Where Next for Conte’s Fallen Heroes?
The Italian public is not known for taking defeat easily, but the mood as their beaten national team returned home earlier this week was decidedly positive. Having been billed as the weakest team the country has fielded in fifty years, Antonio Conte’s men defied all expectations with 2-0 victories over talented Belgian and Spanish squads, as well as the total silencing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their 1-0 defeat of Sweden. Despite the palpable lack of nerve shown in the penalty shoot-out loss, earning a draw over 120 minutes against world champions Germany in the quarter-final was, on reflection, another great achievement.
But as Conte departs for Chelsea, the Azzurri face a worrying period of reconstruction. Without their master tactician at the helm, just how a team so devoid of world class ability can compete for international honours is unclear. What’s more, the colossal (B)BBC defensive unit – Buffon, Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini – that anchored Italy throughout the championships has an average age of 34, and will surely soon need phasing out. A handful of strong performances at one tournament should not mask the pressing need to rebuild.
The identity of Conte’s replacement is certainly no source for optimism. Gianpiero Ventura, the 68-year-old Genoan who has been poached from Torino by the FIGC, is a managerial appointment that carries the distinct air of a lack of available alternatives. In three decades of coaching he has produced only the Serie D and C championships by way of titles, with a mid-table Serie A finish at Bari representing his biggest achievement. While Conte’s success was built on solid defensive foundations, there is a great deal of dynamism in the way he exploits the flanks in his 3-5-2 system, and he has been able to get the best out of modest attacking talents like Graziano Pelle and Eder. Ventura, conversely, is an old-school disciple of the traditional Italian defensive Catenaccio style; his Italy is unlikely to be pretty.
One of the new coach’s first tasks will be to identify which of the country’s younger starlets are ready to step up as part of the team’s necessary rejuvenation. By far the brightest of these is Paris Saint Germain midfielder Marco Verratti, who was cruelly ruled out of this summer tournament through injury and will be desperate to make an impact in two years’ time. From there, though, things become bleaker. Juventus’s Stefano Sturaro would make a dependable partner for Verratti, but offers little of the creativity the side is crying out for. 22-year-old Federico Bernardeschi has won plaudits for his exploits at Fiorentina this season, but looked out of his depth in the group stage loss to Ireland.
At only 21, Daniele Rugani looks the part to take on the mantle at the back, but will need time to develop anything like the understanding evident among the ‘BBC’. Alessio Romagnoli, touted as another promising addition to Italy’s rich defensive tradition, has endured a disappointing season in the firing line for Milan and serves as a warning against pushing the likes of Rugani into the limelight too early. Sassuolo forward Domenico Berardi is a fearsome talent up front and has deservedly won the attention of both Juve and Inter, but represents something of an uncut diamond at this stage. His omission from Conte’s 2016 squad drew little criticism, and the reborn Stefan El-Sharaaway may resemble a safer bet if he can stay consistent next season at Roma.
It was, of course, supposed to be this Italy team – not the next one – which came up short against Europe’s best, and the Azzurri’s enduring resilience in the face of adversity shouldn’t be underestimated. However, the absence of an inspirational leader of Conte’s ilk will make this attempt to regroup an even harder one. Captain Gigi Buffon, who was brought to tears by his side’s defeat in Bordeaux, has pledged to stay on for the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time. Perhaps it will be he, and not the manager, who is forced to play the biggest part in guiding another new Italy.
Tom lives in Milan and is the Faculty’s Italian correspondent. He is a season ticket holder at the San Siro, where he follows Serie A closely.