Italy and Antonio Conte are smart to rotate for Euro 2016 clash vs. Ireland
When Antonio Conte sends out his Italy side to face the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday, he may well have just two holdovers from the Azzurri's last game: Alessandro Florenzi and Andrea Barzagli.
Italy have already mathematically clinched first place in Group E, so you can see his logic. He's dropping five guys (Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Eder and Daniele De Rossi) who are one yellow card away from a suspension, plus another, Antonio Candreva, who picked up a knock and probably would not have been able to play anyway. That's already six.
Center-forward Graziano Pelle is also destined for a rest, since Conte sees his strikers as pretty much interchangeable, and with Eder out, Conte wants to see what Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza can do. The other two getting a breather are his central midfielders, Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo, who could use it after playing 180 minutes. (And not just any 180 minutes, but 180 minutes of Conte-brand football: Despite being one of the oldest squads in the tournament, Italy are among those who have covered the greatest distance.)
What are the side effects of such a massive overhaul?
Well, first and foremost, you'd imagine Sweden might be a bit annoyed. Like Ireland, the Swedes have one point from two games and need a victory to have a chance of qualifying. Unlike Ireland, who'll get to face the Azzurri's second string, Sweden will be taking on a full-strength, highly motivated Belgium. Call it karma for 2004.
The more interesting question is whether, and to what degree, Italy will be worse. And they might not be.
At the back, you will have an obvious downgrade. With all due respect, Salvatore Sirigu, Matteo Darmian and Angelo Ogbonna exist several stratospheres below Buffon, Bonucci and Chiellini. Elsewhere though, the drop-off is not that clear-cut. It's one of the peculiarities of this Conte squad. The lack of individual talent in his front six means that when a starter is missing, the guy coming in for him probably won't be much worse. We're not talking Rafa Silva coming in for Cristiano Ronaldo or Oscar replacing Neymar.
In fact, you can make an argument that the second string will be more motivated. Conte isn't big on hierarchies. Other than the first-choice back three and the keeper, nobody came into this tournament taking their starting spot for granted. If Federico Bernardeschi and Stephan El Shaarawy get the nod, it could be more attacking as well.
What's more, assuming that Ireland boss Martin O'Neill scouts the opposition, he'll have very little to go on because nobody will have seen this team play.
The downside to these changes have to do with intangibles. Chemistry, above all. The starters miss out on a chance to familiarize themselves with one another, their natural movements and tendencies. Not such a big deal at the back because they are all teammates at club level, but potentially more of a factor in the front six.
Another is momentum. What happens if there's a heavy defeat against the Irish? Would there be a lingering aftereffect heading into the round of 16?
For a start, it's not immediately clear that such a thing as momentum even exists in sports. It's something analytics types have debated for a while, and the suggestion is a bit like "going on a hot streak" -- it's one of those things we think we perceive, but isn't really there.
If the Irish win big, there's a loss of confidence both in the players and maybe in Conte as well. That could definitely complicate things in the round of 16. That may be the case, but if things go badly, most of the team that will play in the next game wouldn't have been part of the debacle. As for general squad confidence and self-belief, Italy tend to not be one of those sides that needs to feel good about itself to do well. In fact, expectations were at a minimum going into this tournament.
Given the circumstances heading into the Ireland game, the question shouldn't be why would you make nine changes? It ought to be: Why would you not make nine changes?
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.