According to Italian media, the library at the riverside hotel complex in Montpellier that serves as the Azzurri’s home base has multiple copies of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” This makes sense, since Italy head coach Antonio Conte appears to have turned some of its tenets into articles of faith.
“Appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak.”
It’s the basis of tactics and strategy. Mask areas where you are subpar. Fool the opposition into committing resources where they are redundant. Create overloads and imbalances that favor you.
Conte knows that it’s just one of the keys to success. Commitment and athleticism play a part, too. As does, above all, talent. Conte can’t do anything about the latter. If it’s not there — and this may be the least-gifted Azzurri side in half a century — he can’t conjure it up out of thin air.
Conte can influence commitment and athleticism to some degree. He can inspire and motivate, though he’s not the Wizard of Oz: if he has a Cowardly Lion up front, he can’t give it courage; if there’s a Tin Man in midfield, he can’t supply a heart. Conte can work on the fitness and the agility of his players, and tailor it to the short burst of a month-long tournament. If he’s smart about it, he can get a small edge there. But we’re talking marginal gains.
Where Conte can have the most impact is tactically. Given the age-old Italian obsession with long and repetitive tactical sessions, he can at least count on a group of players that will be receptive to it.
Conte has been so obsessed with creating his tactical edge that he has put the Italy camp on virtual lockdown. Panels have been erected around the training pitch and sessions have been closed off not just to Italian media, but also some officials of the Italian FA and even his own staff. Information is strictly on a need to know basis.
What are the secrets that is he shielding?
We can’t say for sure, but the impression is that, given the lack of individual talent, Conte is conjuring up an exotic, flexible formation. Nominally, it’s a 3-5-2. But when Italy defend, it becomes a 4-4-2, with one of the wingbacks stepping into a full-back position and the centre-back on the far side stepping across and filling the other full-back role. When the Azzurri attack, it becomes a 3-3-4, with the two wingbacks thundering up the pitch so they’re in line, if not further forward, than the two central strikers.
For it to work, you need to fully absorb these tactical concepts, and doing so in the space of a few weeks — all Conte had ahead of this tournament — will not be easy. You have to make every minute on the pitch and every ounce of energy count. That is Conte’s first challenge.
The second is finding wide men who can do what Conte asks: To go from being a defensive full-back to a an out-and-out winger and to do it time and again during a game. In this area, it’s slim pickings for Conte. To begin with, there are few natural wingbacks to choose from, so the sense is that it will be some combination of Antonio Candreva, Stephan El Shaarawy or, for a more defensive look, Matteo Darmian. The former two are attacking players, usually deployed wide in a 4-3-3; the latter is an all-purpose defender. It’s not just a question of quality, it’s about stamina, too. That means, most likely, making changes as the game wears on.
“I want my wide players to come off the pitch spitting blood after an hour or so,” Conte told Gazzetta dello Sport. “And then put other guys on from the bench. We have plenty of options on the flanks.”
Lots of options, sure, but none of them necessarily world class and none, at least on paper, naturally suited to the double role of defensive full-back and attacking winger wrapped into one.
Yet that’s where Conte is looking for his edge when Italy have the ball, perhaps because there is little quality elsewhere. Injuries have robbed Italy of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, two creative midfielders who really could have given the team another dimension. Their places have been taken by Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini, two blue-collar guys who will do their job as worker bee drones, but can’t be expected to contribute much more.
The “playmaker” role will go to Daniele De Rossi, another sign of how bare the cupboard is. De Rossi turns 33 next month, and while he provides oodles of experience and a tough guy edge, persistent injuries mean that he’s not the dynamo he was in his younger years. In fact, he has lasted 90 minutes just twice since February. What’s more, he’s not in the team for his defensive prowess, but rather for his passing. It’s a sign of the times when you think that the guy who was Andrea Pirlo’s safety net for most of his Azzurri career is now asked to fill his boots.
Up front, Conte appears to be leaning towards Graziano Pelle and Eder, with Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza as the alternatives. Pelle scored 14 goals for Southampton this season, but was in and out of the side in the second half of the campaign. Eder was on fire for Sampdoria in the first half of last season, but managed just one Serie A goal after moving to Inter Milan in late January. Zaza was Juventus’ fourth-choice striker and started just five league games, while Immobile was a flop at Sevilla before moving to Torino in January, where he did somewhat better. Ten years ago next month, Italy won the World Cup and counted on Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Pippo Inzaghi, Alberto Giardino and Luca Toni as their strikers. It’s fair to say that Conte’s crop is many, many rungs below that.
What Conte doesn’t want to do is go back to the old formula of staunch defending and relying on the counter. While he has the back line to play like that — essentially, it’s Juventus’s back four, including keeper Gianluigi Buffon — he knows he lacks the quality to play on the counter.
So Italy are left with this: A blue-collar side that will try to outwork, out-hustle and, above all, out-think the opposition. A team that knows that it has to grasp every edge it can get and rely on savvy, misdirection and outsmarting the other guy. A group that knows that little is expected of them and rightly so, no matter how much Conte beats his chest.
Then again, to a man, they also know that Leicester won the Premier League this season. And that in a month of football, anything can happen. Even a team winning the Euros on desire, scheme and a lot of “spitting blood.”