There was nothing brilliant about the game as a whole; we’d struggle to say it was even average as football games go. Regardless, the Italians can now say that it is two games, two wins, six points won, and an avoidance of another embarrassing first round exit. It’s more than many predicted at the start of the tournament. Certainly that view would have gained popularity after the spate of key injuries and when the first line-up for Italy contained all of Graziano Pelle, Brazilian born Eder, and on-loan-from-Sunderland-to-Bologna Emanuele Giaccherini. Yet those are precisely the three men who have scored for the Azzurri against Belgium and Sweden.
Quality at the right time
It has been that story. Stifling defending led by a trio of stars and perpetrated by a team set up to stifle any movement in attacking areas and the odd moment of high quality by seemingly average attacking players.
Against Belgium it was Giaccherini and Pelle who would produce those moments of quality. To win the match against Sweden and assure qualification to the knockout rounds was Brazilian born Eder. It was one of those goals that you somehow knew would score despite the amount of work he had to do. He made the absolute most of the headed pass from Juventus bench man Simone Zaza to set off on a run reminiscent of a rampaging Roberto Baggio goal against Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup. One of those first footballing memories. It was maybe even better. So surreal and surprising was it all. By the time he was done depositing the ball into the left hand corner of the net and sending Italian fans into delirium, there were six Swedish players in his vicinity. In truth, there were only three who were near enough to even consider tackles but the story may get embellished years down the road.
But that is it. The game was nothing special. The first half was a sleeping pill on its own. Italy seemed unbothered and content with a draw if it came. Sweden seemed like they couldn’t break through past Italy’s defensive BBC if they played 900 minutes, let alone 90. So stifling was the nipping at anybody who dared get anywhere near threatening positions that Sweden scoring again never seemed in question. Seeing Zlatan Ibrahimovic drop into the midfield to retrieve balls and playing long passes a la Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, or Wayne Rooney was telling, too. Sweden needed him in more advanced positions but wouldn’t he just be starved for service there? Twice now the Italians have executed defensive plans to near perfection and the result what we now see, an opportunity to rotate his squad for the final match against the Republic of Ireland.
Much of the Italian passing went through the centre-backs along the channel to the wide men. Candreva, Giaccherini and co failed to sufficiently get the forwards involved until the arrival of Simone Zaza who injected life into a dull game and eventually supplied the pass for the goal. Sweden were restricted, although controlling midfield as the Italians looked wide, and both forwards were ineffectual including by far their best player, Ibrahimovic. Midfielders and defenders shared much of the possession in the middle of the park, away from the Italian goal thanks to a spate of back passes.
Strikers that have played Italy thus far have been crucified. First, Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi felt the wrath of BBC then it was the seemingly Manchester United bound Zlatan. Zlatan and John Guidetti had 39 and 20 touches, respectively, and wonderful passing accuracies of 64.3% and 56.3%. One could not being intrigued and slightly confused by seeing the talismanic Zlatan Ibrahimovic picking up a pass to only be smothered by three Italians tackling (cleanly) till he yielded. It was strange. That set off an Italian attack. That was the day. That has been the day for strikers against Italy so far.
Ring the changes
Going forward, it will be interesting to see what eleven start against the Irish. Lorenzo Insigne is yet to see even a single minute of time and one wonders if he will now get his chance. For all his industriousness, work rate and that well taken goal, Giaccherini has lacked quality. He and Candreva have failed to play the right final ball on many occasions whether it be too heavy a cross or just the wrong pass altogether. Marco Parolo has been somewhat anonymous himself apart from his near miss against Sweden. Those wide areas could be where Antonio Conte experiments the most. Daniele de Rossi is likely to sit for Thiago Motta. He has done a commendable job nullifying attacks and providing a link in the middle between the defenders and the wide men at times. Motta, though, brings added passing range and it is these things that Conte must ponder.
The Italians won’t want to mess with what has worked but the talk has been a lot about ‘Imagine if they had more quality going forward’. Well, they do. Their names are Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy. With Candreva looking to be out with a hamstring problem and Gianluigi Buffon suffering from a cold and on a yellow card then both will be in contention along with names like Ciro Immobile and Salvatore Sirigu. It will be a vastly different Italy but given the way in which the team has been organised thus far, it could be the ones which we consider the more talented of the bunch that make an appearance.
The Italians have been circumspect and tactical in accumulating their points punctuated by timely late goals of real quality. Again, this will be another chance for Chelsea fans to witness the tactical flexibility of their new manager as he reshuffles the Azzurri on what he hopes will be a deep Euro 2016 run.