It is a telling sign that many of us would have signed below the dotted line for last night’s Azzurri performance. Was this a sign of how much Conte’s team had achieved, how low our expectations were, or both?
To be truthful, it was a relief that Italy weren’t passed off the park by Vicente Del Bosque’s men, but was this ever likely to happen? Though it was refreshing to see Italy harry Spain’s ball-carriers and never let them find their feet, La Furia Roja has yet to prove that it has moved on from the team that puffed and wheezed in the Brazilian sun.
It is also one thing to run more than your opponent in a friendly, another to outwork him in a competitive game, and I have the sneaky suspicion that Italy’s numerous passing errors (both in defence and midfield) will be better exploited by a dynamic, countering minnow - and France 2016’s 24-team format allows for plenty of those!
This may explain why I like the Azzurri more against the tactically-simplistic Marc Wilmots and his collection of freakishly talented Diables Rouges Belgian, who will likely try to take the game into their own hands as Spain did, leaving space to attack at the back.
Still, it was nice to see Italy set up lightning-quick attacks and three-way combinations, whether it was Matteo Darmian combining with Graziano Pellè and Alessandro Florenzi in the first half, Antonio Candreva drifting inside to shoot, or Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi combining for some breathtaking counters in the second.
As welcome as it was to watch Italy playing high-tempo football, the second half bore out to what extent it was better for Conte to opt for more talented, albeit less hard-working players, especially after Bernardeschi and Insigne quite simply took over proceedings.
Case in point: the highly-praised Alessandro Florenzi may have been found good positions, but his end product (save from the fierce strike which David De Gea parried away) was generally poor. Another, Emanuele Giaccherini (Conte’s favourite Stakhanovite) earned a live rebuke from RAI pundit Giovanni Trapattoni for not immediately looking for the killer through-ball to Insigne.
Admittedly the assist-man for the Azzurri’s goal, the Bologna man still looks to lose half a yard off pace when he plays at international level, a trait he shares with Eder, who is struggling to understand if he is to play as a false-nine or as a foil to Pelle.
Bizarrely, it was the Southampton man who was involved in almost every early Azzurri attack, acting as a dangerous pivot and helping his team-mates gain precious yards.
Four more Azzurri counter-attacks will highlight my point: in the first half, Candreva recovered possession outside the box… to find Pelle and Eder making the exact same run. Later on, Florenzi tried to launch Giaccherini on the left with an outside-of-the-foot pass… which was inaccurate. Or was the former Juventino too slow?
In the second, however, a perfect, outside-of-foot pass from Bernardeschi forced a hand-ball from Gerard Pique, who could do little else to stop Simone Zaza from running through on goal. The two Azzurri later combined for a one-two outside the box before passing to Insigne, whose incredible lob nearly had De Gea fooled.
In short, Conte’s Azzurri finally look like they’re building something, but it is worth asking whether he’s using the right pieces. Let’s hope that Insigne’s claims that the two of them have cleared things up (the Neapolitan had angered the CT by skipping two qualifiers through injury), and that hard work and “loyalty” won’t be the be all and end all of selection.
With a handful of friendlies left before Italy’s showdown in Lyon with Belgium, it’s a relief to see Conte finding a workable solution. Can he now turn it into a winning one?