For Italy fans, Euro 2016 could not have begun in brighter fashion. The Azzurri’s opening Group E clash with Belgium was looked upon as a daunting task for an ageing team, but Antonio Conte’s side ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in a match they dominated for the most part. Following on from that, a 1-0 win over Sweden, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, ensured progression to the knockout stages as group winners.
These two games were a period of exciting discovery for Chelsea fans too. Upon the conclusion of this summer’s championships, Conte will move to London to begin his new role as manager of the Stamford Bridge club. As such, Italy’s two wins from two, impressive display against Belgium and consecutive clean sheets give Chelsea fans plenty of reason to be optimistic.
Conte’s tactics with Italy don’t differ greatly from what he has implemented in many of his managerial positions to date, and offer a good glimpse into what Chelsea may look like in the very near future.
The Basic Shape
There exists a widespread belief that Conte is wedded immutably to a 3-5-2 formation. This notion is untrue. The 46-year-old opted for an unusual, attack-minded 4-2-4 shape during his spells in charge of both Bari and Siena, while since taking on the role of head coach of the Italian national team he has experimented with the 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1 shapes with varying degrees of success.
Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny that he is a fan of the 3-5-2. Indeed, he had wonderful success with this system during his time at Juventus, where he took the Bianconeri from outside the European places in Serie A to three successive Scudetti.
He utilised the formation at the beginning of his time with Italy and has returned to it this summer, using it in both games against Belgium and Sweden. This allowed him to once again make use of the Juventus back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, which is as strong a base as there is possible to build upon in football today.
Due to his achievements with the 3-5-2, it is possible that he will try and implement this with Chelsea. However, should the system not suit his new group of players, he won’t force it upon them. He has shown himself to be flexible, and formations are less important to him than specific stylistic principles anyway.
Against Belgium and Sweden, Conte’s Italy showed excellent organisation in the defensive phase. The outer central midfielders, Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini, were particularly key to the team’s play in such circumstances, applying pressure to the opposition full-backs while also managing to maintain good horizontal compactness with the deeper lying Daniele De Rossi to prevent spaces opening up between them.
In the attacking phase, Italy’s play was direct and high-tempo. Accurate long balls from the back into the centre were preferred to concerted build-up among the defenders and midfielders, while third-man runs from Parolo, Giaccherini and the wing-backs were vital to attacking and exploiting any space that appeared in the final third.
The style of play Conte has ingrained within Italy is not dissimilar to that with which he had such success at Juventus. Primarily, there is an emphasis on quick transitions to defence, quickly ensuring good positioning when the ball is lost and an assertive pressing scheme. There is also a preference for speed and an opposition to elaboration in the build-up, as well as direct, purposeful passing.
All in all it is a fast, aggressive and efficient style of play, something which may be suited to the Premier League’s physical environs.
Conte’s desire to use a 3-5-2 shape with Chelsea may be tempered by the personnel immediately available to him. The back three is rarely used in English football and other managers’ attempts to implement it have been met with difficulties, primarily the simple fact that many Premier League defenders are not used to the specific demands placed on them in this shape.
The spacing between the players in a back three tends to be greater than in a back four, meaning it requires individuals with the athletic and physical qualities of covering the additional space comfortably. This also requires positional awareness, while the outer centre-backs must be adept in possession as they are likely to be tasked with bringing the ball out into the middle third.
In Kurt Zouma, Chelsea have a powerful centre-back with a flexibility that has seen him play on the right or in defensive midfield at times. They also have Branislav Ivanovic, who - despite spending much of his career as a right-back - has shown he can also play as a centre-back. However, John Terry and Gary Cahill do not have the technical aptitude to assume the central role Leonardo Bonucci has played for Conte with Juventus and Italy.
The return of Juan Cuadrado would give Conte a genuine, tried and tested option at right wing-back, though on the left the relatively inexperienced Baba Rahman and the more defensive Cesar Azpilicueta may not be ideal.
In midfield, Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel are the obvious candidates for the defensive role in front of the back three, while the outer roles could be handed to Cesc Fabregas and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. There is clearly a need for greater dynamism across the board in this area, as all of those mentioned are far more comfortable on the ball than they are off it. Conte will want midfield shuttlers who understand the complexities of defensive positioning and are willing to sweat to maintain the team’s shape.
Up front, Diego Costa is the only outstanding candidate to lead the line, though he lacks the hold-up and link-up qualities necessary to play this role in a Conte-style system. And perhaps the greatest question hangs over Eden Hazard, a playmaker capable of lustrous dribbles and beautifully weighted passes, but one with a history of discomfort when asked to undertake defensive duties.
The Team Comes First
One thing that Italy’s Euro 2016 performances have shown is that Conte can build an effective unit from supposedly middling players; much like Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, the collective is far more important to him than any one individual. Indeed, the most important characteristic he will look for specifically is the ability to assimilate into his style of play. It is this preference that saw him exclude Napoli’s Jorginho, one of the finest deep-lying midfielders in Europe, from his squad for the Euros.
In that vein, expect some surprising changes to be made at Chelsea. The big names will be afforded short shrift if they do not bend to accommodate the coach’s ideas. That could cause controversy, and it may even delay the process as Conte looks to build his squad from scratch. But, if his time as a manager so far tells us anything, the end results will be positive.
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