Antonio Conte and his Italy side outclassed Marc Wilmots and the Red Devils on Monday evening in Lyon, earning the 2-0 victory. Goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pellè ultimately decided the bout, but the work in the middle of the park for the Azzurri proved to be the difference between the two sides.
Manager Antonio Conte had been under fire for his squad selections – and omissions – for the European Championships. “Why the infatuation with Giaccherini?” or “Really, no Jorginho?” were among the questions raised by proud supporters of Gli Azzurri leading up to last nights’ clash in Lyon. However, while it’s still very early in Group E play, Conte has silenced his critics, for now.
The former bianconeri manager fielded a 3-5-2 formation to no surprise against Marc Wilmots’ Belgian Red Devils. In his five-man setup in the middle of the park, Conte played Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva out wide on the left and right flanks respectively. The core of the midfield included Marco Parolo, Daniele De Rossi and Conte’s favorite little workhorse Emanuele Giaccherini.
With Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio injured and on the shelf back in Italy, the Blues faced a tall task combatting the loaded Belgium midfield who are much younger and widely considered superior to that of the Azzurri. Axel Witsel, Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard all started. While youth was certainly on their side today, experience, organization and commitment to the cause were not as Italy won the war in the trenches.
Candreva and Darmian provided the pace out wide that was always deemed vital to creating quality chances for target man Graziano Pellè and the out-of-form, but hard-working, Èder. The Lazio winger was immense down the right, taking on defenders and really pushing the envelope to expand play; he made things uncomfortable for Jan Vertonghen who was shockingly deployed as a left-back; an unfamiliar role for the Tottenham centre-half. Candreva made the most of the mismatch and in the dying minutes, his vision and patience on the ball ultimately led to him finding Pellè for the clincher.
Opposite Candreva, Darmian turned in an average performance. The Manchester United fullback was up to the task of limiting De Bruyne from having his way, sticking to his strengths as a speedy defender. While he did little to disrupt Ciman (also primarily a central defender) out wide in the attacking third, his efforts were appreciated. The two wing-backs Conte chose to start this game held the upper-hand from the jump when you consider the fact Wilmots went the route of playing two known box-defenders with little foot- speed out wide against two Italian wide men with plus-speed fond of attacking space.
Shifting gears to the war inside the core of the midfield. De Rossi, who had another solid campaign for Roma this past season, always seems to turn it up a bit more for country; his passion is second to none, often fueling his solid performances. Today, he was asked to slide into the defence on several occassions to help disrupt any daylight Belgium looked to exploit. As critical as some may be of his reckless mentality, there is no debating his energy and toughness. Neither Witsel or Nainggolan seemed to have made a dent on this result as they both were suffocated out of their game by not only the long-time giallorossi enforcer, but Parolo and Giaccherini as well.
Parolo, a box-to-box midfielder, contributed to the cause on both ends of the pitch. Often times, the Lazio man could’ve been found roaming in front of the Azzurri backline, throwing his body around and dispossessing on multiple occasions. Going forward, Parolo was among the best passers Italy had today with 83% conversion rate, via Who Scored, contributing to his under-the-radar 7.3 match rating. Then there is Giaccherini who is deserving of his own paragraph.
What made Giaccherini so fascinating is that at times, he looked to be the worst player on the pitch for Italy; errant passes, far-from sexy movement and some suspect ball control. But, in an instant, Giak struck for his country. Leonardo Bonucci delivered a ball so fine that the former Sunderland man didn’t even have to move. The ball was taken down with a delicate first touch and the Bologna man calmly slotted it home past Thibaut Courtois, giving Italy the 1-0 lead. (Fact: Seconds after tweeting about his clumsy ball work, he scored. I should criticize his faults more often.)
To his credit, Giaccherini is a worker who turned in 90 minutes of quality football, something that goes an awful long way in group stage play where slip-ups could have you sent home in an instant.
When you compare the two units side-by-side, it’s no contest. Talent wise, the Belgians have as strong a midfield as any is in this tournament, arguably the best. However, credit goes to Conte who was dedicated to playing his style, no matter what pundits, journalists and Twitter trolls had to say about it. The decision to bring – and start – Giaccherini for La Nazionale’s opening group match took, for a lack of a better term, balls. Overall, the entire squad was well prepared and while may not have dominated or have played the sexiest football the Earth has ever laid witness to, they played the most fundamentally sound, organized and disciplined football of any side we have seen in France thus far.
Antonio Conte’s tactical setup in the midfield ultimately decided this match, and he should be praised for it.