Antonio Conte's scheme works as Italy beat Belgium, but it wasn't perfect
LYON, France -- Monday night's game was a case of yin and yang. A Belgium side brimming with individual talent and a fairly basic off-the-rack scheme against perhaps the least gifted Italy side, certainly in midfield and attack, in the past 50 years turning to sophisticated tactics and coordinated exotic movements.
On this night, scheme -- with some help from its longtime friends, Mr. Workrate and Miss Savvy -- beat talent.
Marc Wilmots lined up the way you would expect with four center-backs, two of them (Laurent Ciman and Jan Vertonghen) deployed out wide. Depending on where you stand, his insistence on shoe-horning the biggest veteran names into the lineup even as square pegs in round holes is either a sign of loyalty or an inability to find a system that works with lesser fullbacks. Or as one commentator suggested on Twitter, maybe full-backs used to bully Wilmots and steal his lunch money.
Contrast this with Conte. His XI was expected, and with the exception of the goalkeeper and the three center-backs, it was about as blue-collar and unpretentious as they come. But what they lacked in pedigree, they more than made up for in preparation. Conte's tactical obsession, along with the obscure, repetitive work on the training ground, had yielded its fruits.
In one of his first interviews after being appointed Italy coach back in August 2014, Conte talked about how a strong tactical scheme can make an average player better because it "creates time." If you know where your teammates are going to be before you receive the ball, you don't need to take that extra split-second to look for them. You can use it instead to control the ball and pass it more accurately than you would otherwise.
If you're Andres Iniesta, able to thread a needle at will and blessed with 360-degree vision, then maybe it matters less. But most players (and none of these Italy players) are like that. They need that extra split-second.
That's why, on the ball, Conte's Italy looked something like this:
A straight 3-3-4, with the wing-backs Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva absurdly wide. This meant that Wilmots' faux fullbacks, Vertonghen and Ciman, had to venture way out of position, that his midfield duo of Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel had to spread wide, leaving gaps in the middle, or that his two wingers, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, had to track back. Or, as often happened, that the pair were wide open with oodles of time and space if they got the ball.
Still, while the the coordinated movement of strikers, wing-backs and midfielders was a joy to watch, you were still reminded of the talent gap. Brilliant moves broke down because passes were over-hit or under-hit. When they did yield shots, they were too often charged down because the first touch wasn't clean (as happened to Emanuel Giaccherini) or put wide, like Graziano Pelle's header just before the half-hour.
Defensively, it wasn't just a case of the old Azzurri stand-by, namely a reliance on the stout, star-studded defence ("the best in the tournament," according to Giaccherini). There was an intensity and ferocity of movement in the middle of the park that snuffed out danger early and forced the Belgians to take circuitous routes to goal.
At the same time, Belgium found themselves bottled up and the first 30 minutes yielded little of note other than two individual efforts from the combative Nainggolan, one of which fired wide and the other well-saved by the eternal Gigi Buffon.
Ironically, when Italy did break the ice, it was a combination of individual skill (Leo Bonucci's pinpoint accurate back-to-front pass), individual error (Toby Alderweireld seemed to simply lose the ball) and a lung-busting scamper from Giaccherini, crowned by the coolest of finishes.
Wilmots was less impressed with Bonucci's pass as he was angry with his defenders. "We had a three vs. one and it's a 40-meter ball over the top, come on now," he said. "If you have three guys back there and they have one, it should not be a problem. Clearly there was miscommunication."
The reaction to the goal was perhaps as indicative as what led to it. Italy's entire bench rose as one to mob Giaccherini by the touchline. In Conte's world, a place where unity and passion and spirit matter as much as tactics, it was an important signal. Maybe it did play to the crowd a bit, but it felt genuine.
The final sequence of the first half rather summed up the game. Eden Hazard went on a tear, skipped easily past three opponents, looked for movement from teammates, saw there wasn't any and lost the ball. It ended at the feet of Darmian, who could have queued up the counter but sliced his clearance. Moments later, Pelle missed a chance to make it two-nil.
The second half began with the tireless Pelle over-hitting a pass on the counter. Moments later, another defensive mess from the Belgians as Pelle's movement gave Candreva a clear path to goal. Vertonghen snuffed out danger with a last-ditch tackle but his angry, reddened face told you all you needed to know as he kicked the ball away in anger. He was furious that they were defending like this.
Romelu Lukaku missed a sitter at the Italy end. Moments later, Thibaut Courtois pulled off a stellar save from Pelle's header. Wilmots threw on Dries Mertens, Divock Origi and Yannick Carrasco in the space of 15 minutes, hoping to generate some oomph but, truth be told, his problems lay elsewhere. Lukaku was swallowed up by Juve's (and Italy's) equivalent of Real Madrid's BBC: Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. De Bruyne was anonymous, Hazard intermittent.
A grumpy Wilmots did not mince words at full-time.
"Lukaku did not have a happy night and De Bruyne could have done better. But I guess now is not the time to criticize individuals. Why was De Bruyne's performance so poor? If I knew the answer, I would tell you."
Scheme was indeed beating talent, also because talent (or, at least, Marouane Fellaini) was wasting chances, like a minute from time when the ball seemed to get stuck between his legs and he couldn't get a shot off.
Meanwhile, the Azzurri were making themselves dangerous on the break. An exhausted and wayward Vertonghen lost the ball, Ciro Immobile (who had come on for Eder) seized the ball and forced another show-stopping save from Courtois. It was the play that foreshadowed the second goal.
On another break, Immobile found a wide open Candreva, who had burst into the box to Courtois' left. He seemed to take one touch too many, drawing the defenders to him, but then he unfurled an arcing cross to the far post and Pelle was there to volley it home. For the Southampton striker, who had missed various chances but also run himself into the ground, it was a fitting reward.
Moments later, at the final whistle, Italy celebrated as if they'd won it all. The outfield players and substitutes joined hand and the classic, Jurgen Klopp-style sprint and knee-slide towards the Italy end. Buffon followed shortly thereafter and tried to hang from the crossbar only to fall on his back and get up with a goofy smile.
Conte had demanded the right alchemists' formula of emotion and savvy. This was the time to let it out but he himself was far more circumspect.
"Two years ago at the World Cup we beat England in the opening game and then went out in the group stage," he said. "We need to remember that. It's an open wound. One game doesn't change anything."
Indeed it doesn't, and if you want to nitpick, there are a few. Like the fact that when things broke down, Italy had to resort to the tactical foul; crucially, two-thirds of the back three (Chellini and Bonucci) went into referee Mark Clattenburg's book. Or that against a better organized team, it might not be so easy to create chances, which could yet prove problematic for a set of attacking players that are nowhere near as clinical as their predecessors in an Azzurri shirt.
Still, as Conte left the news conference, he was grinning. Though it's true that you never quite know if his smiles are joyous or bitter, he can stand tall and be proud of this performance. Scheme had beaten talent. He made this XI greater than the sum of its parts.
Any manager who can do that has done his job. And done it well.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.