On Monday, Italy national team head coach Antonio Conte announced his thirty-man preliminary squad ahead of this summer’s European Championships. For some, the announcement gave opportunity for one final condemnation of Conte’s conservative selection policy. For others, it served as a powerful reminder of the supposed paucity of quality players available to the Azzurri and, in turn, pointed towards an apparent decline in the productive capacity of the country’s football system.
These, it must be said, are the most common views, though that does not necessarily mean they are the correct ones. There remains some optimism, fuelled mainly by a qualification campaign without defeat and a coach with not only a record of success at club level, but a renowned ability to foster team unity.
A Brief Summation of Conte’s Selection Policy
While he is a respected tactician and motivator, when it comes to call-ups and caps Conte’s decision-making has frequently been questionable. He has generally eschewed youth during his two-year tenure, preferring instead to call upon more experienced players. He has also paid little attention to club form, preferring instead those he believes he can rely upon readily because of a past working relationship. This has only allowed the discourse of ‘Italy has no quality’ to flourish unchecked. In reality, Italy has more talent than Conte has let on, because most of the time he has been absolutely averse to mining it.
One specific example of this aversion came last November. Italy were set to take on Belgium and Romania in friendlies having secured their Euro 2016 status with automatic qualification. It was a time when Conte should have been exploring new players with a view to the following summer. But, rather than do that, he called up the likes of Alessio Cerci. And, to enable that particular call-up, he left out Lorenzo Insigne.
To those unacquainted with exactly what this means, let’s consider some hypothetical comparisons. This decision roughly equated to Roy Hodgson ignoring Harry Kane and going instead with Jermain Defoe. Or Joachim Low deciding he didn’t need Karim Bellarabi, because he already had Lukas Podolski. It was madness, completely unexplainable.
Conte tried to justify it nevertheless, saying:
“At the centre of the project is morality, I have always said that I look at the behaviour of the players on and off the field. Two or three goals will not be enough to make me change my mind, I need people who have extraordinary values to do something extraordinary.”
It was hard at the time to fathom the ‘extraordinary values’ Conte had seen in Cerci to validate his continued omission of Insigne, who went on to become the first player in Europe’s major leagues to reach double figures for both goals and assists this season. Perhaps it was Cerci’s ability to withstand jeers from his own fans due to his poor form that most impressed the Azzurri boss.
This particular discrepancy has been rectified over time. Insigne made the preliminary squad, while Cerci—whose loan deal with Milan was terminated six months early to allow him to join Genoa in mid-season, where he again failed to make an impact—is nowhere to be seen. But there remains plenty to discuss.
Who Made the Squad?
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Davide Astori (Fiorentina), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham), Daniele Rugani (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Mattia De Sciglio (Milan), Davide Zappacosta (Torino)
Midfielders: Marco Benassi (Torino), Giacomo Bonaventura (Milan), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna), Jorginho (Napoli), Riccardo Montolivo (Milan), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Stefano Sturaro (Juventus), Antonio Candreva (Lazio)
Forwards: Eder (Inter), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Graziano Pellè (Southampton), Simone Zaza (Juventus), Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma)
Noteworthy Inclusions and Omissions
Many Italy fans and pundits will have been relieved to see several Conte favourites fail to make the cut, with centre-back Andrea Ranocchia and right-back Lorenzo De Silvestri not included. Both were seen as mainstays in the current setup but a combination of poor form and injury issues have seen them miss out. Unfortunately, some of Conte’s inclusions undid this good work.
Federico Marchetti’s selection as one of the three goalkeepers is a confusing one. The Lazio man’s form has improved of late and he has tournament experience, but others such as Atalanta’s Marco Sportiello and Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma have been more consistent. At 24 and 17 respectively, however, they are also much younger, which perhaps explains their absence. Other ‘keepers such as Daniele Padelli, Emiliano Viviano and Andrea Consigli will also be miffed at the sight of Salvatore Sirigu in the squad, given the Paris St Germain man made just three Ligue Un appearances this season after losing his place to Kevin Trapp.
Italy have a high quantity of solid central defensive options, so there is little to quibble with in that particular area of Conte’s squad. Angelo Ogbonna and Daniele Rugani could perhaps trade places with two of Francesco Acerbi, Alessio Romagnoli and Lorenzo Tonelli, but the gain would be fairly minimal, as both are quality centre-backs.
The inclusion of Mattia De Sciglio at full-back, however, is a difficult one to comprehend, especially seeing as this came at the expense of Luca Antonelli, who has beaten the younger man to the left-back berth with AC Milan this season. 23-year-old Torino right wing-back Davide Zappacosta is also a surprisingly bold call-up, particularly given that Ignazio Abate is both more experienced and in better form.
Conte’s midfield selections are contentious, to say the least. Zappacosta’s 21-year-old club team-mate Marco Benassi is again an intriguing call-up, though to bring him into the fold, along with the painfully out-of-form Milan captain Riccardo Montolivo and Juventus squad player Stefano Sturaro, while leaving out Sampdoria’s key man Roberto Soriano, is a strange decision. There is also an argument to be made that Sassuolo captain Francesco Magnanelli, despite being 31 years old and uncapped at any level, should have been involved. With the absence of Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, his positioning and passing range would have been helpful.
Andrea Pirlo’s absence was not such a shock. The 37-year-old is past his best and has not been playing particularly well in MLS with New York City, by all accounts. The veteran seemed to know what was coming when he spoke about the possibility of being selected, saying:
“When someone makes the decision to come to the USA, he knows what he’s getting into. These are issues I reflected on and I knew what the risks were. If you play in Belgium or another league with less quality, you still have the opportunity to play in the Champions League or Europa League. Do I have regrets? Absolutely not.”
