The strangest element of Italy’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup was that it wasn't that strange – many saw something like this coming. Handed the toughest available draw alongside Spain in qualifying, they finished second before once again being handed the sternest possible test in the play-offs, where they lost 1-0 on aggregate to Sweden.
Along the way there was an inability to move on from a surprisingly successful Euro 2016 and admit the failings of previous tournaments, an unwillingness to blood young players, and – most importantly – utter rigidity, even in the face of defeat.
Gian Piero Ventura, the coach who oversaw the shambles, has, belatedly, stated he is open to resigning. Fans want him to go, but they don’t want the overhaul to stop there – those above the former Torino boss must take responsibility for a disastrous campaign that ended with Italy being absent from a World Cup for the first time in 60 years.
Here Football Whispers dissects what went wrong for the Azzurri, and what must happen to ensure the same doesn’t happen again in future.
WHAT WENT WRONG FOR ITALY?
Antonio Conte led Italy to the last eight at Euro 2016 just weeks after pundits and supporters had collectively written off his squad as the worst in the country’s history. To be fair, the analysis wasn’t off the mark – the Chelsea boss worked wonders to squeeze every last ounce of performance from a deeply underwhelming group of players.
His selection didn’t reflect the quality available, however. Indeed, much of the criticism surrounding his squad centred not on the lack of talent, but Conte’s unwillingness or inability to recognise it.
He chose specific individuals for his specific system – runners and workers – and they played with frenzied commitment and extraordinary organisation to make up for the deficiencies elsewhere.
That selection policy needed to change post-Euro 2016, but Ventura didn’t implement the necessary alterations, seemingly paralysed by the mounting pressure on his shoulders. Time stood still, and Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Parolo and Eder, among others, kept their places.
In the 0-0 draw at home to Sweden that sealed Italy’s fate, the average age of the starting XI Ventura sent out was exactly 30. Not one single player wearing blue was under the age of 25, while six were aged 30 or older. Four of them – Barzagli, De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon, and Giorgio Chiellini – retired from international football immediately afterwards.
The lack of succession planning was accompanied by severe tactical failings, as the coach attempted to impose tactics that had worked well for a mid-table Torino outfit on the country’s finest players. His 4-2-4 was exposed in the heavy 3-0 defeat away to Spain, while his insistence on 3-5-2 in the play-offs led to a creative shortfall and ineffective direct balls pumped into a grateful Swedish defence.
Lorenzo Insigne, who is one of the most important members of the most productive attacks in Serie A, was left in his tracksuit as Italy slogged out a 0-0 draw against Sweden. De Rossi, when told to go on, pointed to the Napoli winger and, with anger in his eyes, responded: “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win.”
Evidently, then, the players had lost faith in Ventura long before the final whistle came on the Azzurri’s most painful evening for many years. Sky Italia have since reported that the coach told his players they should pick the team and threatened to resign following the 1-0 defeat in the play-off first leg.
A lack of long-termism, combined with poor tactical choices, declining squad harmony and a tough draw, was enough to ensure Italy missed out on a major international tournament for the first time since 1992. So, what next?
WHAT ITALY MUST DO TO IMPROVE
The sight of Buffon in tears following his last international game may well haunt Italian football for some time, though there are grounds for optimism. The most important decision will be hiring a new head coach, as much of the blame for the Azzurri’s current malaise can be laid at Ventura’s feet.
The most obvious, and perhaps most realistic, candidate for the job is Carlo Ancelotti. Bild have reported that the experienced former Bayern Munich boss will soon begin contract talks with the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) regarding the role.
Ancelotti’s first major coaching experience came as assistant to Arrigo Sacchi with the Italy national team at the 1994 World Cup. Since then he has gone on to manage and win in all of Europe’s top leagues, though he is currently free following his dismissal by Bayern.
He’s wise, widely respected, and is renowned for his man management. That, as well as the fact he’s available, make him the perfect candidate on paper. Others, including Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri, Napoli’s Maurizio Sarri and Lazio's Simone Inzaghi, would all be outstanding appointments, though all three have work to do at club level.
Should Conte leave Chelsea in the near future, as reports have suggested he might, his return may also be considered. However, he struggled with the nature of international management and, without the same core of mature players to pick from, could find it difficult to implement the regeneration necessary.
Whoever is appointed as Ventura’s successor, the emphasis has to be spread between the here and now and competing at future tournaments; the goal cannot simply be to qualify for Euro 2020. Fortunately, there exists a great deal of promise within the domestic game.
Earlier this year Italy’s youngsters reached the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship and finished third at the U-20 World Cup. The next generation are ready to step up, and many are already starring at club level.
Gianluigi Donnarumma, at 18 years of age, will take Buffon’s place. In front of him, the BBC of Leonardo Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini has been decimated by retirements of the latter two and the former’s lack of form. Daniele Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara – all under the age of 24 – should now be trusted at senior level.
In midfield, Jorginho showed his quality against Sweden in what was his first competitive game for Italy. How it took so long for him to succeed De Rossi is anyone’s guess, but he is at least in position for the next campaign. Excitingly, he has two possible successors in 20-year-old Rolando Mandragora and 19-year-old Manuel Locatelli, of Juventus and AC Milan respectively.
At 25 and 26 years old, Marco Verratti and Insigne – former team-mates at Pescara – should be expected to lead the new-look Azzurri. Both have been seen as the future for years; now they can be joined in creating chances by versatile 23-year-old Federico Bernardeschi, dynamic 21-year-old Lorenzo Pellegrini and energetic 20-year-old Federico Chiesa.
Meanwhile, up front Andrea Belotti, currently 23 years of age, will be entrusted to lead the line. His combination of aerial ability, aggression, hold-up play and powerful finishing make him the ideal choice of striker for an Azzurri side that should focus more on building possession through the thirds than on long balls.
Italy’s footballing future does not appear as bleak as many may think it should following on from their failure to qualify for the World Cup. A highly promising crop of young players, if given the right leadership and utilised within an appropriate tactical system, can ensure the country once again challenges on the international stage soon.