Earlier this week, Azzurri boss Antonio Conte released his 30-man provisional squad, with a handful of controversy lumped in with it. New York City FC’s Andrea Pirlo and Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco were both left off, causing quite the stir amongst not just Italy supporters, but viewers of Major League Soccer.
As if his first squad reveal last week wasn’t enough, Italy manager Antonio Conte’s latest roster ahead of next months’ quickly approaching European Championship in France has pushed the envelope even further.
Last week, Conte revealed a squad that was to take part in a three-day trial at the national side’s training ground, Coverciano in Florence. With a plethora of Cup finals on tap last weekend, players from Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, A.C. Milan and Juventus were left off as they continued training with their respective clubs. Essentially, any player who was still involved in competitive matches for their club was excluded from being called up to La Nazionale. So, the Juventus-rich Italy side we are accustomed to seeing; no Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Gianluigi Buffon. But this also meant that Major League Soccer’s Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco were also excluded as their season only just kicked off in March. This squad was taken with a grain of salt, but the pot was beginning to stir.
On this initial roster reveal by Conte last week, there were many names left off that should have been called over several that were summoned. Fabio Borini (Sunderland) was perhaps the most confusing of players to see under attaccanti, and for many reasons. The former Roma man has been highly underwhelming for the Premier League side these past two seasons and last appeared for his national team four years ago under Cesare Prandelli. Borini was picked over Torino’s young striker Andrea Belotti who scored the most goals among all Italians across Europe in the calendar year. Palermo’s Franco Vazquez and Empoli’s Riccardo Saponara were also left off in favor of Conte’s personal favorite from his Juventus regime, Emanuele Giaccherini. It’s quite obvious from these decisions that Conte is basing many of his selections on who can fit his tactics in a short tournament against the best of Europe, not strictly on performance. (Don’t worry, I’m slowly making my way to the argument here; I promise.)
So after the Cup finals concluded, now we would begin to see the cards fall into place. On Monday, Conte revealed his latest 30-man squad that will eventually shrink to 23 once rosters are to be finalized by the end of the month:
— Italy (@azzurri) May 23, 2016
Goalkeeping wise, there is little worth arguing about. Buffon is clear-cut the number one, followed by Salvatore Sirigu who had spent most of his time this season for Laurent Blanc’s Paris Saint-Germain backing up Kevin Trapp. Lazio’s Federico Marchetti managed to receive the third and final spot over Atalanta’s Marco Sportiello and Milan’s standout youngster Gianluigi Donnarumma. Regardless, you will be hard pressed to find Azzurri supporters pillaging over the third keeper. Same with the defense, most of the usual suspects are in tact and well deserving; Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci. Davide Astori (Fiorentina), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham) and Daniele Rugani (Juventus) were also called over the arguably more deserving Alessio Romagnoli (Milan). Regardless, it’s understood that Conte favors the 3-5-2 and will start the bianconeri trio of Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci come June 13th against Belgium. Next, we dive into the midfield which is where the discussion heats up.
Last month, Juventus talisman Claudio Marchisio was ruled out for the Euro after tearing knee ligaments in a 4-0 rout of Palermo. As if things couldn’t get much worse for Italy, the fact is they did. PSG’s star midfield maestro Marco Verratti underwent surgery to repair an ongoing groin problem. Just like that, Italy’s two most vital components in the midfield were eliminated from the Euro. While the injuries to Marchisio and Verratti closed doors for the sides two most impactful midfielders, another opened for Andrea Pirlo to reclaim his rightful throne for the Euro; his last “hurrah”.
Pirlo was at the heart of Italy’s glorious 2006 World Cup win under Marcello Lippi as the squad’s deep-lying regista. However, since the disappointing World Cup 2014 display by an Italy that failed to escape the group stage, questions lingered as to whether it was time for Pirlo to step aside and allow the national team to find his heir to lead the new Italian revolution. Pirlo seemed all but certain to hang it up for country, but Conte’s appointment after the World Cup altered his decision.
