It’s been almost 18 months since Antonio Conte took over as Italy CT from Cesare Prandelli following a catastrophic World Cup. With only a handful of games left before the Azzurri travel to France, it’s fair to ask ourselves what we know about this team. So far, the answer is very little, and the Azzurri’s 3-1 defeat to Belgium and 2-2 draw against Romania provided us with more questions than answers.
What’s worse is that the few things we do know aren’t exactly comforting. At present, what are Italy’s strengths, exactly? Just about the only guarantee the Azzurri can bring to the table is goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Beyond that, there’s little encouraging news. His sub, Salvatore Sirigu, was partly responsible for Romania’s last-gasp equaliser. In addition, the defence appears unable to offer any stability. The early goal Italy conceded to Bogdan Stancu is the sixth goal that they’ve conceded in the first twenty minutes under Conte, and a sign that the former Juventus Coach should have at least tested an alternative to the Turinese old guard by now.
Though Andrea Barzagli actually looked solid in the middle against Romania, Conte chose to shuffle Chiellini to left-back, which is far from ideal.
As thing stand, the Azzurri’s back line is Euro mincemeat material: even the weaker teams in the competition will be adept at punishing opponents on the counter, and will surely be licking their chops at the sight of the 4-4-2/4-2-4 Conte employed against Romania and Belgium.
The Azzurri’s energetic, yet bumbling performance in midfield is symptomatic of the former Bianconeri boss’s constant tinkering. Despite injuries to Marco Verratti and Sebastian Giovinco - who plies his trade in MLS, by the way - Conte is paying the price for bringing in out-of-form or still-convalescent players like Riccardo Montolivo and Lorenzo de Silvestri, and leaving the likes of Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne at home.
The Italian press has made much of the Azzurri’s pluck, but it’s hard to see that making a difference against the continent’s elite. Though much has been made of Romania conceding only two goals in qualifiers, they were facing Northern Ireland, Hungary, Finland, Greece and the Faroe Islands.
Despite the referee’s lenience towards Romania’s tough tackling, it’s not as if Conte’s charges created that many chances to begin with. Coming after a defeat to Belgium in which the Azzurri looked almost Trapattoni-esque in their persistent use of long balls, questions have to be asked of Conte’s tactical approach, as well as his apparent lack of a Plan B.
Leaving Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi - the latter of whom went on to star for the Under-21 team against Lithuania - out in favour of Graziano Pelle and Eder has left Italy looking predictable up front. This isn’t a Baggio-style tormentone: Italy simply can’t afford to leave talents like Insigne, who has been incredible for Napoli this season, and Berardi, who has notched 33 goals over the last three seasons for Sassuolo, off the plane.
It’s not as if Conte has exactly been helped by the FIGC, either: a recent book on the Azzurri CT, Metodo Conte, reveals how he feels that Serie A clubs – especially Juventus – have been stonewalling his attempts at bringing the players in for more camps.
Even after the game, Conte told the press that “we’ll improve when we have twenty days to be together”. Unless things turn around soon, it seems like a bit of a stretch.