On the one hand, Italy passed through Euro 2016 qualifying unbeaten. On the other, it scored only 16 goals in 10 games and struggled to two 1-0 wins against Malta. Doing just enough to get the job done has always been an Italian trait, but the suspicion is that there are deeper problems here, that this is a side that struggles for creativity and goals–as it did at the World Cup, when its first-round exit might have been even worse if not for the generosity of a ramshackle English defense.
The two players who perhaps did the most to bring the quality and explosiveness that took Italy to the final at Euro 2012, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli, have both gone: Pirlo lost out to age and Balotelli to his own personality. In that context, the last thing the coach Antonio Conte needed was to lose the bedrock of his midfield, but both Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio miss out through injury.
The 1-0 win over Scotland over the weekend confirmed all of the problems, as it was a game of very few chances that was settled by a fine strike from Graziano Pelle. It’s telling, though, that the striker struggled to displace Ireland’s Shane Long at Southampton in the final weeks of the season. It did at least, though, represent a return to stability after a 4-1 humbling away against Germany in a friendly in March.
"I'm no magician," Conte told Rai after the game, acknowledging the essential poverty of the performance. "Let's just think of the positives: we haven't conceded, they never got a sight of goal and we've got back to winning ways. I liked our application, desire and determination, but we know we still have work to do and the road we are on is difficult. The important thing is we are aware of this."
Italy’s strength without question, is its defense. Conte is a habitual tinkerer with systems, and he operated with a back four at times during qualifying, but he will surely start with the rearguard he put together at Juventus, with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, now 38, behind the back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Thereafter, his likely selections are much harder to discern. A calf injury to Riccardo Montolivo effectively made the decision of which other midfielders made the squad, with veterans Tiago Motta and Daniele De Rossi both included ahead of Napoli’s Jorginho. It could be a 3-5-2 or it could be 3-4-3, and there are options as to the characteristics of the wingbacks.
Matteo Darmian, who can operate on either side, is essentially an attacking fullback, whereas Antonio Candreva is a wide forward being asked to track back. In between the two are the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini and Alessandro Florenzi, either of whom could play as one of the midfielders if the preference is for 3-5-2.
Conte, presumably, will mix and match according to the opposition, which makes that Juventus core at the back vital to providing stability. Buffon has spoken of his intention to play on until 2018 and so match Dino Zoff’s achievement of playing in a World Cup at the age of 40, but when a player gets to that age, there’s always a possibility this, his ninth, will be his final tournament. Buffon remembers the family getting together to watch games in 1982, long lunches, matches on television and playing on the balcony at his uncle’s home. It’s almost as though back then he set himself the target of matching Zoff.
Whether he plays in Russia or not, this will certainly be his last Euros. That’s a troubling thought for Italy, not just because he is the one obviously world-class player in the squad, but because he sets the tone for the team, from organizing on the pitch to belting out the national anthem in an unashamed show of national pride.
“When I'm singing and strongly identifying with the anthem,” he said, “I feel grateful for my life and the gifts bestowed upon me. I have been a happy and healthy person, and a person with the ability and honor to represent their country for many years.
“The best way to live sport and life in general is to do it with your heart and soul. But you can't do that if you don't have any knowledge of your history and the past. I know a bit of Italian history, the history of my roots. The anthem is a way of showing this to the outside world.”
Ten years ago, Buffon was part of the side that matched the achievement of Zoff and the '82 team by winning the World Cup, but he acknowledges that a first European title since 1968 is not an immediate possibility.
"I place Italy among the main outsiders,” he told France Football, “behind Germany, France, Spain and Belgium.”
With Italy's first test coming against Belgium, we'll find out early on how right he may be.