A true elder statesman in the Italy camp, Andrea Barzagli certainly doesn’t fit the mold of many of the young, promising players Antonio Conte has brought into the fold. But the veteran Juventus centre-back brings much-needed grit and experience to a squad that needs to tighten up at the back if they’re to progress past the group stage at Euro 2016.
He may be 34-years-old and has already announced his intent to retire from international football after the Euros, but what better way to go out than featuring at the back – likely alongside Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci – in France this summer?
That Juventus partnership has been one of Europe’s best backlines over the past few seasons, and all three should be natural choices should Conte play the three-man defence he typically deployed in his time at Juventus. Their chemistry was instrumental in helping Gianluigi Buffon set the Serie A record for the longest stretch without conceding, and they lead the league in clean sheets.
Yes, Barzagli has lost a step or two over the years, but his vision, ability to read the game and strength make him a tremendous asset, especially in a cagey international tournament. He’s rock-solid mentally and remains productive at the highest level. It’s almost unthinkable that Conte would leave a key piece of one of European football’s strongest defensive units behind when the stakes are so high.
The competition in Group F suggests that Barzagli’s style of football isn’t entirely out of place, either. Belgium possess pace in Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and a host of young, energetic players, but Ireland and Sweden play a more conventional game, where Italy will be likely be on the front foot and hold much of the possession. Sweden especially will be heavily dependent on the individual talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and bringing Barzagli into the side could help nullify that threat.
Given their attacking struggles – two 1-0 wins against Malta spring to mind as warning signs – it is critical for Italy to remain disciplined and organised at the back, and Barzagli offers a commanding voice and well-demonstrated chemistry with his defensive partners. Having a World Cup-winner in the side will also provide steady leadership and a calming presence for the younger, less-experienced players in the squad.
Having a skilled attacking side is critically important; but, as Italy showed in 2006 (and, to some extent, in 2012) there is a place for defensive football, or at least defensive solidity, in the modern game. Given their squad and attacking limitations, a robust defensive display may be the Azzurri’s best shot at beating Europe’s top teams. It would be foolish not to include perhaps the finest example of the prototypical Italian centre-back in the squad for Euro 2016.
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