It wasn't a surprise that the Italian football federation (FIGC) pursued Antonio Conte to coach the Italian national team when Carlo Tavecchio was confirmed as the organization's president. What was a mild surprise is that Conte accepted the position.
It is, of course, a risky move from Conte's standpoint. Anything less than a run to the semifinals or beyond in Euro 2016 would be considered a failure and potentially set Conte's career at the club level back a few years. It's an equally risky move for FIGC. At a time when they need to sell the Azzurri to the public more than ever before, their choice is a man who has been divisive in the past.
In the end, though, Conte is far and away the ideal choice for the Azzurri.
From a purely tactical standpoint, Conte is one of the best young managers in the world. His ability to select the formation and tactics that best suit the players he has available to him was the key to his stunning success at Juventus and at lower levels. Remember, Conte got two clubs promoted to the top flight before he arrived at Juventus.
Some of Conte's detractors criticized him for tactical inflexibility toward the end of his tenure in Turin. It's a shortsighted observation. The 3-5-2 that turned Juve into a machine was, in fact, the end of a months-long tactical evolution.
Conte arrived at Juventus as a disciple of the unorthodox 4-2-4 formation. It was that formation that he used to get Bari and Siena into Serie A. But in the weeks after hiring Conte, Giuseppe Marotta bought Arturo Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen and signed Andrea Pirlo on a free transfer. The 4-2-4 would not suit these talented new buys. Conte had to adapt.
That adaptation took the form of a 4-3-3. With Vidal and Claudio Marchisio flanking Pirlo, the Bianconeri midfield suddenly turned into one of the best in the world. They even garnered their own name—MVP.
But Juve's strong start to 2011-12 masked a major shortcoming at left-back. Conte tried Paolo De Ceglie and then slid Giorgio Chiellini to the position he started his career in. Nothing worked.
The 3-5-2, which Walter Mazzarri was using to great effect at Napoli, offered a solution. Conte had no left-back but three top-quality center-backs. The shift to the 3-5-2 masked a big weakness in the back and emphasized a major strength.
It wasn't without speed bumps. The extra midfielders initially crowded Pirlo's space, and Stephan Lichtsteiner took a while to adapt to life as a wing-back. Conte even had to shift back to the 4-3-3 to work out the kinks at Vinovo. But when it was perfect, he unleashed it on the rest of the Serie A and reaped the rewards.
As the formation's weaknesses were exposed in European competition, many clamored for Conte to change tactics back to a 4-3-3. While he experimented with it twice against Real Madrid in last year's Champions League, he stuck with the 3-5-2 for almost the entire season. His reason? It simply fit his squad—which was bereft of true wingers and still lacked a left-back—better than any other.
Of course, as Italy boss he will face no such restriction. The entire Italian player pool will be at his disposal, and he will be able to chose the players to use whatever set of tactics he sees fit.
Of special interest should be the double regista system that Cesare Prandelli stumbled upon in preparation for the World Cup. When it was established that Pirlo and Marco Verratti could play at the same time without adversely affecting each other, defenses were suddenly deprived of the option to man-mark Pirlo. If they did, Verratti would cut them to ribbons. In this space before the World Cup, it was even posited that the new system could—if handled properly—propel Italy all the way to a fifth star.
Prandelli, of course, didn't handle it correctly. After a good showing against England, things went south. Verratti didn't play against Costa Rica, and Claudio Marchisio's red card changed the match against Uruguay. Prandelli panicked, and the double regista system wasn't able to reach its full potential.
Conte, who told La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia) that he would like to keep Pirlo in the national team for matches that mean something, has the tactical chops to develop this budding setup. Pirlo would likely only carry on for another two years after rescinding his international retirement, but if Conte is able to take the double regista to the nth degree, it could do big things at the Euros.
Another major benefit to Conte as manager is the mentality he imparts to his players.
The Juventus of the Conte era were renowned for their grinta. When the team fell behind, it stayed focused and fought its way back. When inferior teams parked the bus and dared the Bianconeri to break them down, the team ground out three points.
Prandelli's teams played excellent soccer and changed the identity of the national team. But when things didn't go as planned, they sometimes failed to win ugly.
More often than not, Juve was able to win ugly when the situation called for it. Take the team's March 16 contest against Genoa. The game was smack in the middle of the team's Europa League round of 16 tie against Fiorentina and proceeded dully for 88 scoreless minutes. But in the 89th minute, Pirlo dropped a perfect free kick into Mattia Perin's goal, taking home three points and ensuring that only a colossal collapse would deprive them of the scudetto.
It's that type of game that Italy needed against Costa Rica or Uruguay this year, and the type of game that they didn't play.
As said before, the move has risks for FIGC as well as Conte. For the first time since 1966, Italy has failed to reach the knockout stages in successive World Cups. The federation needs to sell the team in a way that it hasn't had to in the past. Conte, who is famously gruff with the media, is at first glance an unlikely salesman.
It doesn't help that he became a symbol as captain and then coach for Juventus, often considered the most divisive team in Italy. You either love the Bianconeri or you hate them. Will those who fall into the latter camp accept Conte as readily as another candidate?
Victories will certainly help things along in that regard, as will the patriotism that comes with wanting the national team to succeed. It's also valid to point out that since 1998 all but one manager of the Azzurri has either played for or coached Juve, and none of them suffered public rejection until the product on the field went sour.
As time passes, Conte's passion for the job will probably win over some of his detractors. There will be those who will be against him to the end, but they should be the minority, vocal as some might get.
In the end, Conte was the best candidate to take the Italy job. His tactical awareness, mentality, and the relationship he has with the team's Juventus core are all major points in his favor. He also represents an infusion of youth in the manager's office that has been needed for a while now. Time will tell if he can bring Italy silverware. But there is no doubt that he is capable of doing so, and that he is the best man for the job.
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