In November 2017, coming out of the 2018 World Cup play-off defeat, the Italian Federation went through a major sporting crisis. Italy’s absence for football’s biggest competition was seen as a humiliation. We had to rebuild everything, say goodbye to important players and start a new cycle for the Euro.
Enthusiasm. This is the keyword recited for months among the Italian coach, players and observers. “Since Roberto Mancini has been here, we have had a different mood and enthusiasm which can take us far,” Leonardo Bonucci explained after the game against Northern Ireland in March. “What I like most about this team is its enthusiasm, its freshness,” judged legend Gigi Riva, winner of Euro 1968, on May 25. “We have to bring enthusiasm,” said Roberto Mancini after the preparation match against San Marino a few days ago. This is one of the secrets of the renewal of the Nazionale: enthusiasm.
Erase trauma to start again
The two years between the last Euro and the last World Cup were difficult. After the quarter-final of the Euro in France – a kind of miracle achieved by Antonio Conte with an average group – the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup brought Italy to one knee. The two years of Gian Piero Ventura were poor in the game, in the state of mind and in the renewal.
Everyone still remembers this Italy with an average age of 31 years, one month and 16 days when the jump-off went to Sweden. Buffon, Chiellini, Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi… well-packed thirties! Italy was one of the oldest selections in Europe. This team struggled in the face of the opposing intensity, struggled to put in its game, and found itself powerless, with narrow victories against Albania and Israel, a draw against Macedonia and a heavy defeat against Spain. Even the state of mind was lacking in a selection that has built so much success thanks to its personality on the pitch. The inexorable feeling that Italy was going straight into the wall haunted the minds of all supporters, to the point of taking it in the face.
Roberto Mancini arrived at sporting ruins and wanted to turn the page very quickly. First of a generation, but also of the feeling of nausea, anger or worse, indifference which inhabited many tifosi.
Fresh blood to rejuvenate
Between 2017 and 2021, the average age of the selection lost between three and five years depending on the games, the players present and those absent due to injury. Andrea Barzagli, Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi have retired internationally after so many good services. The various Candreva, Parolo and Eder were no longer recalled by Roberto Mancini who undertook an important generational change.
The Italian coach then took the time to make very large groups to test many players. Where many selections traditionally counted around 23 called for each international session, Mancini happily exceeded 30 systematically. This is how 35 new players received their first summons to Nazionale between May 2018 and May 2021. Some have disappeared (Tonelli, Benassi, Mirante), others have played their first minutes (Pellegri, Lazzari, Kean, Orsolini … ) and eight of them will even be in the game at the Euro, such as Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli, Rafael Toloi, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Alessandro Bastoni, Giacomo Raspadori, Matteo Pessina and Alex Meret.
In the seven midfielders called for the Euro, the oldest is Jorginho, 29 years old. Barella, Locatelli and Pellegrini are even under 25 years old. Of the 26 players called up, only seven have reached or exceeded their thirties: Sirigu, Chiellini, Acerbi, Bonucci, Florenzi, Toloi and Immobile.
The strong symbol of this rejuvenation policy is to be sought in September 2018. Four months after his arrival at the head of the Italian selection, Roberto Mancini summons Nicolo Zaniolo. The young Roma attacking midfielder has yet to play a professional game, but the manager knows him and wants to assess his potential more closely. The technician is attacked by part of the press, some even arguing that “the Nazionale deserves a little more respect.” The explosion a few months later of the young player proves the coach right.
Play to seduce
Roberto Mancini had announced it and he kept his word. Italy had to go through its own revolution. While carrying out his policy of rejuvenation, the Italian coach worked on his game system. Around a 4-3-3 that has become immutable, Italy has reorganized, put aside its system of three defenders (even if he happens to build the game to three from the defense in certain phases and in certain match configurations) and found an offensive momentum. To mend the tifosi with their Nazionale, nothing like a conquering spirit with courage and enthusiasm. Restoring the taste and the desire to follow this selection, this is what Mancini has achieved.
The coach insisted on the need to have a possession team, not afraid to take risks and playing with two playmakers (Jorginho and Verratti, or Locatelli when one of the two is unavailable) responsible for imposing the rhythm, to confiscate the ball, to orient the play and to find pass lines to advance the ball. Among the other precepts of the former coach of Inter and Manchester City, the need to build from the goalkeeper and the desire to have players of projections on the offensive phases with attacking full-backs, often represented by Florenzi and Spinazzola.
The team obtained excellent results with this philosophy of play and even scored teams of the lowest European level with 6-0, 7-0 or even a 9-1 passed to Armenia. It may make you smile or may seem obvious when we face the Armenians, the Moldovans or the San Marino, but the history of the Nazionale has taught us that these river scores were not usual, let alone when four wins by at least six goals are achieved in the space of a little over two years.
Victories to leap forward
Just after the arrival of Roberto Mancini at the head of the Nazionale and the end of the 2018 World Cup, Italy was in 21st place in the FIFA rankings. The lowest place in its history. Three years later, thanks to the coach’s work and good results, Italy did a good job and regained the Top 10. They are currently ranked seventh.
The Italian selection has not only brought about a rejuvenation and a change in its style of play, it has accompanied these changes with good results which have validated this strategy. Italy remain on 27 consecutive games without defeat. The last setback dates back to the match in Portugal in the Nations League, in September 2018. Since then, the Azzurri have not experienced defeat.
They completed their Euro 2020 qualifying group with three matchdays remaining and posted a remarkable 10/10 with 10 wins in as many games. The Italians have also qualified for the final phase of the 2020-2021 Nations League which will be played in October. They will face Spain in San Siro.
Play, enthusiasm, broad rejuvenation and results, this is Roberto Mancini’s recipe for restoring confidence to a group marked by the failure of November 2017. By working in depth on this Nazionale, he not only gave back the smile at his players, but he also sparked a new wave of sympathy among the tifosi. It does not yet win a title, but it allows you to travel with a light heart.