Why Italy still see defence as the best form of attack

Italy's progress to the knockout phase of the 2016 European Championship has caught many pundits offside, not least those in the Italian media.


The Italian team line up for Sweden Source: AAP

Coach Antonio Conte's wobbly wannabes were dubbed the worst Azzurri team in major tournament history and not many within or outside Italy would have disagreed.

Therefore when the Azzurri sprang a surprise by beating Belgium 2-0 in their opening game and complemented that success with a 1-0 win against Sweden, the world was forced to sit up and take notice.

So is this Italy's worst ever team or not? Probably not the worst but certainly one of.

Today's Italy essentially are a hard-to-beat side that play to their limited strengths but lack the skill, finesse and ruthlessness of previous editions.

Some of the men in azure would struggle to live with Italy heroes such as Gaetano Scirea, Dino Zoff, Giancarlo Antognoni, Paolo Rossi, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo et al.

Not to mention 1960s legends Giacinto Facchetti, Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and Gigi Riva.

So why do the Azzurri continue to be so strong in major tournaments, even when on paper they appear to be struggling to be competitive?

The answer is not easy but I believe the difference between Italy and other major players in the world game is that the street-wise Azzurri do not need to be strong to win games ... in most cases or when they put their minds to it, anyway.

Other countries like England, Netherlands and to a degree Portugal and Uruguay, for example, are perennial under-achievers even when pundits regard them as potential winners, arguably due to the fact that they are seen to lack the temperament for the big occasion.

They nearly always fluff their lines at the business end of tournaments ... whenever they reach that stage, that is.

The Azzurri have the tactical know-how and the right mentality for major events and this works for them many times.

Football's artful dodgers know what it takes to win and would pick your pocket before you could bat an eyelid.

And don't they love thumbing their noses at the critics, especially those from home.

Remember 1982, when Italy were so poor in the first phase of the FIFA World Cup that they were massacred by their own media?

The Azzurri squad reacted to the criticism by banding together and going on to beat Argentina, Brazil, Poland and West Germany to win the whole thing.

Fast forward 34 years and Belgium, who are the world's second-ranked team, were not supposed to be outplayed by Italy but it took only a few minutes to see that the Azzurri were up for the contest and they trapped the Belgians in a tactical strait jacket from which they were unlikely to escape.

The Italians are masters at this game and have been doing it for decades, sometimes going overboard with their approach that was more cynical than economical but generally just keeping it tight, inviting the opposition to attack and catching them with quick counter-attacks.

They have changed a lot since the days of catenaccio, when the national team used to defend in numbers and strangle the life out of the opposition at the expense of the entertainment side of the game.

The modern Azzurri, regardless of who is coach, can defend as a unit and as effectively and intelligently as ever without having to put 10 men behind the ball so their approach does not necessarily compromise the spectacle.

Italians see defending as an art and the key to success. Any defender from a young age would take as great a pride in keeping a striker quiet as would someone who has scored a hat-trick.

It's the cornerstone of Italy's football culture that high-profile coaches Claudio Ranieri, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and Fabio Capello have exported to the world over the last decade.

Ancelotti once said that defensive football historically had given Italian football great joy and he made no apologies for making his defence the cornerstone of his teams' tactics.

Italy's impressive victory over Belgium was seen as a tactical masterpiece by Conte, who will manage Chelsea after the Euros.

Juventus's Leonardo Bonucci played a blinder at the back and around him a set of experienced and uncompromising defenders and holding midfielders collectively kept out the combined threat of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku with consummate ease.

Italy's rearguard was breached only once when Lukaku found himself with plenty of time and space and only goalkeeper Buffon to beat but the striker missed the target.

The Swedes were not even afforded one single scoring opportunity.

The Italians' last-gasp victory that was sealed by a wonderful goal from striker Eder would suggest that their qualification to the knockout phase is no flash in the pan but the result of Conte's acumen even though the team's penchant for giving the ball away far too many times must frustrate him.

Conte's team have limitations and are unlikely to go all the way.

France, England, Germany and especially Spain appear to be stronger from a technical if not tactical point of view.

Italy played beautifully against the highly-ranked Belgians and did just enough against the dull Swedes but to win EURO 2016 the inconsistent Azzurri would have to be on their game four more times in the knockout phase.

It is doubtful if they can do this.

I'm tipping a final between hosts France and holders Spain.

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5 min read
Published 20 June 2016 at 11:00am
By Philip Micallef
Source: SBS