Italy's trademark defense led the way, while Antonio Conte proved that he is a master tactician in the Azzurri's win over Belgium at Euro 2016.
The first real surprise result of Euro 2016 came Monday in Lyon, where Italy beat Europe’s highest-ranked side, Belgium, 2-0 to top Group E after the first round of games. Emmanuele Giaccherini’s first-half goal was followed up by a superb Graziano Pelle volley late on to account for the scoring. The match leaves Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne & Co. needing a result against Ireland on Saturday, a game in which the Red Devils will be facing increased pressure and more questions as a favored side in this competition.
Here are three thoughts from the Azzurri's victory:
Conte wins battle of coaches
There seemed to be no sign at all that Marc Wilmots had prepared his team to face Italy’s system. Italy coach Antonio Conte started with a 3-5-2 and started wingbacks Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian high and wide. Conte’s buzzword has always been intensity, and, especially in the first half, that was the key difference between the two sides. The plan worked to perfection: Pelle and Eder dovetailed superbly in attack, while the all-Juventus back four (three plus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon) looked like a unit used to playing together.
In these early days of the tournament, not too many matches have come down to coaching decisions–perhaps only the opening game, when Didier Deschamps bravely took off Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba in chasing a winner against Romania–but we can chalk this one down to Conte. Even when he started out as a coach at Bari and Arezzo, he always believed in the power of a 4-on-4 attack, and with Italy has been happy to experiment with 4-2-4 (against Azerbaijan and Norway) and 3-4-3 (against Spain). Italy played out Conte’s plan to perfection.
You cannot say the same for Wilmots, who will face serious questions over his selection. He may argue that picking De Bruyne to play wide on the right was where he played when Belgium beat France one year ago, but the City player, described as "the mastermind" by the absent Vincent Kompany before the game, struggled to get into the game. He did set up two chances: for Lukaku and Divock Origi, both of which were squandered.
Other issues for Wilmots to resolve before the Ireland game: Will he stick with the two center backs? Will Mousa Dembele get a chance in midfield? And who will start at center forward? It's time for him to make his mark.
Case for Belgium defense crumbles
Only France has been unluckier with injuries at center back than Belgium, which is missing its first-choice partnership of Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts for this tournament. Wilmots tried out various back-four options in the warm-up friendlies, and he settled on moving Toby Alderweireld from right back to his normal center back spot to partner Thomas Vermaelen. He put Laurent Ciman at right back. The decision simply didn't work against Italy.
Both Ciman and Alderweireld were caught out by Leonardo Bonucci’s superb long ball from his own half, which flew over Alderweireld’s head and allowed Giaccherini to cut beyond Ciman, and, with his second touch, score a brilliant goal. It was a surprise to see Alderweireld miss a straight ball down the middle, something he hardly ever did during a stellar season for Spurs, when he partnered Jan Vertonghen, whom Wilmots preferred to pick at left back here.
It was not as though the Giaccherini moment was a one-off. Just minutes later, Alderweireld deserted his position again and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was slow to get back on his line when Pelle headed wide from six yards out. Ten minutes into the second half, Pelle outjumped Alderweireld again, but Courtois made a superb save to keep it out.
Even as Belgium pushed for an equalizer, Courtois had to be alert on the break. He made a great save from sub Ciro Immobile, who played a part in the second goal on the counter, setting up Antonio Candreva, whose cross was volleyed in by Pelle. It was as though Italy knew about Belgium’s issues at the back.
A bad night for Romelu Lukaku
In the build-up to this tournament, Romelu Lukaku went on the offensive. He told the Belgian press that he feels he is already a major player, that he has proved himself in a top league, and he is no longer a player :for the future." He said he has told Wilmots the same thing.
But the Everton striker, who is expected to leave Goodison Park this summer–some fans may suggest he checked out sometime last spring–had a poor game in Lyon. In the past Wilmots has criticized him for being too static, and you could see why.
Compared to Italy’s front-men, Lukaku’s movement was limited, although he did spin off his marker to run onto one chance from a De Bruyne cross.
In his most critical moment, he was one-on-one against Buffon, on the edge of the area, but chipped the ball wide of the goal with his left foot. Considering he had been linked pre-tournament with a big-money move to Juventus, it might yet prove to be an expensive miss. In the short term, Wilmots must get it right for the next game. Whether Lukaku starts that one remains to be seen.