L’Italia s’è desta;
“Brothers of Italy, Italy has woken”
True to the words of the anthem that they roar with booming pride, Italy have truly woken. The wounds of the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign are fresh, much more tangible, much more painful than scars.
Spotlight on the paramedic — Roberto Mancini. Under the Italian manager, Gil Azzurri have qualified with 10 straight wins. In fact, the last time Italy lost was in 2018, against defending European champs, Portugal.
Combining the beauty of Brazilian football’s individuality with traditional Portuguese organization, Italy are unwarranted dark horses when they should be considered among the favourites for the Euros.
Path to the Euros
2018 was a dark time for the Italian national team. Failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was followed by the retirements of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele de Rossi, and the captain, Gianluigi Buffon. Gian Piero Venture, the coach, dismissed. President of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tevacchio, resigned.
Roberto Mancini is aware of the pride his fellow Italians take in their football. A striker or attacking midfielder for the national team himself, he was the best of the supporting cast helping the system in the attack. Coming full circle, he’s supporting the attacking-minded Italian national team now. Nobody without the pride he shows could have chosen to coach the national team when they reached their lowest international ranking of all time in 2018.
Changes to the squad, playing style, formation, and tactics have improved their performances greatly. The team is now unrecognisable to the one that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, even convincing Chiellini to come out of retirement.
The fact Italy have not lost in 21 games under Mancini is proof enough of the paradigm shift within the Azurri. Only legendary coach Marcello Lippi’s record between 2004 and 2006 and Vittorio Pozzo’s record in the 1930s master it.
To qualify for the EURO 2020, Italy had a fairly comfortable group. Competing against Group J, they had to take care of Finland, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia, and Liechtenstein along the way.
Italy averaged 3.7 goals per game while conceding only four times in ten games. Granted, this was a relatively easier group as the FIFA rankings of the teams Italy faced averaged at 87.2. However, France faced rosters with an average ranking of 96.4 yet averaged 1.2 goals less than the Italians per 90 and gathered five points less.
In the qualification campaign, only Belgium managed to score more goals, whereas England scored 37 as well. However, for the latter, the number of matches was eight as compared to ten for Belgium and Italy. To add to their case, being one of the favourites, Belgium and Turkey were the only teams that managed to concede fewer goals.
All these commendable achievements were not possible without a proper selection of players and tailoring the system to bring out their best, as we shall see further in this preview.
La Squadra e la formazione
One of the reasons Italy should be considered favourites is their squad depth. Gil Azzurri are truly greater than the sum of their parts. Despite scoring amongst the highest number of goals in qualification, Andrea Belotti, with four goals, is the team’s top scorer.
The fluidity in their football means multiple players across the midfield and attack join the offensive transition and end up scoring. However, the players chosen are an outstanding balance of tactical quality and Swiss knives.
Between the sticks, Gianluigi Donnarumma remains the first-choice. However, Alex Meret and Salvatore Sirigu act as reliable backups. Lining up in a 4-3-3, the back-four consists of the centre-halves accompanied by attacking full-backs.
In the right-back spot, Alessandro Florenzi remains the most probable starter, with Leonardo Spinazzola as the left-back. Throughout qualifying and in the crucial matchups, we have seen Francesco Acerbi as the left centre-back partnered by Leonardo Bonucci. Italy play an asymmetrical formation which leads to Spinazzola being much more attacking-minded than Florenzi.
The midfield trio of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho as a pivot, and Marco Veratti remains the most tried and tested. Jorginho provides stability at the base, while Barella is the most dynamic of the three, and Veratti the creative metronome from deep.
Il Mancio’s Italian side has incredible profundity and a variety of player profiles in midfield. Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli boasts of incredible passing ability combined with intelligence and composure while Roma’s Bryan Cristante has versatile profiles in the game.
