Italy's sudden and subdued exit at the 2014 World Cup seemed to herald the end of an era for the national team, with the likes of Andrea Pirlo set to retire and goalkeeper and captain Gigi Buffon, at 36 years of age, unlikely to feature at another finals.
Cesare Prandelli stepped down after Brazil 2014, with former Juventus manager Antonio Conte taking his place—and Conte was soon handed an early boost to his reign when playmaker Pirlo told him he would still be available, per ESPN FC.
While Italy no doubt have to make changes to reinstate themselves as challengers among European or world nations, there is still much that Pirlo can offer the team, and he should remain a focal point for Conte's Italy, just as he was for his Juve.
Italy are in a six-team Group H for qualifying, with Croatia being their toughest opponents. With two automatic qualification spots in the group for Euro 2016, Italy should certainly be assured of making the finals without any trouble at all, though they will naturally be aiming for first place.
Norway and Bulgaria will pose trouble if taken lightly, though neither are anywhere near their former impressive levels, while Azerbaijan and Malta are the minnows of the group, both eminently beatable.
Italy begin away to Norway, face a tough three-game run of Croatia home, Bulgaria away, Croatia away in the middle and finish up at home to Norway. Injuries and form cannot be predicted, but it is a group which should allow Conte the freedom to ease new faces into the side, guided by the experience and proven ability of the likes of Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Giorgio Chiellini.
Central Midfield Shape
The idea for Italy's most recent past has been to field a 1-2 shape midfield, with wide players supporting the striker or strikers.
One holding, controlling player patrols the centre of the pitch in front of the back line, while two sit further ahead, offering passing ability and creativity, drive and pressing, depending on the formation of the rest of the team and the players being selected.
In either case, Pirlo has a role to play: Few can utilise space and time on the ball as well as he from the controlling role, while De Rossi or Marco Verratti can perform similarly in both roles.
Those three players could, perhaps indeed should make up a talented regular midfield base for Conte to start building his team on—though Pirlo misses out through injury this time around. Claudio Marchisio seems likeliest to benefit early on, with Andrea Poli and Marco Parolo relative newcomers to the international scene by comparison.
In neither recent setup has a real No. 10 been chosen, with either wing-back supporting two up top—one of whom drops off naturally—or else wide forwards flanking a central No. 9.
Antonio Conte's initial squad seems to indicate that 4-3-3 is a realistic option to start with, given the number of wide options in attack he has chosen, but of course there will be the possibility to switch to 3-5-2 at a moment's notice.
Furthermore, the likes of Mario Balotelli, Giuseppe Rossi and Alessio Cerci are all missing from the first Conte-era squad, all attackers who offer a direct threat and good movement in the final third when in form—traits which the intelligence, awareness and execution on the ball Pirlo can provide would continue to exploit.
There is no reason to suggest Italy are in a period of such tremendous misfortune that they couldn't cope in midfield, and certainly much less if Pirlo was not to return. Indeed, if a top-class No. 10 player presented himself, there might be an argument for Pirlo to no longer be a starter...but Italy do not possess such a player at this time.
They can, however, still call upon Andrea Pirlo, and even at 35 years of age he will thus remain integral to the new building ideas of the new coach for Italy's upcoming tournament qualification campaign.
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