How will Antonio Conte's Italian legacy be remembered?
After Italy’s devastating penalty shootout defeat to Germany in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, Antonio Conte and the Italian team walked out with tears in their eyes but their heads held high. They had given a great account of themselves in a tournament in which they weren’t fancied at all, and had beaten two of the favorites in Belgium and Spain quite convincingly and had matched the World Champions Germany blow for blow.
Even the penalty shootout seemed to go on forever, the usually clinical Germans also feeling the pressure as several penalties were put in the stands or saved. There was a moment when Graziano Pelle stepped up to consolidate Italy’s lead in the shootout when you thought that Italy could really do the unthinkable and dump the Germans out to reach the semi-finals.
But he tried to be too cheeky with Neuer, unnecessarily making gestures to him instead of concentrating on sticking the ball in the back of the net and his whole country suffered as a result. Italy had come so close to continuing their remarkable streak against the Germans, but it wasn’t to be.
“The legacy of this team is proving where there’s a will, there’s a way. With hard work you can achieve unthinkable results, so it’s a shame to go out like this.” Conte said, in his long press conference post the Azzurri’s ouster from the tournament in France.
For a team deprived of the midfield talent of Claudio Marchisio, Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Candreva because of injury or suspension, it’s stunning how the Italian midfield mostly nullified the effects of players of the class of Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil in the first place.
The will and hard work that Conte spoke about has certainly been instilled in every player who’s turned out for him and the tactical attention to detail and running was clear in every match the Italians played.
There was a lot of talk about the lack of talent in the Italian set-up when Euro 2016 was approaching and Conte too always stressed upon that point when he could. But apart from a glaring lack of genuine world class forwards (even though Pelle and Eder did more than a good job during the course of the tournament) are Italy really as lacking in ability as it’s sometimes made out to be? I think not.
The Italian backline of Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini have a reputation as being the best defensive bloc in the world and deservedly so and with youngsters like Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani having made an impression in the last couple of years Italy are quite reasonably stocked in defensive talent.
Here it must be mentioned that Conte declined to take the latter two, who were denied an invaluable international tournament experience that would have immensely helped the Nazionale in the years to come.
What about midfielders like Bonaventura, Vazquez and Jorginho who were also left home. None of them are household names by any means by the trio have had superb domestic seasons with their clubs and all rank in the Whoscored Italian Serie A team of the season. Couldn’t any of these players given the Italians a creativity in the middle of the park that they so keenly needed against the Germans?
It wasn’t a game of too many chances and in truth both teams did stifle each other out. It was clear that Low had changed his system to neutralize the Italians and perhaps the game suffered a bit as a result, but there was a period when Germany were in the ascendancy and Italy didn’t look like they had much of a clue of what to do after Ozil stabbed the ball home after a fortunate deflection.
Italy were fortunate that Jerome Boateng had a moment of madness in the 78th minute to equalize, but the question really is why was Conte waiting to use some of the many attacking options he had on his bench?
Lorenzo Insigne didn’t arrive until deep into extra time, and he immediately looked lively even though he appeared to be trying a little too hard. Couldn’t he have impacted the game earlier?
It’s not of course as if Germany were rampant in extra time either, both teams looked exhausted and cautious as would be expected. But Conte isn’t really a manager who is ready to try different solutions to attack a game when required.
After all, this is a team that played with verve and vibrancy during the wins in Euro 2012 and the 2006 World Cup against heavily fancied German teams, and they didn’t just beat Germany because of a hoodoo. They outplayed them.
The sight of Andrea Pirlo pinging passes all over the pitch and Antonio Cassano bamboozling the German defense are sights that are still fresh in the memory. Couldn’t Italy have combined grit and flair in a way that would have allowed them to accommodate some of the technical players they had at their disposal?
In a way of course, this criticism might seem excessive. Conte did get the best out of his system and only took the players who he thought would slot in perfectly. To a big extent he was vindicated and created a team that matched the best at the European Championships and was far greater than the sum of its parts.
He’s also created a resilience, fortitude and pride in his unit of representing the Nazionale and the effects of that of course will register in the long term. The incoming coach Ventura will surely benefit from the confidence and swagger that Conte will leave behind, but it’ll also be upto him whether to stand by Conte’s generals or call up at least some of the wonderfully gifted footballers who Conte left behind.
Creating an Italy that can go deep into the World Cup 2018, I feel will have to utilize the resilience that Conte has left behind, and the technique and innovation that modern football also requires. If Ventura plays his card well, he could pull off what Allegri did at Juve after Conte’s exit, and take this setup several steps even further.