Perhaps Conte’s attacking choices are the hardest to explicate, though. He did, after all, exclude some of the best players in Serie A, including Franco Vazquez, Riccardo Saponara and Domenico Berardi, as well as in-form centre-forwards in Leonardo Pavoletti and Andrea Belotti.
As trequartisti, Vazquez and Saponara may have been left out for purely tactical reasons, as they could only really be of use when Italy play a 3-4-2-1, which will probably be the third-choice shape at this summer’s finals. But Berardi would have brought precise finishing, inventive dribbling and a touch of flair out wide that just cannot be provided by Emanuele Giaccherini, try as he might. Meanwhile, Pavoletti would have offered more of an aerial threat as well better hold-up play than the tempestuous Simone Zaza, and Belotti has been Torino’s best striker by some distance of late, making teammate Ciro Immobile’s call-up quite bizarre.
Many also wanted a place for reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco, who has been dazzling since moving to Toronto. The ‘Atomic Ant’ is a lively dribbler with sublime ball control and creativity, and perhaps deserved a place on his recent performances. Not so many were desperate for Mario Balotelli to be handed a squad berth. Several years ago the 25-year-old was seen as the future of the Italian national team, but the truth is he is no longer as impactful as he once was. With just one league goal and one assist for Milan this season, he is out of form. And, given Conte has only called on him once before, his omission was to be expected.
The Tactical Implications
On the first day of a pre-Euro 2016 training camp, Conte tested out a 3-5-2 formation. This is a system he has used in the past, though the notion this is the only one he is open to is incorrect – he has also used a 4-2-4, 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1 as a coach at club and international level. Nonetheless, if he is to go for the 3-5-2, how would it look?
In this shape, the defensive line is settled. Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini will line up in front of Gianluigi Buffon. This quartet also line up together, to great success, at club level for Juventus, and Conte has a good understanding with them having coached them during his time at the Bianconeri. Simply put, there is no debate to be had here.
Alessandro Florenzi should have the right wing-back slot locked down but Matteo Darmian and Giaccherini may have to tussle for the left wing-back berth. The former had a distinctly forgettable debut season in England, but is of a higher level than the latter.
In central midfield, the holding role could be contested by any one of Thiago Motta, Jorginho, Daniele De Rossi or Montolivo. Jorginho is the best quality option, and is also the best form option, but, as discussed, that does not necessarily mean Conte will go with him. De Rossi was tested in the position in training recently, but if fit Motta could get the nod. The likelihood is that two of these four may start in a central three, with Giacomo Bonaventura and Marco Parolo fighting it out for a more offensive midfield role.
Up front, Graziano Pelle will start as the ‘large’ in a little-and-large strike partnership. The ‘little’ in this scenario could either be Eder or Antonio Candreva, who have both been out of form at club level but save their best for international games, or perhaps Stephan El Shaarawy.
While the 3-5-2 appears the first choice at present, Conte did make good use of a 4-3-3 in qualifying. In this situation Barzagli would be the unlucky centre-back to drop out, while Darmian would compete with the more defensive De Sciglio instead of Giaccherini on the left of the back four.
The midfield trio would be the same as in the 3-5-2, but in attack Pelle would be supported by two wide options rather than a second striker. Italy certainly aren’t short of wingers, so the only question here would be which players to choose. The versatile Eder can do a job out wide, while Federico Bernardeschi can cut in from the right to good effect. Out left, El Shaarawy has done well in this position since joining Roma, while Insigne has been superb for Napoli.
The alternative shape is the 3-4-2-1, which Conte used with mixed success in Italy’s most recent friendlies, a 1-1 draw with Spain and a 4-1 defeat to Germany. Here the Juventus back line returns, with two of Florenzi, Bernardeschi, Darmian or Giaccherini as the wing-backs. The midfield duet would probably comprise two of De Rossi, Montolivo, Jorginho and Motta.
Again, Pelle would lead the line, only he would instead be supported by two inside forward types. Conte has a wealth of options to choose from in this area, including Insigne, El Shaarawy, Bonaventura, Candreva and Bernardeschi. If he wants movement, Insigne and Bernardeschi would be the best picks, but if it’s pace he’s after, El Shaarawy and Candreva offer more.
Who will be left at home?
Conte has called up thirty players for his preliminary squad, but only twenty-three can continue on to the finals. That means seven players will have to be cut in the coming weeks.
Of the six centre-backs, one of Ogbonna and Rugani is likely to be left out when the final squad announcement is made. Considering the latter has played well with Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini at club level, he may just get the nod.
Given Chiellini and Barzagli can fill in out wide in a back four, De Sciglio and Zappacosta may be left behind in favour of Darmian, who has also been used by Conte at centre-back, Florenzi, who can also play on the wing or in midfield, and Giaccherini, who can play anywhere on either flank.
In midfield, one of the defensive-minded midfielders should be sacrificed. With Montolivo behind Motta, De Rossi and—assuming Conte is sensible—Jorginho in the pecking order, the Milan captain should be the odd one out. Youngsters Benassi and Sturaro are also unlikely to feature, unless they have seriously impressed the coach in training.
Up front, Immobile and Zaza will have to compete for a place in the squad, as Conte is set to take Pelle as his undisputed number one centre-forward, and Eder as a more versatile forward option. Zaza could get the call here, primarily because he has spent more time in recent squads and offers a more physical style that the coach seems to prefer.