The Azzurri – What has gone wrong for the Italian National Team

Azzurri | FI

Top 10 features the top ten stories from the previous month from across the footballing world. The featured articles may be about a massive headline or a result from the previous month, or a culmination of a particular story that needs to definitely be noticed and discussed about. This feature is to bring a different flavor to the breaking news we see and talk to others about and aimed at constructively looking at the point in discussion. The stats used in the article below are accurate as of November 30, 2017.

Every jungle needs a wolf for it symbolizes the tenacious, dangerous and a pragmatic warrior. The wolf sets traps for its opponents and it reacts based on how the opponents act. Bringing this analogy to football, the one country which comes closest to the wolf is the Italian national football team. A jungle without wolf will lack the charisma and the sheer valor just like what the 2018 FIFA World Cup, to be held in Russia, will miss. The Italian pragmatism, their art of defending, their perseverance and the unconventional beauty the Azzurri bring to the game will be sorely missed.

The failure of Italy to qualify for the World Cup has caused more disbelief than anguish as the Italians are always dark horses in World Cups and as a team that should never be taken so lightly. The Italians will not be playing at the footballing showpiece for the first time in 60 years. The last time Italy had failed to qualify for the event was in 1958, 60 years ago- a tournament where a certain Brazilian teenager named Pele was preparing to play his first World Cup and Brazil, the greatest country in football, had yet to claim their first ever world title. In an autumn full of qualifying casualties, Italy, 4 time World Champion, will join Netherlands, United States, Chile and Ghana as the major absentees from the tournament.

This article will discuss the reasons behind the Italian debacle job in the qualifiers.

Ever since their victory in the 2006 World Cup, Italy have been under-performing in the international stage barring the Euro 2012 where they finished runners up to Spain. They have not performed to their usual standards in any other tournaments, especially in the World Cups being knocked out of the group stages in 2010 and 2014. They managed to reach the quarterfinals of the Euro 2016 under the guidance of Antonio Conte who needs to be given due credit for getting the best out of a relatively mediocre squad. However the problems don’t exist only with the squad, it stretches farther down, to both the personnel on and off the pitch.

Inefficiency and incompetence at the top

After Italy’s 2014 WC disaster, Cesare Prandelli and the then President of Italian federation paved way for Antonio Conte and Carlo Tavecchio, but little has changed since. Gian Piero Ventura took over from Antonio Conte after the Euros 2016. Tavecchio promised to follow the German football model at grassroots level and open national football centers across the country. Only 30 have been opened, 10 in the last 2 months which falls way short of the 200 projected. His other promise to reduce Serie A from a 20 to an 18-team league, prioritizing quality over quantity, has also gone disappeared. Bottom half clubs would be in a situation where they are like turkeys being asked to vote for Christmas. Governed by self-interest, the Italian system needs a major overhaul and a restructure.

Appointment of Ventura

The appointment of Gian Piero Venture created shock waves in the Italian footballing fraternity. While former Inter Milan and Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini was one of the few choices, the job went to Ventura – a 67-year old whose biggest achievement till that point was winning the Serie C (Italian third division) with Italian side Lecce. Gian Piero Ventura was given the Italy job after five excellent years at Torino, whom he took from Serie B in 2011 to the Europa League in 2015. In 2014 he led the club to seventh in Serie A, their best league position since 1992, and gave them their first win over hated local rivals Juventus in two decades. Nonetheless, he was not really an inspiring replacement for Antonio Conte, a three-time Serie A winner who dragged a rag-tag Italy to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 only due to his alchemic intensity. Ventura was a 68-year-old who had never managed one of Serie A’s ‘big’ teams and had only the 1996 Serie C title in his trophy cabinet. A team like the Azzurri, champions in four World Cups and two European Championships, needed a manager with a bigger reputation and better record in the upper echelons of the game; someone who could handle the squad more efficiently and instill discipline in the squad- something that Conte was able to do so very well in the Euros last year.

To put it in short, Ventura has never won a major club title, has served 19 different teams in a nomadic four decades, has never coached a major Italian club power and has very little to zero experience in Europe.  Ventura’s success has been down to over-performing with small clubs and exceeding very limited expectations and that is simply not the case when managing one of the great international teams in the world.

