When it comes to major tournaments, Italy can never be ruled out of the equation. Despite a disastrous World Cup in 2004, the Italians are seen to be a ‘tournament team’, much like Germany.
Since the World Cup, Italy have embarked on a new chapter in their footballing history; the resignation of Cesare Prandelli was followed with the appointment of the highly successful former Juventus manager Antonio Conte. Under Conte’s leadership there has been an emergence of new talent hungry to wear the historic Italy shirt. The four time World Cup winners are certainly more than capable of going into the European Championships and emerging as the winners. The memories of the 2006 World Cup are always something that will stick, Italy were not considered among the front runners with the experts and the bookies, but that Fabio Grosso penalty goal that brought the title to the nation still lives long in the memory. Perhaps the European Championships back in 2000 should have been a second European Championship win considering the squad the Italians possessed but again the tournament pedigree of this nation is not to be under-estimated.
This upcoming European Championship will be the last contribution of Antonio Conte as the national team manager. The charismatic Italian is expected to resume club management after the tournament; with Chelsea looking the likely destination. This can have either a positive or negative effect on the players. Reports have emerged that this group of players are fully behind Conte and aim to show how far he has brought them under his transition. However knowing that the manager will not be around post tournament may be a struggle for motivation for the squad that is named for the Championships. Among this squad will be fantastic experience which will not allow for anything else but full focus and effort, notably the iconic Buffon and the experienced Juventus defenders. This up and coming squad however is expected to not include the legendary Andrea Pirlo and the experienced Danielle De Rossi, however until that squad is announced how can you ever rule anyone out of the equation, especially players of this calibre. The Italian media believe that Conte knows sixteen of his players that will be included. The last set of friendlies before the tournament will include two of the teams expected to challenge for European glory this summer, Spain and Germany. This will give players the last opportunity to impress Conte and make a case for their inclusion for the summer.
Historically the Italians have always been known for how good they are set-up defensively. The highly structured backline and holding midfielders have always been the basis of which the team play the game. When you think of names such as Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta it is clear to see how this dimension to their game is fundamentally so important. So how will the Italians look this summer at the back? Well it would take a brave man to back against Gianluigi Buffon keeping his number one spot as the goalkeeper. In front of Buffon might have a very familiar look, with the Juventus three expected to be in place, this would include Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini. The team shape will determine a lot for Italy this summer, the likelihood will be that they will start with a back three; the shape around them might just be the difference. Conte is known to be trying this team in a 3-4-3 formation, when perhaps a 3-5-2 might be the way we see the Italians line up for their first match this summer, in the massive game against Belgium. The emergence of AC Milan centre back Alessio Ramagnoli might force his way into the first team picture for the summer.
The wide areas for Italy are one area that Conte has really driven forward with during his period as manager. The emergence of Alessandro Florenzi of Roma has made him almost a certainty to operate down the right hand side for Italy this summer, in whatever shape Italy opt to go with. The left hand side currently looks all to play for with AC Milan’s experienced Luca Antonelli is prime position to nail this position. Manchester United’s Matteo Darmian and AC Milan’s Mattia De Seglio are expected to travel with the squad but who starts down that side is still in question.
The midfield area for Italy will all depend on how they are shaped. The great sides of the past have shaped with a midfield three. Going back in history they have possessed such formidable trios, especially the successful Pirlo, Gattusso and De Rossi. This summer the previous importance of Andrea Pirlo for this nation may just rest on the shoulders of the twenty three year old Marco Verratti. Verratti has the ability to pull the strings in the central area for Italy and if he can fully overcome his injury he could emerge as one of the best players in the tournament. His role in a midfield is not a holding midfielder, more a deep-lying playmaker, so that role of holding midfielder is still to be filled. The energy Verratti will bring and his ball retention will prove vital for Italy. Conte has numerous options for this midfield, if he plays a three man midfield he will play a holding midfielder, along with the playmaker role and perhaps the box to box midfielder role, the more expansive role in the midfield. There are a number of options available to Conte, and the great positive for this side is the versatility the players possess. Florenzi is more than capable of playing in a midfield central position; Antonio Candreva can play out wide or as a creative influence inside, Marco Parolo has that same ability to play in a number of positions. The experience of Thiago Motta, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivio would make them all fantastic options for this midfield, add in the more youthful Jorginho, Roberto Soriano and Andrea Bertolacci and there is a real wealth of talent available for inclusion in this midfield for Conte and Italy.
Playing Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 formation would see Italy line up with a main striker and two players playing of the main man or even in a wider position. This season has seen the best of Napoli attacker Lorenzo Insigne, who could light up the tournament if he could take his form into the tournament. Bonaventura is the player who would get the vote to join the front three should they start in this formation. There are a number of options that are available to Conte with Giaccherini playing well at Bologna, El Shaarawy finding his form on loan at Roma and Bernardeschi of Fiorentina receiving his first call up for the national team. Graziano Pelle, Zaza, Eder and Immobile look to be the frontmen that Conte has to choose from to lead the line, not such a bad problem to have. The controversial Mario Balotelli seemingly looks to have too much to do to force his way into this squad come the summer, which will come as massive disappointment as the footballing world knows the talent that the on loan Liverpool striker has at his disposal.
The success for Italy might just come down to the formation that they have in place for France this summer. The versatility and adaptability of this group of players could also have a big influence on how we see the Italians perform, this will be a real threat to anyone they come up against. Something that can be said however is ‘do not underestimate the Italians’.