It's official: Gli Azzurri will be playing in Euro 2016 after Italy finished atop Group H, secured over the weekend with a 3-1 win over Azerbaijan. That win secured their place in the European Championships in France next summer, and Antonio Conte and company are rightfully celebrating their success. That said, they shouldn't celebrate too long -- there's still a lot of work to do to make sure Italy does well in Europe's biggest tournament.
Make no mistake, Italy had a solid qualifying campaign. Not losing a single match was a huge element to them finishing on top of Group H, which is not an easy task in a group with Croatia and a surprisingly strong Norway side in it. But oftentimes Italy's performances were somewhat lackluster, struggling to win games they should have dominated, and drawing matches with utterly flat performances when even a modicum of spark would have seen them emerge victorious.
If you extend your gaze to beyond the Euro qualifiers, things look even murkier. Italy actually went from November through June winning just one of their six international matches, and that was a friendly against Albania. Yes, Italy under Conte has enjoyed two four-match winning streaks, including the one that they're currently on, but that six-match mire of mediocrity stands out as a major point of concern, as were worryingly close wins over Bulgaria, Malta, and in their first match against Azerbaijan.
So what can Italy do over the next few months in order to make sure they're as strong and competitive as they want to be in Euro 2016? After all, Italy finished second three years ago -- they'll be aiming at repeating that performance at worst as long as they can help it.
Keep in mind that Italy won't have many matches as a national team between now and the start of Euro 2016. There are only two international windows between now and the start of the tournament, and that's not a lot of opportunity to try new tactics or work in new personnel. That means Italy need to quickly identify what needs fixing to get the team playing to its potential, and we've got some ideas on that front.
The running theme for Italy for about 18 months now has been a consistent struggle to get their attack rolling. One player starts to step up, he gets hurt. Another player looks hot for his club, but falls flat in the national team. An old reliable just can't get the job done. Strikers play well, but the midfield can't feed them, or vice versa.
It's been a persistent thorn in Italy's side dating back to the later days of Cesare Prandelli's reign, and it's not one that Italy can afford to carry into a major tournament. We saw how well that worked out at the World Cup -- Italy can't afford a second straight godawful tournament like that.
To be honest, it's not at all clear what the solution is. Graziano Pelle has been decent in the national side of late, but how well can he be relied on to keep that form up? And beyond that, finding him an effective partner has been an issue. Eder isn't really that guy. Sebastian Giovinco is in the form of his life right now, but who knows if it'll last. Maybe it's Lorenzo Insigne, but he hasn't gotten a chance to shine in that role yet. Mario Balotelli has been effective for Milan this season, but he and Pelle are too similar in skillset to be effective partners. Ideally, Balotelli becomes the beast he's capable of being again and wrenches the top striker spot from Pelle, but whether or not he does that is a coinflip chance at the very, very best.
Perhaps a change in system is in order, and Conte has tinkered with a 4-3-3 at times lately instead of his precious 3-5-2. That would make it much easier to integrate Stephan El Shaarawy, who has been quite good for Monaco of late and a spark for Italy when called on recently. The problem with him, as it is with so many other high-talent Italian players in recent years, is injuries. He's missed most of the last two seasons with various ailments, so whether or not Il Faraone can stay healthy long enough to be a reliable player for the national team is a mystery.
Still, a tridente of El Shaarawy and Insigne flanking either Pelle or an in-form Balotelli could be just the ticket for Italy to start roaring in attack. Whether or not it works, or if we even get to see it, is another matter, but man is that fun to dream on.
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There's a lot of problems in Italy's midfield right now, and unfortunately one of them has a lot to do with a legend in the side: Andrea Pirlo. The Bearded One has seen age start to catch up with him in a bad way over the last year, leaving him a fairly pedestrian shell of what he once was in open-play situations of most matches. Even more unfortunately, the way Conte has often used him in the national team hasn't really helped matters.
In order to try to help ease some of the midfield creative burden off Pirlo's shoulders, Conte has frequently paired him with young Marco Verratti. It's kind of an odd solution to the problem for two reasons. First and foremost, Pirlo and Verratti are just too similar in terms of the skillsets they use on the pitch. They try to do the same things too much of the time, and not only does it leave both players less effective, it creates holes and imbalances in Italy's side because of having two like-minded players in the middle of the pitch.
Bizarrely, it's also not what Conte has done to get the most out of Pirlo in the past. When they were both at Juventus, Conte would shield Pirlo with two box-to-box workhorses, helping screen him from a high press and giving him the space to work his magic with. Pairing him from Verratti instead not only removes that screen from Pirlo -- something Verratti himself benefits from at Paris Saint-Germain -- but also drastically limits his passing options to help push the ball into dangerous areas. While Conte may not have a Vidal or Pogba to choose from, Italy are not exactly short on that kind of workhorse player in midfield right now.
So perhaps starting just one of Pirlo or Verratti -- maybe starting with Verratti and swapping him for Pirlo late for set-piece opportunities? -- and going back to that screen is the best choice for Italy. Start with Alessandro Florenzi in a role that simply says "go find what needs doing" -- he's been exceptional every time he's been given that kind of freedom, which is surprisingly rarely -- and use whatever hot hand Italy has in midfield at the moment as the third wheel. Maybe that's a healthy Claudio Marchisio, maybe it's Andrea Bertolacci, maybe it's Giacomo Bonaventura, maybe it's someone else entirely -- but the important part is that it leaves Italy's midfield much better balanced and capable of dealing with a wider variety of opponents.
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Be more proactive
One major complaint about Italy's tactics seemingly forever is just how incredibly reactive they are. They hardly ever go into a match looking to impose their will on another team. Instead they wait to see what their opponent's first move is, then make their move. The trouble with playing that way is that it means Italy are always reacting, never forcing the play. It sometimes leaves them playing passively as they wait for the next move, and too often they've been caught off guard because of that, costing them vital results.
That was a major downfall of the Prandelli era of Italy. Prandelli's initial approaches to matches were often solid enough, but that reactive style left Italy struggling late in far too many matches because he was a poor in-game manager. He took too long to make changes and adjustments, and frequently made the wrong ones. Antonio Conte at least is far, far better at making those in-game adjustments, but the fact that Italy always have to make those adjustments no matter the match or opponent is problematic at best.
So why not change that? Why not go into a match saying "we're going to play the way we want to and eff the other guys if they don't keep up"? If you look at all the successful international teams of the last eight years or so -- Spain, Germany, Chile, even Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, and the Netherlands at the peaks they had in that time -- that's the exact approach they took to their matches. Passivity gets punished, proactive play rewarded.
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No matter what, one thing is for sure: Italy have a lot of work to do if they want to be a force at Euro 2016. There's only one area of the pitch where Italy don't have any question marks at the moment -- in goal, where Gianluigi Buffon still holds court at 37 years young. Everywhere else, there are concerns of varying scale and intensity, and while no team is perfect, it feels like Italy are at a big risk of another disappointment next summer.
No one in Italy wants that. No fans of Gli Azzurri abroad want that. Heck, a competitive Italy squad is better for Europe as a whole. So let's watch Italy's matches in November and next spring with a close eye, and see just how much progress they can make before they have to catch a flight to France next summer.