Antonio Conte sprinted to leap on the roof of the Italy dugout, letting out a primal scream. The final whistle had just gone and his Azzurri had just beaten old rivals Spain, 2-0. And everyone in the stadium was watching Conte do this, because he's emerged as the real star of this Italy team.
Derided for his team selection before the tournament, Conte has built a squad in his image; one that has crushed opponents not with old-school Italian catenaccio, but with workrate, unselfishness and pure tactical perfection.
More than anything, Conte believes in the ideals of total commitment, team sacrifice and the power of the collective. His 23-man selection reflected that, as he left some flashier or even better players at home in favor of a group he thought would best complement each other. It wasn't an especially talented crop of Italians to choose from to begin with, as many called it the Azzurri's weakest squad ever, claiming that Conte had weakened it even further. Few had Italy escaping the group stage. Many pegged them for embarrassment. And yet here they are, quarterfinalists and having upset both Spain and Belgium so far.
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Conte trusted his group of players, and those players have repaid that trust in them in spades.
Against Spain, many expected them to shut up shop, defend deep, and look to frustrate their more technical opponents. Instead, they did the exact opposite.
From the first minute, Italy pressed the Spanish, moving as one fluid unit as they harried and harangued their opponents all over the pitch. With their now-trademark 3-5-2, Italy compacted the middle of the field, completely neutralizing Spain's creative players. The Spaniards' best performer this tournament, Andres Iniesta, was unable to create his typical magic, David Silva was completely ineffective, and Cesc Fabregas was all but invisible. Even the typically stolid Sergio Busquets seemed unable to cope with Italy's presence, not only unable to direct traffic from deep, but leaving frequent gaps for the Italians to exploit with their crisp passing and direct counter-attacks.
Spain have long been the best passing team in the world, and yet against Italy, they completed their fewest passes of the tournament by a huge margin. Their trademark style had been taken away by Conte's tactics.
Leonardo Bonucci has been the Italians' best player this tournament, and he staked his claim as best defender of the Euros with another imperious performance in the middle of the Azzuri back three. The best-passing defender in the world, Bonucci's astute reading of the game, impeccable decision-making and ability to step into midfield and disrupt Spain's attack time and again stymied the Iberians. Spanish striker Alvaro Morata joked that his former Juventus teammates Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Bonucci told him to "wear a helmet" for their meeting, but what he truly needed was a pair of scissors to cut himself out of the Italian defense's pocket, with the trio more than capable of handling his lone runs up front.
Conte's tactics shellshocked the Spanish, and they never really looked capable of handling the pressure. Spain's strength is their midfield, but despite boasting several similarly talented players they have no true "Plan B". Without any pace out wide, they were unable to stretch the Italians, and the introduction of Lucas Vazquez and the wildly ineffective Pedro did nothing to change things for La Roja. Once Conte took away their central passing and interchange, they were done for, and Conte knew it.
Conte spurred his team forward at every opportunity, roaring from the sideline and pacing like a caged tiger in his technical area. Always vocal, always moving, but never satisfied, Conte's team cannot rest because Conte will not let them. And he won't rest until he's eked every last bit of quality of he can from this team.
How far can Conte drag Italy? Next up, they face their biggest test in defending world champions Germany, who again, on paper, have a vastly superior team. But everyone has a vastly superior team to Italy, on paper, and as we've seen so far, with Conte at the helm, anything seems possible.
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