Italy were one of the surprise teams at Euro 2016, defeating the likes of Belgium and Spain on their way to a quarter-final clash with Germany, where they exited only after an agonising penalty shoot-out. But perhaps what is more surprising than the Azzurri’s progress at the tournament was the fact that such progress was considered a surprise in the first place.
Sure, Italy didn’t invent the game, but they’ve come damn close to perfecting it. They won two of the first three World Cups, dominated European club football for much of the 1960s and have produced some of the most inspiring and influential tactical ideas throughout football history. Italy have always been expected to compete at major international finals and, after their performances this summer against the odds, it will likely be considered illogical to rule them out ever again in future.
This, in a way, is bad news for Giampiero Ventura, who has now taken over as national team manager following Antonio Conte’s departure for Chelsea; he will have high standards to maintain. But the ex-Torino boss is possibly the ideal man for the job at this particular moment in time.
Ventura has taken over from Conte before. When Conte left Bari for Atalanta in 2009 having steered the Galletti to promotion, Ventura came in and ensured the club stayed in Serie A with a comfortable tenth-place finish. He did so while only slightly tweaking Conte’s tactics, introducing greater individuality to the team.
“Thanks to Conte I had a solid base to build on,” Ventura stated. “Both [my and Conte’s 4-4-2 systems] evolved into a 4-2-4 but the difference is that his is built on patterns and a rigid structure, whilst mine allows greater freedom to the players. They are forced to think for themselves a bit more.”
Contismo was one of the predominant themes of Euro 2016, with analysts and fans gawping over Italy’s incredible organisation and team spirit, as well as the unadulterated passion of Conte on the sidelines. The coach’s words and stares were threatening, his movements volcanic. Yet, while Ventura cannot and will not attempt to emulate the personal beliefs and behaviours of Conte, he can and will build on the tactical blueprint laid down by his predecessor.
Just as Conte did with Juventus, Ventura utilised a 3-5-2 shape while in charge of Torino. In possession his back three circulated the ball well with the assistance of a deep-lying midfielder, the wing-backs often pushed high up on each flank, and the two outer central midfielders played important roles in supporting the strike duet. Defensively, they often dropped deep, focused on retaining their shape and forcing the opposition wide through central compactness.
Stylistically, Ventura’s Torino were perhaps less active in the defensive phase, applying less pressure to their opponents, while also being more direct in possession, but all in all their play wasn’t dissimilar to that often seen in Conte’s teams.
One aspect of Ventura’s management that offers real hope is his proclivity for blooding young players. He gave career-changing opportunities to the likes of Leonardo Bonucci at Bari and Matteo Darmian and Ciro Immobile at Torino, all of whom went on to play for the national team at this summer’s championships.
Along with 22-year-old striker Andrea Belotti and 21-year-old central midfielder Marco Benassi, who Ventura developed during his time in Turin, there are a number of exceptional young talents ready to break out onto the international stage, and the new coach could soon bring them into the Italy fold. 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, 21-year-old centre-backs Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli, 22-year-old winger Federico Bernardeschi and 21-year-old forward Domenico Berardi all represent a bright Azzurri future.
Ventura is contracted to Italy for two years, so his primary aims will remain short term. This may put the brakes on his desire to cap the hitherto uncapped, as he strives to negotiate a 2018 World Cup qualification group that includes Spain, but he will no doubt find time to look further ahead.
In the longer term, regardless of who is in charge of the national team, the most interesting development may be what happens to traditional Italian footballing virtues, namely quality defending and tactical thought. The days of rigid man marking and Catenaccio are long gone, but the fundamentals that once underpinned calcio are now gaining a greater foothold in the collective consciousness of the global game.
The advancement of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid to last season’s Champions League final had a certain Italian style about it, so much so that La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a cover story on how the Argentine coach learned his trade from Luigi Simoni during his time at Inter Milan. While that is only part of Simeone’s story, the love with which his Atletico side is held represents a new beginning. No longer is possession-based football the sport’s unopposed pinnacle. It is becoming increasingly acceptable to win without prioritising the ball.
Winning matches in this manner is something most of the great teams to come out of Italy have either wholeheartedly committed themselves to, or have been able to do when necessary. Yet there is a feeling that the Bel Paese and its football clubs are losing this historically successful trait.
Former AC Milan and Italy midfield ball-winner Gennaro Gattuso spoke about this in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Barcelona and Pep Guardiola have created monsters in society and in football coaches,” he argued. “We have gone to copy the others, losing part of our defensive culture, man-marking and the art of goalkeeping. Today many coaches leave Coverciano and go on to do great things, therefore what we have done for 50 years cannot be thrown away. After all, what type of football do [Jose] Mourinho and Simeone implement?”
A quick glance at the current crop of young Italian centre-backs acts as evidence of this trend, albeit vaguely. Beyond the aforementioned Rugani and Romagnoli, there are no outstanding players who could be considered as future candidates for the national team.
The production line of quality defenders may not be operating as well as it once did, however the coaching in Italy remains on a par with that of any other footballing nation. The exploits abroad of Claudio Ranieri, Gianni De Biasi and Carlo Ancelotti have impressed, while all but one of the nineteen head coaches currently employed by Serie A clubs studied at Coverciano, sixteen of whom are Italian.
With continuity and greater long-termism at national team level, favourable global tactical trends and a world class coaching school, the future of the Azzurri looks positive.
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