If England's messy victory over Wales on Thursday demonstrated that the Three Lions have more talent than Roy Hodgson can sensibly handle, Italy's painful 1-0 win over Sweden a day later was evidence that they have the exact inverse problem. Coach Antonio Conte is somehow squeezing results, if not performances, from a very limited Azzurri squad. If they're to make it deep into this tournament, it'll be organization and not ingenuity that gets them there.
In spite of the fickle excitement that followed Italy's win over Belgium on Monday, it's certainly true that this Italy team is not, by their own high standards, a good one. Hit by injuries to first-team midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti before the tournament, it's also not exactly how they'd have lined up if coach Conte had a completely free choice. But their coach's totally risk-averse approach has seen him leave some of their more exciting talents at home. They do have a talent problem, but one exacerbated by the coach's selection.
Napoli's deep-lying playmaker Jorginho is arguably the ideal replacement for Verratti, though he wasn't taken to France. Attacking midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura was perhaps the only player to emerge from another disappointing Milan season with his reputation enhanced, though was left at home. Sassuolo striker Domenico Berardi, perhaps the most capable young player on the peninsula at the moment, has his feet up in Emilia-Romagna.
Instead of bringing these creative talents to France, Conte has put his faith on industrious but uninspiring players. The central midfield combination that has started their first couple of games is remarkable in its composition: Daniele De Rossi is the archetypal anchorman and remains the Azzurri's best holding option, but he's been flanked by two mid-table Serie A journeymen in Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo. They're both extremely hard-working and tactically intelligent, but little more.
And yet, two games into the tournament, Italy have six points. Their progression into the first knockout round is sealed with a game to spare. Conte certainly doesn't have a Guardiolaesque imagination, but he is a supreme defensive organizer. And in international football, when singular moments of genius or fortune are often all that separate two teams, organization is a very valuable talent to have.
It's true that Conte hasn't brought the most naturally gifted selection to France that he could have, but he did bring one of the most solid. Conte appears to be playing the percentages, minimizing Italy's defensive risk-taking and banking on clinical counterattacking. The amount of chances created isn't particularly important, so long as they're taken. So far, the strategy is paying dividends.
Of course, there's a reason the world's best teams seek to assert themselves on their opponents, rather than play so reactively. As it is, if Italy find themselves trailing against one of the tournament's stronger sides, it could well prove difficult for them to equalize. And ultimately, hard work is no substitute for raw talent. But Italy have a knack for pulling off major tournament surprises, and as long as they keep things tight at the back, they've got a chance of beating anyone. With such a dearth of quality, perhaps that's as good as they could've hoped.