Antonio Conte is well aware of the challenges Italy face in Bordeaux when they meet Germany in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals on Saturday.
“We’ll need a titanic effort against Germany,” the Italian manager said after his team’s 2-0 last-16 win over Spain.
Italy vs. Germany is a massive match, undeniably the biggest of the quarterfinals, and carries with it a rich and extensive history. This is not merely about either side’s past as heavyweights of international football. The winners of Euro 2016 will likely come from this game and, in many ways, it seems like the “real final.” It certainly has the grandiose dimensions of what would be a fitting final.
Pure football vs. tactics
Germany put in the best pure football performance of Euro 2016 so far in their impressive 3-0 round-of-16 drubbing over Slovakia, inching closer to their top level. But Italy bounced back with the best tactical and managerial display so far with their win against Spain.
Conte’s side can’t do what Germany do and simply play to their abilities because, as the manager has said, this is “not the rosiest period for Italy in terms of football talent,” But his ability to maximise the team’s talent has been sensational. Italy simply overwhelmed Spain thanks to his brilliant, overarching vision.
This is the most inherently talented team in the competition against the most intelligent and intense. That contrast alone makes for a glorious clash of approaches.
The most talented group of players vs. the best coach
What really adds gravitas to this game is that not only is it a battle between the most talented team and most talented coach, in Germany and Conte respectively, it’s coming at a time when both have mastered their unique pillars of the game.
Germany have developed an elite squad after industrialising youth football development. They have invested immense resources in the ultimate good, ensuring that a generation of players now have what they need to take their skills to the next level, as was evident in defender Jerome Boateng’s class goal against Slovakia.
Italy still have the best coaching academy in the world, even if there are big questions around their youth academies. They produce generations of coaches capable of organising players into working and effective teams, something that Conte has taken on at this European Championship. Giorgio Chiellini, one of Italy’s more old-fashioned defenders, also scored in their last-16 game, but his goal was borne of tenacity rather than technique, a quality and desire most likely instilled by his coach.
There is growing evidence that Conte may be one of Italy’s great coaches. His tactical approach goes deeper than looking at mere differences between teams and figuring out the most effective plan for any given match. He has underpinned tactics with a new philosophy, updating a tired 3-5-2 system — out of date for 20 years — into something much more dynamic. His revamped approach works even better, of course, because he infuses it with such intense effort.
In terms of skill, Germany have almost everything. In terms of what happens on the pitch, Italy have a coach who ensures they do almost everything to make up for what they lack in talent.
It is a meeting between the two best teams in the competition
Germany are world champions, but Italy have just knocked out the reigning European champs, to whom they lost 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final. It’s as simple as that. As it stands, these are the two teams with the best credentials to be champions. You don’t even have to dive deep into their histories as two of the countries on the continent with the most silverware. Germany and Italy share eight World Cups and four European Championships between them.
The clash of styles goes way beyond approaches
There is an argument to be made that as much as this is a battle for a place in the semifinals, it is also a contest for how the game should be played. It is certainly one of the more obvious clashes of philosophies in this tournament.
Germany have consciously adapted the pressing-possession that Spain and Barcelona used to dominate the early part of the decade, but Conte has come up with one of a few successful and proactive responses. His updated 3-5-2 is a new departure point for the game, in the same way that Pep Guardiola’s reinvented “total football” approach was.
If Conte beats Germany and goes on to win Euro 2016 against so much expectation, his approach could start becoming even more influential. It could guide us towards a new tactical era. This is the type of influence that the top level of the international game used to have. And given what’s at stake, it’s an additional reason why this could well be the real final.
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