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Andrea Pirlo's international comeback has raised questions for Conte.
Andrea Pirlo was going to retire after the World Cup. But Italy's group-stage crash-out left a bitter taste in his mouth, and Pirlo didn't even wait until the team plane touched down in Rome before announcing that he would be available for Euro 2016 qualifying.
Pirlo's reversal puts Conte in a tricky situation, one that blends questions of tactics and team selection.
On one hand, Pirlo is one of the greatest Italians ever to kick a ball, and his exquisite passing abilities have not yet deserted him. On the other, he's 35 years old. He doesn't have the pace he used to have and needs to be managed carefully to avoid overuse.
Add to that the fact that 21-year-old Marco Verratti had stood ready at the end of the World Cup to slot in as his successor, and Conte is going to have decisions to make with regards to how he uses L'Architetto.
At his age, Pirlo can only be successful if he has room to operate. If a team decides to man-mark him, the Azzurri lose their creative force. He was marked out of the game in just this manner against Azerbaijan. The Italians compensated by moving Leonardo Bonucci—who may be the world's best ball-playing center-back—forward and letting him bring the ball into advanced areas. Stlll, without Pirlo operating at full capacity the Italian attack lost something.
Space can be created for Pirlo in two ways. The first is to have one of his midfield partners protect him. This can come in the form of a destroyer like Daniele De Rossi or a top-line box-to-box threat like Arturo Vidal. The former has kept Pirlo clean for much of his career, but the latter was unavailable two weeks ago due to injury. Claudio Marchisio and Alessandro Florenzi couldn't generate enough of a threat to keep Azerbaijan from putting a man on him.
The other way is to give an opponent another passing threat to think about. How would Conte do this? By playing another regista alongside him.
Cesare Prandelli was roundly criticized when Luxembourg managed a 1-1 draw against the Italians in their last World Cup tuneup, but the match was significant because it saw Pirlo and Verratti play together for the first time. More importantly, it was discovered that they could complement rather than hamper each other.
The impact of this discovery was huge. With both men on the field and effective, the tactic of man-marking becomes useless. If opponents choose to attack one, the other will slice through the defense. That would force them to play straight-up—and for most teams that means waiting to see which of the two would kill them first.
There are cons to Pirlo being on the field. As seen against Azerbaijan, the tempo of the game and the rate of the team's defensive pressing dropped while the maestro was on the field. Pirlo has never been the best defender, and the other midfielders will have to increase their defensive work rate to compensate.
All in all, this could be the biggest question Conte faces over the course of qualifying. If he makes the wrong decision in deploying the aging star, it could have harsh repercussions.