Italy's assertive 2-0 victory over group favourites Belgium belies the uncomfortable truth that the Azzurri are not very good at the basic skill of passing. The number of times that a promising play petered out because the pass simply couldn't find its man was frustrating, and the same holds true for crosses.
Everyone knows, of course, that passing isn't the corner-stone of Italy's game anyway. Unlike the tournament's four or five notorious favourites, they have little use for possession and they don't employ a playmaker in the midfield. It is therefore hardly surprising that they should have completed only 392 passes in their first game against France's 519, Germany's 661, Spain's 681 or Belgium's own 513.
But let us not mistake quantity for quality. The fact that they are performing less passes doesn't mean that they should be performing them less well.
Italy's pass completion rate in their first game was 76 per cent, against 89 per cent for both Germany and Spain. This means that the Azzurri were flunking one pass every four, while the title favourites missed one every ten. It's true that their average pass length was longer (19.21m against Germany's 16.62m and Spain's 16.63m), as a consequence of playing more long balls, which have a lower rate of success. But the fact that Belgium managed an 84 per cent pass completion rate with an 18.79m average pass length should give us pause.
Italy's struggle to pass the ball properly translates into a lower number of chances created: the Azzurri totalled 12 shots on Monday, against Belgium's 18 (the same number as Germany and Spain in their respective games). The argument that Italy are a more conservative team and therefore aren't meant to create as many chances as these rivals holds true, but it misses the point that improving a team's productivity doesn't necessarily mean altering its identity or style. Italy could vastly improve their game, their chances and their odds of winning by marginally improving their passing rate.
In the (much-discussed) absence of good playmakers in the midfield, the obvious way of doing that would be to field Lorenzo Insigne, in just about any position of the pitch. Compared to Graziano Pellé, Antonio Candreva and Eder, last season he had a tangibly superior number of per game assists (0.27, to 0.2, 0.1 and none), key passes (1.49 to 1.03, 1.1 and 0.29), and chances created (1.76 to 1.23, 1.2 and 0.29). He is also a substantially better player in the one-on-one; there was one point, about 10 minutes into the Belgium game, when Candreva failed a dribbling that could have left him clear to cross into a box with four Italian shirts. This is the type of circumstance where Insigne shines.
Of course, fielding Insigne means altering the double-poacher couple that Conte is so fond of. The Napoli fantasista may be less suited to the type of one-two plays that Eder and Pellé were knocking off each other. Given his stature, he is also going to be quite terrible at receiving long balls.
This is the quid pro quo aspect of changing any player for another, but the trade-off may well be worth it. Insigne doesn't change Conte's system entirely, but he does lend it a new slant. With his unique creative outlook, the Napoli striker is undeniably the best tactical variant that Italy possess, and a player who provides exactly those qualities that Conte's team is currently lacking.
It's important for Conte to develop alternatives to his game-plan because the teams that are coming his way may just throw a spanner in his works. We described Italy as a unit designed to work best against free-flowing, possession-based opposition, but more likely to suffer against defensive teams. Judging by their game on Monday, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland are about as committed to defence as any team can be.
Sweden won't hold a high line that can be punctured with long overhead passes, the way Belgium did. They are unlikely to press forward, as they will be desperate not to forfeit qualification by a loss. They won't play gentle, and they may not play clean. Italy have the more talented squad, but their odds of scoring the first goal are not necessarily higher than their opponents'.
A number of tactical measures give Conte a range of options. Switching Stephan El Shaarawy for Matteo Darmian – a modification that has already been tested – would give the team greater impetus on the wing, for example, against an opponent that probably won't attack that space too much.
If that is not enough, however, then giving Insigne some playing time is the best way to ensure Italy have a back-door out of trouble. If you think we are being overly apprehensive, then strap your seatbelts on for Sweden and Ireland. The ride is about to get rough.
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