When the Azzurri take on Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in next year's Euro 2020/2021, it will mark a big return to international competition for the Italian national team. In 2018, Italy was absent from the sparkling Russian World Cup. It was the first time since 1958 that Italy failed to qualify for a major international tournament.
But now Roberto Mancini's side are ahead of 2018 finalists Portugal and Croatia on chances of winning the Euros next year. At 12/1, the Italians are still statistically less likely than Spain, France and England. However, analysts predict that the Azzurri will be much more difficult than Sky Bet suggests.
Whatever happens, it will be a happy summer for fans in Italy, or at least more enjoyable than the nightmare of 2018. The transformation has been remarkable.
Context: Outperformance at EURO 2016
The last tournament the Italian national team played was ironically UEFA's last euro. Almost five years ago Antonio Conte coached a team featuring Graziano Pelle to the quarter-finals. They were beaten on penalties by then world champions Germany.
“Conte's words assail you,” says Italian legend Andrea Pirlo. Conte is a coach like no other. Therefore, when he left after the Chelsea tournament, there was a charismatic void at the top of the Italy national team. Conte had massively outperformed.
In the round of 16 of EURO 2016, Italy claimed a 2-0 victory against a star Spanish side. Vincente de Bosque was armed with Cesc Fabregas, Andreas Iniesta and David Silva. Conte, on the other hand, aligned with his classic three at the back, plus Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi as wing defenders. In addition to the emblematic defensive formation of Chiellini, Bonucci, Barzagli, Buffon, the team lacked quality.
Del Bosque's Spain dominated the ball, with 59 percent of possession. They edged the Italians, 14-11. It took a sloppy goal on a rebound for Italy to lead after 36 minutes. A cross deviated in the 90e minute found its way to Pelle to finish Spain. Part of it was defensive strength, the rest was maybe luck. Italy were similarly dominated against Germany in the quarter-finals. They just didn't have the midfield or the offensive firepower to take control of the games.
The start of the crisis
Following Conte's departure, Italy came under the leadership of a relatively new face on the international stage. His name was Gian Piero Ventura.
Ventura had been much less established and successful than Conte. In a 34-year managerial career until his appointment, the biggest club Ventura managed was Napoli. He took charge of 19 games, being sacked halfway through the 2004/05 season. Ironically, he had also replaced Conte twice before. He was a similar defensive coach.
At first, Ventura stuck three in the back. The first 6 games were a mixed backstroke. Italy beat Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein in the opening matches for the World Cup. However, a 0-0 draw against Germany and a 3-1 loss to France were warning signs.
Above is the starting lineup against France, 1st November 2016. At this point, France's Golden Generation was not yet fully established, but the quality chasm is clear in hindsight. While Italy retained one of the most legendary defenses in modern football, there was a huge problem; the attack.
Ventura clearly tried to solve this problem. He went 4-2-2-2 for the remainder of his 16 games he has supported. In all competitions, Italy has scored 27 and conceded 13. At first glance, it's a solid record. However, 20 of those goals came against Israel, Macedonia, Lichtenstein and Albania. Eight matches were played against Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, Uruguay and the Netherlands from September 2016 to November 2017 (all comps). Italy scored 7 and conceded 9.
In qualifying for the World Cup, Italy had also slipped into smaller matches, drawing 1-1 at home against Macedonia. Those lost points, combined with a loss and a draw against Spain, forced Italy into a dreaded two-way playoff against Sweden in November 2017.
With the press fit, Ventura reverted to a system 3 at the rear. The Italian national team had not used it for almost a year. The games took place over a period of 4 days, one in Stockholm and the other in Milan.
From the 4-2-2-2 he had previously deployed, that three-way system left out a lot of personal attacks. Italy lost 1-0 to Stockholm, recording just 2 shots on target. Their three-way midfield ahead of the three backs included Daniele de Rossi, Marco Parolo and Marco Verratti. The only attackers to leave were Immobile and Belotti. There was a lot of pressure to win the second leg in Milan.
Despite the need to win, Ventura retained a three-way defense. Florenzi entered midfield, along with Jorginho. Antonio Candreva and Mateo Darmian started both matches at the back. It was an unimaginable defensive alignment.
Italy collected only 5 shots on target. They fought for more than 50% possession according to Transfermarkt. They failed to score, succumbed to a 0-0 draw and failed to qualify for the first time since 1958.
During the match, TV cameras caught one of Ventura's assistants asking De Rossi to warm up in the second half. De Rossi was a defensive midfielder. He turned to the assistant and waved, "Why the hell should I continue?" We don't need to draw; we have to win! ". He pointed to Napoli striker Lorenzo Insigne and told the assistant to call Insigne. Daniele De Rossi has never arrived on the field, nor Insigne.
Mancini The salvatore?
After Gianluigi Buffon cried on television, Ventura was severely sacked. The Italian national team was in crisis. After 5 months, the Italian FA seized the former Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini. He took over on May 14e. In his first game, a friendly against Argentina, Mancini made a powerful gesture. He moved to a 4-3-3, far from the tenacious 3-5-2. Lorenzo Insigne started in a 3 front with Immobile and Federico Chiesa. Italy lost 2-0, but progress had started.
Two years later, Mancini's Italy qualified for EURO 2020/21. In their group, Italy conceded just 4 goals in 10 wins in 10 games. They have also scored 37 goals in this period. This flawless form came from a stubborn marriage to the 4-3-3, with Jorginho regularly present at the base of the midfield. Immobile, Belotti and Moise Kean exchanged in advance. In what was previously an uninspiring midfielder, Italy now has the fantastic Stefano Sensi and Lorenzo Pellegrini. Behind them, Sandro Tonali and Manuel Locatelli are eager to impress.
In recent performances, like the duo match against the Netherlands, the Italian national team have shown new extraterrestrial issues. In defense, Italy seems vulnerable. They were lucky to escape with a low number of goals. At first, however, there was an injection of rhythm and excitement. Just Nico Barella's incredible team goal against the Dutch is enough to make some of the 2018 pain worth murdering. Italy is now, ironically, an attacking monster.
If you feel like discussing more about EURO 2020/21 next year, check out EURO WATCH. Click here to listen to a more in-depth discussion of Italian prospects, as well as a more current Belgian side.
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