This was, they said, the weakest Italy squad in half a century. The draw has been so unkind that, after facing Belgium in the group stage, Italy’s putative route to the final means taking on the world champion Germany after the defending European champion Spain with the host France–or the host-slayer Iceland–waiting in the semi. For other sides that might have been too daunting a prospect, but Italy seems almost energized by it.
Antonio Conte’s side has produced highly astute tactical performances to beat Belgium and Spain. It wouldn’t even be true to say they were counterattacking displays, although that clearly is a strength of his side, because Italy matched Spain for possession in the first half of their last-16 clash. But it is a team that is at its best using an opponent’s strength against itself.
“This national side is short on great talent, so we have to come together as a team,” said defender Leonardo Bonucci, who has played under Conte at Juventus. “We have to have a playing style, and Conte is really the master in this area.”
That means organization and discipline and planning so meticulous and tailored to the opposition that Conte refuses to let even many of his coaching staff see his tactical drills for fear word may leak out.
It’s a philosophy that is relatively common at the club level, far less so in international football when the lack of time available to coaches tends to mean a simpler, one-size-fits-all approach.
“I have always said since I took over the Italian national side that the only route forward that we can have to try to achieve some semblance of success is to try to be a club,” Conte said. “We cannot allow ourselves to simply be a group of players. There’s no point in hiding the fact that it’s not the rosiest period for Italy in terms of footballing talent, and so we need to be a team. I have tried to wage a battle over the last two years to make people realize this.”
It’s a battle he is winning. The bedrock of his side–goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and central defenders Bonnucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini–he put together at Juventus and is now reaping the rewards. But he has also convinced others to have faith.
“We all expend a lot of energy but when we win it's all worth it,” said forward Graziano Pelle. “He prepares the game well and works hard–it's difficult to explain just how good he is. He works very simply. He doesn't complicate things. He's been a footballer himself so he knows how to explain parts of the game. Now again it is also going on the field and try to reproduce what he has been working on.”
Italy only managed 16 goals in 10 qualifying games, despite being grouped with Malta and Azerbaijan. It struggled against Sweden and, with a much-changed side having already qualified, lost to Ireland. It seems to need strong opponents, or at least opponents who take it on, to be at its best. Germany is certainly that, the return of Mario Gomez at center forward and the emergence of Joshua Kimmich at right back seemingly giving it the balance it has lacked since Miroslav Klose and Philipp Lahm retired after the World Cup.
Germany beat Italy 4-1 in a friendly in March, but, as both teams are well aware, Germany has never beaten Italy in a competitive fixture.
It's a run that includes a World Cup final, two World Cup semifinals and the semifinal of Euro 2012.
“We have no Italy trauma,” said Germany manager Jogi Low. “I do not rate the past too much. We don’t fear them.”
The other quarterfinal in this half of the draw has an epic quality of a different kind as Iceland faces France. Nobody has had less possession than Iceland at the Euros. Nobody has had a lower pass success rate. Nobody has allowed the opposition more shots per game. Only two sides have had fewer shots. But none of it matters: team spirit, self-belief and organization are carrying it through.
"Against France we can go relaxed and show our best,” said co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson. “We don't have the pressure of the entire world that we need to win this game. We want to win but we don't absolutely need to. That is a big benefit for us."
France will be without the suspended Adil Rami and, more significantly, N’Golo Kante. But really, the sense is that this is more about mentality. France has been anxious and scratchy so far, reliant on late goals. Iceland noticeably tired against Hungary and Austria late on (and that that wasn’t a factor in the last 16 is an indictment of England).
That suggests more late goals for France, but it cannot keep relying on Dimitri Payet or Antoine Griezmann to conjure something late on.