The Italian Job: When Pedigree Meets Potential At The Euros
Italy has produced some of the most iconic national teams in history over the past decades. Who can forget the incredible World cup winning teams of 1982 and 2006 – teams lined with absolute legends of the game, from star strikers Roberto Baggio and Francesco Totti to defensive stalwarts Paolo Maldini and Claudio Gentile? The four-time world champions have also been successful in the Euros, having won the tournament in 1968, spearheaded by Giacinto Facchetti, Gigi Riva and Gianni Rivera. In more recent times however, the Euros have led to heartbreak for Italy, losing both finals to France and Spain in 2000 and 2012. As times have changed and the Azzurri do not remain the unstoppable force they once were, a new wave of talent have risen through the ranks and strive to recreate the magic of the golden days, an era synonymous with pride for the Italian faithful. Puma’s launch of Italy’s Renaissance Kit in October 2019 is a celebration of this very sentiment; the marriage between the nation’s rich footballing history that dates back to 1954 as the Italians donned the Maglia Verde (green jersey) against Argentina in a 2-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico, as the kit’s primary design and the emergence of prodigious talent (with around 12 players in the last squad being 25 or under) waiting to take over and write their own versions of history. Heading into the Euros next year, it seems as if the appetite for supremacy is woven into the fabric.
Italy of late have had a torrid time in international football, missing out on World Cup qualification to Sweden for the first time in their history under the very unpopular Gian Piero Ventura. The Italians really struggled under Ventura to encapsulate any of their international pedigree, lacking rhythm and consistency which led to their gaffer’s timely dismissal. This failure to qualify caused outcry and embarrassment in a nation that is always expected to qualify for any major tournament at the very least. Although the side may not have had the quality as some of their predecessors, this was a massive disappointment.
As we look into the present and future of Italian football, we see a very different squad today under the guidance of Roberto Mancini. Different faces, but the same pressure soaking and counter attacking football we are so used to seeing in Azzurri blue. Mancini, well known for his time at Inter and that Manchester City squad that won the title with Mario Balotelli and Sergio Agüero, brings back to Italy some of that much needed charisma, experience and strength on a global stage. Mancini has injected an attacking philosophy back into the Azzurri team, using some of Serie A’s youngest and most exciting talent in at his disposal.
On the contrary to the delusions of the World Cup qualification campaign, Mancini led his side to European qualification without losing a single game and with two matches to spare. A result which really got the faithful going was the 9-1 win over Armenia where Italy showed total attacking dominance. The former Inter boss typically uses the 4-3-3 formation, utilising the wingers to link fast counter attacking football from the defensive midfielder to the classic number 9 forwards.
What can we expect from Italy at the Euro 2020 (in 2021, that is)?
Let’s start with the goalkeepers, of which Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, a firm favourite with Mancini so far, is most likely to start. There are a few ‘keepers however, in line for the No.1 spot. Mattia Perin, currently on loan at Genoa from Juventus where playing time was scarce due to the evergreen Buffon and Wojciech Szczęsny, will keep Donnarumma on his toes. Alex Meret, who has enjoyed Champions League football at Napoli is also one to watch. Lastly, Salvatore Sirigu will certainly leave Mancini with a headache as he continues to impress for Torino.
In defence, we can expect to see the veteran Juventus duo of Leonardo Bonnuci and Giorgio Chiellini, forming an experienced and well-equipped centre back partnership. On the fringes of the starting 11, we find Milan skipper Alessio Romagnoli and Francesco Acerbi, as well as a potential return for Mattia Caldara as he shows promise at Atalanta after his disappointing spell at Milan. In the full-back positions, the Italo-Brazilian Emerson Palmieri of Chelsea brings speed and balance to the squad. There are many other options like Inter’s Danilo D’Ambrosio who has enjoyed some fantastic football under Antonio Conte. Alessandro Florenzi has also staked a claim for a spot next summer, matching Mancini’s profile of a pacy full-back. Some less known players to look out for could be Inter’s Cristiano Biraghi or Roma’s Davide Zappacosta, both players that have been in and around the national team set-up in the last few years.
One of Italy’s strengths will certainly be in the middle of the park, with a mix of fantastic proven quality as well as some upcoming talent. Italy can rely on Marco Verratti and Jorginho, two experienced winners in the beating heart of midfield. Also coming through the ranks is the young Sandro Tonali, a defensive midfielder often compared to Andrea Pirlo due to his uncanny resemblance. Tonali is hot property in Serie A with a rumored exit from Brescia to a top club on the cards. Inter’s pair of Italian centre midfielders will also have an impact on the squad, both Stefano Sensi and Nicolò Barella have had a fantastic season so far and could edge their way into the squad. Serie A’s best young player in the 2018/19 season, Nicolò Zaniolo, has also had an impressive first two seasons at Roma and will certainly be on the plane next summer.
Another inspired tactical move of Mancini’s is the use of wingers in link up play, of which he has plenty of fantastic options. Federico Bernadeschi, Federico Chiesa, the well-known Insigne and El Shaarawy, and the Bologna star Orsolini are the chief suspects to star in the wide roles. This is where the real balance of play sits for the Italians. Chiesa has been in great form this season and continues to build on his strengths every game. The fact most of these players can also play as a second striker gives Mancini flexibility to use them in changing formations to mix up game strategies in order to match or better the opposition.
Leading the line will be Europe’s top goal scorer in Ciro Immobile. Lazio’s forward has had the season of his life, rocketing the Biancoceleste to second in Serie A, only just behind the usual favorites Juventus. As back up Italy boast Il Gallo Andrea Bellotti, another centre forward in fine form. Until last season you could have included Moise Kean in the Italy set up but after a disappointing season at Everton he has dropped down the pecking order. It’s a common conversation topic in Italy as to whether we will ever see Mario Balotelli in an international competition for Italy again. Flashes of his brilliance in the Euro 2012 often resurface when this topic is broached but his hot-headed antics prove an issue when international selection comes calling. Along with Tonali, Balotelli is currently playing for Brescia and has shown glimpses of his quality, but the age-old question persists – will inconsistency prove to be Balotelli’s downfall or can he lend his experience to this Italian attack? What’s for certain is that Immobile is a cut above him and Bellotti has the drive and passion to support Italy.
It is clear that Italy has all the ingredients to succeed again on the international stage. A mixture of youth, experience and class from across Europe’s top leagues cement this Italy team’s place among the elite at next year’s championships. Of course, for a few of these players it’s now or never, but the past failures will surely fuel the start of this epic saga in the national team’s history. The changing of the old guard is all but over, and Roberto Mancini has the tough job of replicating the managers of old in this legendary set up. But by sticking to the Italian principle of ‘defend, then counter-attack’, he has what it takes to start a new dynasty painted Azzurri blue.