L’Italia Se Desta: Have The Italians Truly Awoken From Their Slumber?
It’s felt like an eternity since the Azzurri last graced a major international tournament.
The last time we saw Italy on the big stage was back in 2016 when they went on an incredible run to the quarter-finals with arguably its weakest ever squad.
However, after the excitement of their French summer it was followed by the darkest period in the history of the national team.
The Azzurri hit their lowest ebb when they shockingly missed out on the 2018 World Cup after losing the ‘unlosable’ two-legged tie against a disciplined Sweden.
However, it was perhaps the jolt in the heart a once dominant force in world football needed to regain their stature among the best.
The scars of that infamous night back in November 2017 still live long in the hearts of the players who slumped to the San Siro turf, and the fans who watched on with a sense of emptiness while 32 teams battled for world supremacy in Russia.
In the embers of their humiliation, the Italians have roared back into action under the guise of Premier League and Serie A winning boss Roberto Mancini.
A perfect qualifying campaign and 27-straight games without a loss has Italy right in the mix to take home their first European Championship since 1968.
Now, the ultimate litmus test awaits – have Italy truly awoken from their slumber?
When Roberto Mancini took over, the Azzurri were a rabble.
Not only did the former Inter and Manchester City manager need to rejuvenate a confidence sapped national team but also reinstall belief among a beleaguered fan-base.
Mancini has stripped Italy of their defensive nature, abolishing ‘catenaccio’ and looking to implement his own brand of attacking, expansive football – a showcase of the changing of the times along with a heap of new personnel in the squad.
It took the best part of a year for Mancini to fully implement his DNA on the squad but once the cogs began turning following their Nations League loss to Portugal in September 2018 – Italy have not looked back.
Since that loss, the Azzurri have completely flipped the script, running rough-shot through Euros Qualifying – going perfect in all ten games.
Comparatively, Italy under Antonio Conte went undefeated in the 2016 carnation but only scored 16 goals in ten games compared to Mancini’s Azzurri who banged in 37 – the highest scoring tally by any Italian side in any qualifying campaign.
In the process they didn’t sacrifice their ability to keep side’s out, only conceding four goals throughout qualifying and having not picked one out of their own net since October 2020.
There's a good mix of experience and youth in Roberto Mancini’s squad.
Among the 26, only seven players featured five years ago back in 2016 with many of the new faces emerging upon Mancini taking over.
Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are among those who were part of their run to the quarter finals back in 2016, providing intangible experience and leadership to a much younger side to Italian squads of the past.
At the other end of the spectrum, surprise selection Giacamo Raspadori is the youngest member of the squad at only 21 – capping off a breakout season at Sassuolo.
HOW THEY PLAY
As mentioned, this is not the Italy of old.
Gone are the days of rigid formations and playing with the sole intent to frustrate, hit on the counter and come away with just enough to get the job done.
This is an Italian side who are expansive, disciplined and most of all – attacking.
Mancini’s moved away from Conte and Gian Piero Ventura’s 3-5-2 system, bringing in a fluid 4-3-3 set-up which relies heavily on dictating the tempo and using width.
In attack, the Azzurri penetrate sides with numbers.
A full-back will join the front-three as an extra attacker along with the ‘mezzala’ in Nicolo Barellato create an overload.
The winger on the same side as the overlapping full-back will then tuck in closer to the number nine and force the surplus winger to the touch-line – creating a 3-2-5 set-up in attack.
A lot relies as well on the midfield three, which utilises a deep-lying playmaker in Jorginho or Marco Verratti who dictate proceedings from deep, and a third dynamic midfielder which looks set to be Manuel Locatelli who's set to join Juventus post-Euros.
Defensively, the Italians press high, looking to lock the ball in their attacking-third and winning it back quickly instead of sitting off their opponents – and their brand has worked in spades so far.
In games played this calendar year alone, the Azzurri have peppered opposition goals – firing an average of 22.8 shots per game for a return of 17 goals in five games.
At the other end they only conceded 5.8 shots a game and no goals in that period.
Turkey, Wales and Switzerland all present difficult propositions for Roberto Mancini’s side but the Azzurri should still be too strong for their opponents. Currently, the Stats Insider futures model has the Italians as a 57.4% chance of making the Quarter-Finals, and an 8.2% chance of winning their second-ever European crown.
Top spot is a must if they’re going to go deep, but the true test will be beyond the group stage when they take on Europe’s strongest nations.
However, we shouldn’t discount their credentials among the heavyweights.
There’s a feeling that this is not the Italy of old. There’s a different swagger, a new mentality and a thirst for redemption after the embarrassment of 2018.
They have a top five goal-keeper in the world, a rock-solid defence and a dynamic midfield.
The critics will still be out about who leads the line, but the Italian system has seen them not solely rely on one of Ciro Immobile or Andrea Belotti to bang in the goals.
Should one of them fire, then they’ll morph themselves from just being a contender to an outright favourite.
In saying that, they're still my tip to go all the way.
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