Fast forward to 2015. Juventus lost Pirlo as he crossed the Atlantic to join up with expansion club New York City FC. With this move, it seemed as if Pirlo could be the one to debunk the public perception many football fans have of North America’s professional league as a “retirement league.” Yet, that view of Major League Soccer may not be changing anytime soon as Pirlo was left off the roster by a man he shares mutual respect with in Antonio Conte. Pirlo of course was a key cog in Conte’s Juventus reign in which they won three consecutive Scudetti and it seemed that he wouldn’t dare leave the ex-Milan midfielder off, especially with the injuries to Verratti and Marchisio. However, it’s now clear that his move to the Big Apple has greatly effected his status with the national team.
Conte, who last played Pirlo for Italy in a Euro qualifying win v Malta last September, did not hold back much at a press conference earlier this week saying:
“When you make a certain choice and go to play in certain leagues, you do so taking it into account that they could pay the consequences from a footballing viewpoint. I called him and we’ve spoken about it. I needed to discuss it with him and we’ve had people out there for a week to take a look at him and Giovinco. We’ve made technical choices and nothing has been done just at random.”
Pirlo also pinpointed at the differences between European football and the brand played in the United States. If you read what the Italian said about the two leagues in terms of style of play, you get the impression that he understands why he may have been at a disadvantage at the time of the call-ups. Personally, I’d have no issues with Pirlo being selected over Giaccherini or Marco Parolo (Lazio), however Giaccherini is a versatile, hardworking midfielder who can do a few things; a Conte favorite. Parolo is a box to box midfielder who can score you a few goals while also being a serviceable, and smart, ball distributor. Andrea Pirlo also just turned 37 and Conte is feeling the brunt of the heat for not thrusting the new crop of younger guys to succeed the old guard.
As for the “Atomic Ant” plying his trade in “The 6,” this is where the article flips over on it’s head. (Yes, I’ve finally arrived to my main arguments.) Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC) has been as dominant an import Major League Soccer has seen in it’s 20-plus years of existence. Giovinco, who moved from Juventus last year, has taken the league by storm, turning defensive units inside-out and pulling off highlight-reel moves. Make no mistake, the former Parma man is lethal; 30 goals in 45 appearances since his move to Toronto. Yet how well does that translate over with the performances of some of the men selected over him, as well as those who were also snubbed despite impressing in Italy? Well, let’s dive in, starting with an image of the top Italian goal scorers in Europe during the 2015/16 season, courtesy of Opta Paolo:
Leonardo Pavoletti (Genoa) had a stellar season for the rossoblu this year, scoring 14 goals despite missing thirteen league matches due to injuries. At one point, he was arguably the most in-form Italian target man in Europe before Torino’s Andrea Belotti (also left off the squad) finished the season with the most goals (11) among qualifiers in 2016. Pavoletti did get the nod from Conte last week for the trials in Coverciano but was left off Monday’s squad in rather questionable fashion. Now a few things to look at here. How could Conte leave both Pavoletti and Belotti, his two most in-form strikers, at home? Èder who had been a mainstay for the Azzurri throughout the qualification phase, had only scored once since his move to Inter from Sampdoria in January where he was a top scorer in Serie A at the winter break. Fact is, Conte has tried the Brazil-Italo up front and on the wing during Italy’s journey to qualifying so he has an understanding of his abilities to play with Graziano Pellè (Southampton). This is one instance of Conte showing the world that he wants players who fit his scheme, regardless of their recent form. See Major League Soccer pundits and journalists, Conte does not have a witch-hunt against players in North America. He left off two of the top performing Italian strikers, even having been able to observe them in the comforts of Italy, week in and week out. Moving on.
