Friday June 17th, 2016

That, perhaps, will calm some of the more excitable reactions to Italy’s victory over Belgium.

After the high of that Euro 2016 opening performance came victory in a drab 1-0 win over Sweden, a side whose only two efforts on target in the entire tournament have come from Ireland defender Ciaran Clark. All those gloomy assessments of this Italy side as the worst it has ever sent to a major tournament seemed a lot more accurate than they had on Monday night.

The winner was as good as the game that had preceded it had been poor. Eder drifted in off the left in the 88th minute before clipping a precise and powerful finish into the bottom corner. Amid a game that had been largely eventless, Marco Parolo had hit the bar six minutes earlier. There was a sense in those final minutes that the winner was coming, and when it did, it took Italy into the last 16 and leaves a very limited Sweden, for whom Zlatan Ibrahimovic was again largely anonymous, needing to beat Belgium in its final group game to have even a chance of making it though.

Italy was by some margin the most impressive side of the first round of games, but then perhaps that’s not surprising. It may not have the star players of old, but it has, by some way, the most vaunted coach in the tournament. Antonio Conte will join up with Chelsea before next season, and it’s fair to say that if he’d turned the Blues down, there wouldn’t have been many other coaches at Euro 2016 who’d have been attracting their attention. Increasingly, it feels as thought international management is for the old, the young and the obscure–plus the odd patriot such as Conte.

Once, international tournaments were great seminars where coaches, players, journalists and fans gathered. There was a great exchange of ideas and so certain tournaments became synonymous with the voguish new tactical shift. The 1958 World Cup, for instance, popularized the use of a back four. The world had seen Ajax, but it was the Netherlands at the 1974 World Cup that popularized Total Football. It was Euro 2000 that confirmed the spread of 4-2-3-1.

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Even then, though, the international game had become a reflection of what was happening at club level. As systems become increasingly sophisticated and it takes more and more work on the training field to instill ideas into players, so international football, with the limited time available to coaches, lags further and further behind. That’s why individuals–a Bale, a Ronaldo, an Ibrahimovic–take on an enhanced significance for their countries.

Italy is the exception.

The Belgian newspaper HLN ran a piece in the week before the tournament comparing Italy and Belgium’s training schedules. It should be acknowledged that HLN is habitually critical of Belgium coach Marc Wilmots and has been calling for his dismissal since the 2014 World Cup, but still the contrast was revealing. Italy’s sessions were much longer and much more focused on tactics. The results were clear in that first game as Italy sat deep, kept their wingbacks shockingly wide and counterattacked brilliantly.

They looked like a club side because Conte, as far as possible, treats them like a club side. And that, of course, in part explains why Italy has looked so much better in the tournament than the qualifiers–Conte has had time with his team, not as much as a club manager would have, but enough to at least instil some of his thinking.

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Wilmots, who has taken to flailing at a host of enemies–real and imagined–as the pressure on him mounts, claimed that Conte has it easy because his back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, plus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, play together at the club level for Juventus. But given Conte was the Juve coach who got them playing together, he still deserves the credit, and to reap the benefits.

The Sweden game, though, showed Italy's weakness. Against a side prepared to sit off–although Sweden, seemingly against its will, had far more of the ball in the first half–Italy lacked much on the way of attacking flair. Belgium had been shambolic and had offered up space and chances; Sweden, rather better organized, did not. This was a game of often crushing dullness, something for which Sweden must take some credit. Its 4-4-2, with Sebastian Larsson and Emil Forsberg wide in midfield, allowed the Italy wingbacks far less space that they’d enjoyed against Belgium, something that served to expose Italy’s lack of spark through the center.

But a goal is a goal whenever it is scored, and Italy’s slow ramping up of pressure proved effective. Two clean sheets, a solid defense and it had enough going forward to take both games.

Significantly, this Italy looks a side that will be at its most dangerous against better sides.

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