Sport European Championships

Saturday 21 April 2018

Italy's hammer will keep driving players on

Conte has his players so well-drilled that changes to the team won't make them any less effective

Italy head coach Antonio Conte. Photo: Michael Dalder/Reuters
Italy head coach Antonio Conte. Photo: Michael Dalder/Reuters

Miguel Delaney

Anyone encouraged by Antonio Conte's declaration that he will rest some first-team players after Italy's win over Sweden on Friday might consider an anecdote from his final season at Juventus.

It was the climax of the 2013-'14 season. The team had already long secured a third successive league title, but Conte wanted to add to that by breaking the 100-point barrier, only to notice the intensity of his players was dropping off ahead of a final-day party in Turin. So, ahead of that last match against Cagliari, he realised he needed to jolt them; to get the energy back up. He couldn't have picked a bigger lightning rod, or bigger legend, to do so.

Conte organised a team meeting, but the opportunity for a real statement came when Gigi Buffon - of all people - walked in a few seconds late. If anyone thought this was a minor issue, or that the veteran goalkeeper was too major a figure to be castigated, they were very wrong. Conte tore Buffon apart in front of the whole squad, to the point where they were all on edge. There was an energy throughout the team again.

Conte knew Buffon's status would mean his ruse would have greater impact, and the team now knew not to drop off. Juventus went and won 3-0, and Conte had his record.

The circumstances on Wednesday might be somewhat different, but the manager will still demand the same intensity. This isn't a dead rubber to Conte, not when he considers any temporary drop-off fatal to a team's fire in the long term.

That fire remains the concern for Ireland, as was made clear in Conte's post-game press conference on Friday.

"We are trying to pump them up a bit, game by game," the 46-year-old said. "We have so much hunger we want to win that third match. I won't make wholesale changes. There will be some changes."

Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci and Buffon being one booking away from suspension, will further guarantee that but, even if the team is different, what is important is that there will be no change in the manager. Italy will still have Conte on the sidelines, demanding the level of application that can bring this team glory by the end of Euro 2016. It is why they call him "a hammer". He is Italy's one big advantage over virtually everyone else in the tournament.

He is the only one of the 24 managers good enough and innovative enough to get a job at one of Europe's elite clubs, as signalled by the fact that he will go to Chelsea when the competition ends. Italy have a properly modern coach that no-one else does, and it is why a diluted line-up against Ireland does not matter as much as it would with other teams. Before Euro 2016 started, after all, many people were disregarding Italy because of the perceived lesser quality of their players no matter what team they put out.

The high quality of the manager has changed that. Just as he did with a Juventus side that finished seventh before he took over in 2011, Conte has revitalised Italy. They have become one of the most vibrant teams in the tournament and the sophistication of his approach mean they pose tougher tactical challenges than more talented squads. Belgium's defence was simply outmanoeuvred by the quick co-ordination of the Italian attack.

That has come about because of how hands-on Conte is on the training pitch - literally. There is a lot of practice as well as new theories. Conte and his coaching staff work the side through the planned attacking movements in lines across the pitch, with the manager very often forcibly grabbing players to put them into the right positions. These sessions - often complemented by video work - are always carried out with entire groups of 10 outfield players, and repeated to the point the whole squad can recreate them by muscle memory and instinct.

The repetitive nature of the drills would usually bore most teams, but not when Conte is there. His intensity through it all means everything crackles, and many have expressed surprise that he can be so 'on' all the time. It is the energy that infused his playing career, and the energy he expects from players in his managerial career. He usually knows how to prod - and often provoke - a squad's sense of pride to get even more out of them. They don't tend to leave a pitch wondering.

Any of those unwilling to apply themselves to that level are discarded, and it is why someone like Graziano Pelle is picked over a talent like Mario Balotelli.

He can still only take that talent so far for so long though. No matter the manager's relentlessness, lesser players can't completely perform above themselves so consistently, even over a short-term tournament. It's hard not to think the deficiencies in the squad were the main reason they weren't anywhere near as impressive as against Belgium. They didn't have the same verve, and there was only occasionally the same synchronisation in attack. It is attack that is their weakest area, of course, and the moderate Sampdoria striker Eder arguably only got his late goal because an ageing Sweden tired.

The hope for Ireland is that there are a few too many changes for Italy to play even to that level on Wednesday, that they might be that bit more patchy, with a few more gaps in play for Martin O'Neill's side to exploit in a game they must win.

One of the keys to Conte's management, though, is that his squad is the only one at Euro 2016 with an ingrained team philosophy usually typical of an elite club - like Juventus or Bayern Munich. The idea is that, no matter if it is Thiago Motta coming in for De Rossi or Ciro Immobile playing instead of Eder, they will have rehearsed the same roles. Ireland must hope they can't apply them to the same standard.

There is also the subconscious knowledge, however, that Conte will not countenance a drop-off. Errors will not be forgotten just because Italy are first in the group.

"I will make changes," Conte said on Friday, "but for winning."

He has never known any other way.

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