Stefano Sensi from Inter Milan can calm things down and dominate the proceedings while Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini can maintain possession in attacking areas without compromising defensively and trouble defenses with his late runs.
The front three has to combine well with the midfield. Like in the overall selection, Mancini has done extremely well here. Lorenzo Insigne, a key component of the squad, provides creativity on the left, whereas Ciro Immobile acts as the target man. But his role isn’t that of a pure number nine. He acts as a deeper target man in the sense that he can hold up play and involve others, offer strength and an outlet for aerial attacks in the box. However, he is capable of dropping back and launching balls forward when necessary.
The right-wing is likely to be occupied by Federico Chiesa. His chemistry with Barella has been at the core of this team. When needed, he can offer creativity or even act as a supporting striker.
Juventus’ Federico Bernadeschi is included as well, but it seems unlikely he will play a big part. This is due to three reasons.
Firstly, the connection that is already present down the right. Secondly, Chiesa’s player profile which requires the ball a lot less than the Juventus winger to make an influence. Thirdly, Bernadeschi just hasn’t been competent enough over the last two seasons. Though he blames the system under Andrea Pirlo, he is a liability for the Italians due to his sub-par form despite scoring against San Marino.
To consider the ideal line-up, let us first take a look at Italy’s tactics.
A tactical overview
Traditionally the image surrounding Italy is that of conservative, monotonous football, which focuses on not conceding. Granted, a vigorous defence still remains at the heart of the team. But the fact of the matter is that Italy are now a positive, attacking-minded team which can easily be considered under the tiny umbrella of international teams that are ‘enjoyable’ to watch.
Mancini looks to set his team in such a way that they are given every possible asset to showcase their individual talent while contributing to the team. By no stretch is he conservative, whether it be playing Rolling Stones’ music in training for just a bit of extra enthusiasm or to push his full-backs so high they appear to be wide midfielders.
It’s as if Mancini set out with the intention to destroy the traditionally negative image of Italian football. The image below shows us their forward line and how high they press. No longer will the team sit off in a passive 4-4-2 and attack on the counter. They employ a 4-3-3 and take the game to their competition.
A pressing trap that is commonly seen is allowing the goalkeeper and centre-halves possession. The same is illustrated in the images above. The two arrows show two passing lanes in the frame deliberately kept open. If the opposition chooses to play the ball centrally, Italy will allow the player to progress just past his own initial third, after which they will trigger the press.
Down the wings, the striker, a winger, and a midfielder will all gradually press. Cut the lane, press forward, and jump the line at each backpass. Slowly but surely, Italy suffocate the opposition. Within two three backpasses, the earlier situation turned into the one shown below. This forces the opposition to show extreme technical quality or launch the ball forward.
Gil Azzurri play an asymmetrical formation. In the 4-3-3, the left-back will advance further up the pitch, almost as a wide midfielder. The 4-3-3 becomes a 3-4-3 or even a 3-5-2.
This is largely up to the positioning of the right-winger and right central-midfielder. Chiesa and Barella, respectively, have done very well in those positions while offering support of great reliability to each other. Often, Barella might underlap Chiesa, and the winger will act as a midfielder. This serves to destabilize the opposition and create passing lanes.
Now, to consider the changes that can be made to the likely starting XI. Firstly, Alessandro Bastoni could very well be given the starting spot over Leonardo Bonucci or Francesco Acerbi.
A crucial component of Antonio Conte’s Scudetto-winning Inter, 22-year-old Bastoni has shown to be very reliable in defence. As the centre-halves are tasked with progressing the ball from the back, he would fit in well as it is one of his strongest assets. In fact, he has started over Bonucci in a few matches for Italy already.
Marco Veratti is included in the squad, though he is not completely fit. However, if not, Mancini has shown to trust Sensi and Locatelli in his place. This is one decision that could be considered to be questionable.
