On 23 June 2008 Spain defeated Italy 4-2 on penalties to reach the UEFA Euro Semi-finals. They went on to win the tournament that year, for the first time since 1964. In 2012 Spain won the tournament again, becoming the first team in history to successfully defend the title.
In 2016 Spain’s run of European success came to an abrupt end after a decisive 2-0 defeat at the hands of a team that had described as ‘the worst Italian team in decades’ before the tournament began.
How can the ‘worst Italian team in decades’ defeat a decidedly strong and competitive Spain? Two words: Antonio Conte.
The incoming Chelsea boss has shown that good management and emphasis on team-play more often than not trumps a team of superstars. We saw it with Leicester City under Ranieri this year, we saw it with Iceland’s 2-1 defeat of England, and we are seeing it under Conte’s Italy.
Now, that’s not to say the current Italy squad are football minnows, like Iceland and Leicester, but the current line-up of the Azzurri is a shadow of the glory years of the 1990s and mid-2000s.
Criticised for a lack of youngsters in the squad (Italy came into the tournament with an average age of 28), robbed of some talent through injury (Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio), and criticised for some selections (Federico Marchetti over Gianluigi Donnarumma), Conte’s Italy was largely written off by the media before the tournament started. Yet, they recently defeated the European Champions and head into a game against the World Champions, Germany, having conceded zero goals so-far this tournament.
Conte’s style has been instrumental in Italy’s success, and it’s something Chelsea fans should look forward too. There was a moment in the second half against Spain which showed exactly what Conte’s philosophy is as a manager. An Italy interception fell to the feet of Emanuele Giaccherini in Spain’s territory, but poor control sent the ball towards Conte. It was a small error, but Conte was visibly incensed at the missed opportunity. Throughout the tournament Conte has been vocal. So vocal in-fact he can often be heard on commentators microphones screaming in Italian (avanti seems to be his favourite word). In short, Conte is intense. He expects his players to give their all on the pitch and expects nothing less than 100%.
UBut intensity alone doesn’t win you matches. Italy have been technically skilled and very, very well organised, especially in defence – a feature that has been synonymous with Chelsea in seasons past. The 3-5-2 system offers flexibility in defence and attack, however it does work the midfielders extremely hard. Spain struggled to break Italy down, but at the same time Italy never over-committed at the back. They were able to move from solid defensive play to threatening attacks in an instant.
Italy also had a very clear game-plan from the get-go, unlike certain teams (cough…England). Recognising how much of a lynchpin Busquets is to the Spanish side’s fluency, it is clear Conte instructed Pelle and Eder to close him down at every opportunity, and that’s exactly what they did. Stifiling the Barcelona man’s passing ability and preventing Spanish attacks from gaining any momentum. Resting 8 of Italy’s players in last week’s match against the republic of Ireland also meant the Azzurri had enough gas in the tank to run Spain ragged for the full 90minutes.
In essence Conte has been the manager Italy needed for this tournament. Even if they go out to Germany in the quarter-finals, Conte has shown Italy can succeed even with the apparent decline in world-class talent.
Conte’s intensity, technical mind-set and well thought-out game plans are all reasons for Chelsea fans to get excited in a season where the Premier League will be saturated with world class managers.
For Conte, however, his focus is still with the Italy who face a very strong World Cup winning Germany this week.