Baffling tactics, squad selection and lack of identity

One should not forget that Italy weren’t too bad in their group games barring the 3-0 loss to Spain. Drawing Spain in their group is just ill-luck and an element of misfortune; a team can be excused for not finishing at the top of the group when they finish second to Spain. But then again, the manner of their 3-0 loss to Spain in the group game was not something you would expect from a side that would like to be recognized as a top international one. The 4-2-4 was totally overrun by the Spanish midfield and the manner of the defeat was more indicative of Ventura’s poor dabbling of tactics rather than the score-line in itself.

Plaing a 3-5-2 when your most imaginative and influential player is a winger makes no sense. Ventura opted to field two strikers preferably Ciro Immobile and one of Andrea Belotti/Manolo Gabbiadini. Immobile was Italy’s leading goal scorer with 6 goals. But despite this the team lacked the cutting edge and a dynamic playmaker which is highly necessary for a top team.  Apart from the three center backs, the rest of the team was never constant which consequently resulted in a less stable and a highly non-cohesive side. This showed Ventura’s inexperience at the highest level as he failed to find a settled team or tactics as the qualifying campaign unfolded.

The coach’s mishandling of Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne angered the senior players, with Ventura refusing to play an attacking triumvirate that would have got the best out of wing dynamo Insigne with a midfield three that would have mirrored the system which saw the pair shine at Napoli. Instead Ventura flip-flopped between formations and ignored Jorginho for almost two years before throwing him into the fray against Sweden in the second leg with Italy’s World Cup hopes hanging by a thread. Giving Insigne 14 minutes in midfield in the first leg of the play-off in Sweden and not playing him at all in the second leg infuriated fans and left Roma captain Daniele De Rossi openly bemused on the bench. Italy used three different systems in their past four games constantly having a change and players who had never previously been considered like Simone Verdi, Jorginho, and Manolo Gabbiadini were thrown in at the deep end and most of them were simply not good enough to play at the top level.

Ignoring the youngsters: over-reliance on the senior players 

It is no coincidence that Italy’s starting XI in the second leg contained six players over the age of 30; for the first leg in Stockholm, the number was seven, of which four were 33 or older. This is an ageing side, and that fact usually points to a dearth of talent. But that is not the case for Italy as they have abundance in youth talent- something that is indicative of the fact that all is not doomed for the Azzurri.

Players cannot be directly replaced, but in Italy, it is almost certain that their defensive line will keep resurrecting itself by way of Ra’s Al Ghul’s Lazarus pit. Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Canavarro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Franco Baresi have all been replaced at some point of time. Georgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci appear ageless, but they are bound to get old. And their replacements touted to be Mattia Caldara, Daniele Rugani and Alessandro Romagnoli are inexperienced and are nowhere to be found regularly in the national team set up.  Further up in the middle of the park, the losses of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio have not been adequately covered over time although Marco Verratti has played there regularly. Unfortunately for the Azzurri, the playmaker quite does not seem to find form while playing for the national team.

Buy an iconic Paolo Maldini poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic Paolo Maldini poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

It is true that the current crop of Italian youngsters aren’t close to the caliber of the 2006 team but still there is an array of exciting talent to pick from. However Ventura ignored them. Players like Federico Bernardeschi, Jorginho, Leonardo Spinnazola, Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Pellegrini all played almost no part in the qualification. They could have been given more chances to prove their mettle. Rather, a better and properly structured scheme could have been in place to integrate some of these youngsters into the national team and build an exciting and well performing squad.

The culmination of all these factors resulted in the tragic downfall of the Italian national team. There have been calls to reduce the number of foreigners playing in the league and give more importance to Italians but then again even the top leagues of the previous champions Germany and Spain possess a huge number of foreign players. Playing with players from other countries will some way or the other improve the Italian players. Football at the grassroots is what is to be changed. Proper management at the top level is something that has to be taken care of.

For once it is hard to digest that Italy, a country revered for its continuous production of goalkeepers and defenders, the country which takes pride in developing the historic Catenaccio system, the country which gave us geniuses like Andrea Pirlo, Roberto Baggio etc, the country most famous for its iconic blue jerseys and the country most famous for its dodgy pragmatism and defensive discipline will be missed next summer.