Depending on the team they are facing, Italy will have to choose between their midfielders of varying profiles. None of them, at the moment, are able to replace Veratti. If a more attacking line-up is needed, Lorenzo Pellegrini can slot in besides Barella while Sensi or Locatelli can offer the metronomic aspects of Veratti’s play.
An interesting player is Giacomo Raspadori. Sassuolo’s striker offers something different. A short, agile striker, he transcends typical striker duties and contributes with creativity, quick finishes, and a tireless worker upfront. In a purely experimental lineup, but one that could do well against a back-four, he could play alongside Andrea Belotti, as their profiles complement each other.
Behind the front-two, the usual three-man midfield would be supported by a back-three of Bastoni, Bonucci, and Acerbi. The wing-backs would be Spinazzola and Florenzi, as they are well-rounded players who can shift from a 3-5-2 and a 5-3-2 often. This game model would also suit the Italian’s high attacking and defensive lines.
In defence, the inclusion of Atalanta’s Rafael Toloi provides a player that lacks finesse but can do the dirty work and provide aerial support. Mancini, however, has shown to trust him often as a backup. Napoli’s Giovanni Di Lorenzo will compete with Florenzi for the right-back spot but is unlikely to start as the latter has more experience and is integral to the system.
The left-back spot is one where Italy struggle. Neither Spinazzola nor Emerson has been able to firmly stamp their name on that position. However, at the end of the day, Italy’s playing style suits the former very well, meaning a change would be highly unlikely unless the Roma man doesn’t recover well enough from his current injury. Apart from this, Mancini’s team selection has almost always been on point, and hardly any changes should be made going into the Euros.
The difference makers
Despite the influential midfield, the key players are bound to be Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile. They offer strong chemistry akin to Barella-Chiesa on the other wing. Insigne offers incredible incision down the left.
Insigne’s dribbling, ball control, and passing ability make him amongst the best players in the squad. He will provide perfectly weighted balls to Immobile, which are headed in more often than not.
When the team is attacking down the wings, we see the winger on the opposite wing tuck in and act as a secondary striker. Chiesa is able to do this job very well, so is Domenico Berardi. Insigne’s lack of physical strength and stature means the left wing is often where the crosses originate from. The left is also where maximum fluid, progressive combinational play is seen.
Like in many other positions, a case can be made for starting the less established player over the stalwart. In this case, Belotti over Immobile. But the latter has shown to be a more reliable player. Not only this, but his ability to drop back and connect play is where he trumps the Torino striker significantly. Often, he sinks back to circulate play, where his chemistry with Insigne comes into play. In their well-oiled system, the winger will then compensate for the lack of a striker by occupying that space.
In midfield, Barella remains a player who could end up as Italy’s leader at the end of this competition. His ability to play as a box-to-box midfielder, an attacking midfielder, or even a mezzala at times is indispensable. In the 3-4-3 or the 3-5-2 system, the Italian midfielder occupies the right-midfielder and the right central-midfielder roles, respectively.
Tactically speaking, Florenzi and Chiesa can be considered to be crucial to the team. The freedom given to them down the right flank makes up for the lack of a player like Insigne. Creating numerical superiorities can be done when a player like the Napoli winger occupies more than a single player on or off the ball. Another way to achieve superiority is to give positional freedom, as seen down the right.
The song of the Italians
Stringiamci a coorte!
Siam pronti alla morte.
Siam pronti alla morte,
Singing “let us unite, we are ready to die, we are ready to die, Italy calls”, it is no wonder the players’ faces exhibit limitless pride and courage when singing the national anthem, named Il Canto Degli Italiani, meaning the song of the Italians. Many have pinned Italy to be the dark horse for the Euros. This is disrespect towards the player, the fans, and what Mancini has achieved.
Gil Azzurri have an infantry comparable to the best, recent form that puts the world champions to shame, one of the most passionate footballing nations at their back, and a manager who knows exactly what he is doing at the helm of it. At the very least, the Italians and Mancini have the clear potential to finish among the top three.