Kirsten Schlewitz shares her thoughts on the start of the Conte era.
Italy, winners of the 2006 World Cup, finished last in their group in 2010. Cesare Prandelli took over, guiding the azzurri to the final of Euro 2012. But in Brazil, Prandelli’s squad finished third in their group, unacceptable for the four-time World Cup champions. Prandelli then resigned, ushering in the Conte era.
Antonio Conte, who spent the vast majority of his career at Juventus, is credited with the recent bianconeri revival. He was appointed head coach prior to the 2011-2012 season, and immediately took Juventus to the top of Serie A, finishing the league unbeaten and lifting the scudetto. Two more titles followed in quick succession.
Heading into qualification for Euro 2016, Conte is tasked with reviving the Italian national team in much the same manner. The question is whether his considerable talents at club level will translate into international football. Conte, as a manager, is both tactically adroit and skilled in his ability to forge a team, rather than assemble a collection of individuals. The problem is that national teams are almost always comprised of individuals who don’t often play together. And with little time to train, tactics are often less refined than those used by club managers.
But if there’s one trait Conte is famous for, it’s his innate ability to find a way to win. He’ll be well aware of the limitations imposed on national teams, and as such, he’s unlikely to make wholesale changes prior to Italy’s first qualifying match, against Norway on Tuesday, September 9. That’s evident when looking at the squad he’s selected. Only one outfield player is uncapped – Simone Zaza, who represented Italy at various youth levels. Four players remain from the azzurri squad that lifted the World Cup in 2006.
The majority of the squad is composed of players Conte knows well. His backline will almost certainly be composed of three center backs Conte led at Juventus: Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. They’ll be in front of veteran Juve and azzurri goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and capable of skillfully carrying out the 3-5-2 formation Conte loves so much.
The new manager is making changes up top, however. Ciro Immobile is the only forward included that made the trip to Brazil. Conte has insisted that players must prove their worth, rather than expect automatic inclusion in the squad, yet his included strikers make one wonder if Conte is following his own rules. Sebastian Giovinco, a favorite of Conte’s, warms the bench at Juventus, as did Fabio Quagliarella, who scored just one Serie A goal last season. Mattia Destro is expected to do much the same at Roma, although he’s certainly capable of knocking in goals.
Of the forwards called, only Stephan El Shaarawy has truly impressed recently. The 21-year-old, who missed much of last season through injury, shone in Milan’s first-round victory over Lazio. It’s enough to make you wonder just how poorly Conte believes Mario Balotelli has performed recently – especially as he had 17 goals last season.
Conte’s ability to succeed as the azzurri coach is limited, both by the time he has to work with players, and the lack of young Italian talent. Yet there remains a sense of optimism over his appointment. Antonio Conte has shown that not only is he a winner, but that he’ll do everything in his power to ensure his side emerges victorious. That’s enough to make Italy worth watching over the international break.
You can find Kirsten on twitter at @KDS_Football