A resurgent Italy set foot on the international stage a polar opposite team to the shadows of 2018; subsequently becoming a force to be reckoned with under the tutelage of Roberto Mancini.
Where better to start than with Mancini, who became the national team manager in 2018 and has done fantastically well. Some may claim Roberto Mancini has a funny reputation when it comes to management; certainly from English football fans as, despite the success with Manchester City, he certainly was not known as a manager who was forward-thinking even though he was able to maximize the potential of several talented, young players during his time at the helm.
Back in 2018, Italy had just failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and in the previous two World Cups prior to that (2010 and 2014), they failed to qualify from the group stage. They also suffered the heavy blow of veterans Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini retiring — it was well and truly a team in transition.
So, what was Mancini to do? He decided to focus his entire mentality on youth players; something in which has evidently paid off and he deserves an enormous amount of credit for doing so. That was his method from the beginning — the understanding of focusing attention on Euro 2020 and to blood young Italian players, giving them an opportunity to potentially flourish. In fact, Mancini has given debuts to thirty three players, with a high number of those players later becoming key players for this young, exciting squad.
In 2018, the likes of Moise Kean and Nicolò Barella have gone on to play a high number of games with Kean, making his debut aged just 18, with Barella being only 21. In 2019, Gianluca Mancini (no relation to Roberto), just 22, and Sandro Tonali, only 19, were given their first games to name; a trend that would continue. Zaniolo (nineteen) and Locatelli in 2020 making his debut as well all players aged under twenty-three. This new era of players have come in and been handed that opportunity to build and develop together, much like the scenario with runners-up England.
Before the tournament began, results and form had been impressive, slowly building momentum as if you were to go back to Italy’s last competitive defeat, being September of 2018 — a defeat to Portugal in The Nations League. Since then, Italy have subsequently gathered genuine momentum in the competitive games; games that they were previously not winning even though they should have. Much of the new-founded success at the time could easily be attributed to the freedom in their style of play, with the energy in their performances an evident factor.
The previous manager, Gian Piero Ventura, who was incredibly pragmatic in his approach; subsequently stagnated and stunted the Italian side and how they wanted to play, which was showcased in their playoff tie with Sweden as they lost to Blågult (the blue and yellow). Italy needed to win that game and instead of bringing on Lorenzo Insigne, a really exciting winger who showed his deadliness in this summer’s tournament, Danielle De Rossi was brought on — a move De Rossi himself was left asking the manager “Why am I coming on the pitch?”. Therefore, the mismanagement and the lack of trust towards young players eventually cost Ventura his job.
So, how exactly did Italy turn things around? What Mancini structured was a clear idea on how he wanted his team to play, which allowed for performances to improve and brought positive results; allowing them to breed young players and provide them the opportunity and experience to feel comfortable representing such a prestigious team. They consistently played in a 4-3-3 formation under Mancini, where they seemingly knew exactly what was expected of them in each position while also finding the players that suited the position comfortably.
Taking these steps allowed Italy to replace certain players with teammates who shared similar skill sets; something that could be perceived as being slightly inflexible, but for a team that has plenty of young talent to offer, the ability to have a like-for-like replacement means that all the other parts of the team can retain a high level of chemistry.
Italy under Mancini have an incredibly unique midfield setup, utilizing the ‘Mezzala’ role. The Mezzala role is taken from the two Italian words ‘mezza’ and ‘ala’, which constitutes to half-winger. Thus, the Mezzala role pertains to both wide central midfielders working the channels and find the ‘half’ spaces in which is something that you see very rarely in international football because of the amount of coaching time required to implement it.
However, Mancini, with that long-term vision, was able to do implement the role to perfection. This role allows for width while attacking and is beneficial due to Italy’s inverted wingers; allowing the team more freedom, but also getting the best of the players that they have in those positions. Generally, that’s Barella and Marco Verrati, but both having hugely different skill sets despite being so technically gifted.
Nicolò Barella played a key role in the Italian success due to him being arguably one of the best players in terms of suitability for the Mezzala role, which is evident in the fact that he played 21 times for Italy under Mancini before the tournament and contributed 472 minutes of Euro 2020 action as well. A player who is renowned for his ball control, passing ability, passing range, and an impressive work rate as well in defense, but he can also contribute in the attacking third as well with one assist and one goal in the tournament.
The other key role in that midfield was that deep lying ‘six’ role, as again, Italy almost cherry-picked player after player to play that role successfully; almost becoming a culture for the team, with the likes of Andrea Pirlo operating so well and inspiring the future crop of talent (i.e., Locatelli, Tonali, Sensi, etc.).
Young players with potential are always exciting, however, they are exactly that — just potential. Thus Italy made sure to include their fair share of ‘big hitters’ as well to compliment, with these players consisting of Lorenzo Insigne, Marco Verrati, and Ciro Immobile.
Insigne is no doubt in his prime and playing at the peak of his powers whilst living and breathing for playing the inverted winger role for Italy and Napoli alike. Last season, scoring 17 goals from 28 appearances in the league, while also offering eight assists in that time, highlights just how many goal involvements he brings and how integral his attacking influence is to his national team. When digging slightly deeper from there, a 60% dribble success rate accompanied with 9.5 progressive carries per game depicted his sheer importance for Serie A and Italy.
Whilst Marco Verrati was not as clinical with his goals and assists, the midfielder was able to add creativity to the side as his progressive passes (10.2 passes into the final third a game) and accuracy when delivering the ball (99.6 accurate passes per game) exemplified his hunger to move the ball forward; ultimately highlighting his awareness and brilliant vision.
Up top, Ciro Immobile was absolutely crucial. With many seeing him as just a goal scorer due to his 20 league goals in the previous Serie A campaign, he offered 1.7 key passes per game and 3.7 shot creating actions per game; an impressive set of statistics for a 6’1 forward with plenty of pace. If anything, Immobile proved that he is more so an Italian Karim Benzema, offering a lot more than just goals.
To summarize, this Italian team waltzed into the tournament perhaps unknown to their potential success, which acted as a strength; entertaining along their way and maintaining their momentum, rhythm, and consistency throughout.