Much has been made of the choices Italy manager Antonio Conte made when he finalized his 23-man roster for the 2016 UEFA European Championship earlier this month.
The general consensus was that it was one of the weakest groups the Italians have put together for a major tournament. Part of that couldn't be helped. Injuries to Juventus' Claudio Marchisio (torn ACL) and Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti (sports hernia) gutted the midfield. Even one of his primary backups, Riccardo Montolivo, had to withdraw from the tournament with a calf injury.
Conte was faced with two choices. He could go with older veterans such as Thiago Motta and Daniele De Rossi in the hope that their experience would carry the Azzurri. Or he could have picked younger players such as Giacomo Bonaventura or Jorginho, who are far less experienced but whose dynamism might spur the team on.
He chose the former route, much to the chagrin of Italy's pundits. The result was a midfield long on experience but short on creativity. Motta, De Rossi and the rest of the midfield didn't have the kind of passing ability brought to the table by Verratti or Andrea Pirlo that can unlock a defense.
However, a central pillar to Conte's coaching philosophy is that hard work and team play can overcome a side's weaknesses. In his first two seasons at Juventus, he compensated for the lack of a top-level forward with tactical guile and an excellent midfield. In the Italy manager's book, any weakness can be compensated for.
Nothing exemplifies that philosophy more than Conte's connection with Emanuele Giaccherini.
Giaccherini was born in the ancient Tuscan town of Bibbiena, which traces its origins back to the time of the Etruscans. He was in the youth system of his hometown team when he transferred into the youth ranks of Cesena.
He spent two years in the Seahorses' system before he began to go out on loan, first to Forli, then Bellaria Igea and finally Pavia. Nine goals in 28 games with the Longobardi convinced Cesena to keep him on, and he made his debut for the club from Emilia-Romagna in the 2008-09 season.
That season was the start of a sequence of successive promotions that saw Cesena reach Serie A for the first time in 19 years. He was versatile enough to play on either wing, and he managed to score 20 times in 97 league games across three levels. In his lone Serie A season, in 2010-11, he scored seven and notched four assists in 36 matches, 32 of them starts.
That display caught the eye of a rebuilding Juventus, and the Bianconeri purchased Giaccherini on a co-ownership deal in August 2011. He started the first match at the brand-new Juventus Stadium on the left of a 4-3-3, but a complication soon arose. As the season progressed, Conte shifted to the 3-5-2 that would soon become synonymous with him.
That setup didn't have a place for wingers like Giaccherini, but he didn't disappear. Instead, Conte turned him into a "mezz'ala"—a box-to-box midfielder—and he spent the rest of the season as the Juve manager's utility man in the midfield, replacing Marchisio, Pirlo and Arturo Vidal when needed and ultimately playing 27 games between the league and the Coppa Italia.
The productive season caught the eye of then-Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, and Giaccherini was a surprise inclusion on the roster for Euro 2012.
Even more surprising was Giaccherini's inclusion in Prandelli's starting lineup for the group-stage opener against Spain.
Prandelli was using a 3-5-2 as an emergency measure to cover for an injury, and Giaccherini was slotted in as the left wing-back—a position he hadn't played before. If that wasn't enough pressure, consider this: Giaccherini was making his international debut that day.
Imagine the conversation in the manager's office that day: "OK, Emanuele, you'll be getting your first cap today. Oh, and it's going to be in a position you've never played before, and it's against Spain. Good luck!"
Giaccherini played fairly well in that game, but his inexperience as a wing-back showed when he was slightly behind the play that allowed the Spaniards their equalizer. He started the next game of that tournament against Croatia and then spent the rest of the tournament on the bench, but his international career was just beginning.
In his second season at Juve, he recorded three goals and three assists, including a stoppage-time winner against Catania in March that helped the Bianconeri consolidate their hold on first place. His play kept him in the picture for Prandelli, and he traveled to Brazil for the 2013 Confederations Cup. That summer was probably the most successful period of his career to date.
In a pre-tournament friendly against Haiti, he broke the 29-year-old record for fastest goal in the history of the national team, firing in on 19 seconds. In the opener against Mexico, he assisted Mario Balotelli's game-winning goal and then forced an own goal in the second group match against Japan. Then he temporarily equalized the final game of the group against Brazil with a stunning angled strike.
The semifinal against Spain went into extra time scoreless, and Giaccherini just missed putting the Azzurri into the final when he hit the post in the extra period.
After penalty kicks condemned them to the consolation game against Uruguay, Giaccherini again played a starring role, and he took Italy's last penalty of that shootout before Gianluigi Buffon ended the shootout with a save.
But just as it looked like Giaccherini's arc was at its highest, things started going wrong. He was separated from Conte early in the 2014 summer window when he was sold to Sunderland. The move didn't go well, and by the end of the season, he had lost hold of a starting spot with the Black Cats. He missed out on the 2014 World Cup, and in 2014-15 he only played eight times all year.
By the time he got to Bologna on loan at the beginning of this season, he was in need of a breath of life. He got it, scoring seven times and playing well enough to be reunited with Conte on the national team.
The coach had already gone back to his old favorite several times as qualifying for Euro 2016 began, and as his midfield options dwindled, Giaccherini became a favorite to start.
There were howls of derision. Why rely on a solid but limited player when creativity in the midfield was so badly needed?
For the first half hour or so of Italy's group opener against Belgium, it looked like they would be right. Then Giaccherini found a space between two defenders and took down a beautiful long pass from Leonardo Bonucci before slotting past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
From then on, Giaccherini has been one of the best players on the field for Italy. According to WhoScored.com, he's completed 83.1 percent of his passes and averaged 1.5 tackles per game. He's been all over the field, harassing opponents without the ball and doing his best to set up the attack when in possession. It was his cross with eight minutes left that nearly broke the deadlock against Sweden, only to see Marco Parolo's header crash into the crossbar.
He has fit perfectly into Conte's tactical setup, and he is perfectly emblematic of the coach's efforts to make a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
He may not be a superstar, but he's versatile and effective, and when he executes Conte's tactics properly, he is elevated far beyond the player he can be as an individual.
Conte's Italy has succeeded thus far in the tournament by enhancing their individual abilities with high-level team play. And there is no player—at this tournament or in years past—who has exemplified that as much as Giaccherini.