Sebastian Giovinco’s gaudy goal and assists outputs are no joke; he’s carried the entire Toronto FC club on his small, tattoo covered back and has done it fairly easily. But, while Giovinco’s numbers indicate he is an easy choice for the Azzurri roster, how well do his numbers in a heavily offensive-driven league stack up against those in Italy where defending is an art form? Think about this analogy. When comparing the talent level between Japanese baseball and Major League Baseball, the stats from one league don’t always carry over. In Japan, the style of pitching, playing culture and overall talent level is not in the same (pun incoming) ballpark as that of MLB. Major League Baseball is a league full of the best of the best; a league thousands of hopeful pros flee treacherous living conditions to play in. Goals and assists are the main statistical values for which we measure performance for an attacking player, so for this comparison we will use the equivalent in baseball for a batter.
A batter hitting .350, 30 home-runs and 100 rbi in Japan and taking advantage of soft-tossing pitchers may come to North America and hit, say .260, 15 homers and drive in 75 rbi. Follow me here. The fact is, the Japanese Baseball League (in this case, MLS) doesn’t fully correlate performance trends to Major League Baseball (Europe). You have to understand the potentially skewed performances and make reasonable projections that could apply to the better competition. Below is a good example of stat comparisons from Serie A to MLS for Sebastian Giovinco’s that I found fascinating, courtesy of Italian Football Daily’s Senior Editor Gregory Caltabanis:
#Giovinco last two seasons in Serie A:
2014-2015: 7 appearances, 0 goals.
2013-2014: 17 appearances, 2 goals, 1 assist.
— Gregory Caltabanis (@GCaltabanis) May 24, 2016
Mind you, Conte and Giovinco were together during these two campaigns, and it’s obvious that his numbers (to my above point) do not stack up with those in Toronto. To my last point we go.
Despite the career year in 2015-16, Napoli’s technical winger Lorenzo Insigne is still not a guarantee to make the squad, even though his numbers suggest he should perhaps start. The former Pescara standout put it all together under Maurizio Sarri this past season, helping the partenopei emerge as a legitimate contender for the Scudetto. We saw his entire skillset on display. He’s an impactful, dynamic attacking force that has done the leg work to make Conte’s final squad. However, due to the fact that Conte is projected to play a 3-5-2, things seem to be foggy for the 24-year Italian wing-man. Insigne does not possess the qualities to play as a right or left wingback in this system. Defensively, he doesn’t cut it and it’s difficult to force him into a role without having deployed him in it. Now, if a player of Insigne’s caliber does not make the squad, can we really bring Giovinco? Think about it. In the 30-man squad, you have the following players who are candidates to play in a 3-5-2 setup as wingbacks: Stephan El Shaarawy, Alessandro Florenzi, Federico Bernardeschi, Antonio Candreva, Matteo Darmian, Mattia De Sciglio and Davide Zappacosta. It’s unclear as to whether Conte will play natural wingers in these two roles, or lean to fullbacks with speed who can plunge forward while also covering their defensive duties. In a 3-5-2, Giovinco simply does not have the qualities to play as a wingback. He’s a wide player who can also be deployed as either a seconda punta, or trequartista. In my opinion, you can’t have both Giovinco and Insigne, and let’s be honest, it would be madness for Conte to not choose the latter.
Again, these are arguments that some may not even consider. Critics of Giovinco’s omission will remain fixated on the fact that his numbers are, on paper, much better than any player called over him. Yet, I think some initially ignored some of these obvious details that could’ve brought this discussion to a calmer verdict. Antonio Conte coached both Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco, so he understands them better than any of us. Bottom line is both players understood the risk of moving out of Italy to play in a less-competitive league a year before a major tournament. Ultimately, had either one of them went out on loan this past January to showcase themselves to Conte that they still can produce against elite footballers and at a high level, they could have likely made the cut. However, both are not going to France, and that is something we all have to accept. Antonio Conte, whether you disagree with his selections or not, does have a better idea of who can make his scheme run effectively; and we should respect that. After all, he’s an excellent motivator and is capable of making magic happen. Jump on board.