists the Italians are not in France to win fans – there competing to win a European Championship.
Entering the final 20 minutes some of the defending – maybe that word should be put in the biggest quotation marks possible – was designed to destroy Belgium’s attacking verve. Bonucci was booked for a challenge on Divock Origi while striker Eder executed a textbook WWE style neck breaker on Eden Hazard as the Chelsea man sprung free.
Now me writing an article on Italians being good defensively would be as obvious as telling you that Usain Bolt is quite fast. But this was different. It was progressive no destructive. Bonucci’s sublime ball over the top for Emanuele Giaccherini’s opening goal was a fine long pass rather than a hoof up field. Later in the game Bonucci then ran 50 yards through the heart of the Belgian team. This was defence with every purpose of setting up attacking moves – not just clearing their lines.
Four years ago it was the creativity of Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Candreva teamed with the brilliant Mario Balotelli propelled the Azzurri to the final with an impressive victory over the Germans in the semi-finals.
This time around the tune has changed. Organisation, tactical adjustments, great togetherness and diligent defending are the DNA of Conte’s Italy. A manager who as a player stressed hard work over everything.
‘Eat grass’ is his motto – meaning to cover every blade of grass and no player typified that than Sunderland outcast Emanuele Giaccherini. He’ll be remembered for his classy opening goal but after that he simply did not stop running. Hassling the Belgians like a pesky wasp in defence and attempting to sting them in attack he embodied what Conte demands from this group of players.
This Italian side are all the things Conte was as a player: lacking technical ability on the ball but hard working and intelligent.
From what has been on show so far in France many teams have set up with the intention of their attack setting the tone. Italy by contrast choose to build from their defence. A calming, solid base with an telepathic bond on the pitch. And from that they did produce some easy on the eye football. Candreva, Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle all gave the Belgian backline palpitations and it could have been more than three had the Azzurri been sharper in their finishing.
Italy may be tested more against a team with great chemistry up front. Belgium’s attacking talent mixed about as well as sulphuric acid and bleach – one for the science lovers. It was toxic basically. Romelu Lukaku was abject, Kevin De Bryune frustrated and Hazard picked up from where he left off with his domestic form.
However with Conte’s tactical brilliance and a team spirit which was clear for all to see at the full time whistle Italy could surprise many. What’s that old saying? Never write off the Italians.