It seems strange now to recall Antonio Conte’s gloomy forecasts for his nation this summer. Far from a lone voice, the Italy boss could not have been more cautious. “We’ll start with low expectations because Italian football is not in good shape,” he said before going on to lament the lack of good young footballers in Serie A and then concluding that his team were outsiders. Well, they don’t look like outsiders now.
Belgium and Spain, two of the four teams thought most likely to win the European Championships, have been beaten. A third, Germany, will wait for them in Bordeaux for their meeting on July 2. If Italy are going to win this, they’re going to have to do it the hard way. Fortunately, they don’t seem to be afraid of hard work.
Much has been written about Conte’s methodical and micro-managed approach, and you can see evidence of it everywhere. For anyone still hanging onto the notion that a manager’s influence is overrated, this Italian side is a devastating riposte. Their victory over Spain was outstanding.
You can see Conte’s work in the way his players move off the ball. When Spain had possession in their own half, there was watchfulness, Blue shirts flickered around the pitch, covering runs. The closer Spain came, the more Italy’s back five contracted. But this wasn’t a simple case of forming lines and closing gaps, as Iceland did so well against England later that day. While the back five held their shape, the midfield three buzzed around like wasps, trying to force mistakes. And if their attention could intimidate Spain into playing the ball backwards, everyone in the Italian team moved up. They’re like a hive mind. No-one in this team seems to switch off for a moment.
You can understand why Conte bristles at the notion that Italy are defensive. That’s not the case. They’re just very good at judging the mood of the room. If Spain played the ball back to David de Gea, as they do sometimes when they look to take a breath, the pressure was immediately turned up. Here, in the 20th minute, three Italian players are advancing all the way towards the penalty area, breaking off to shut down short passing options, forcing De Gea to go long. When he does, spanking the ball up into the Italian half, Andrea Barzagli beats Alvaro Morata in the air.