Mancini’s Italy show there is another way

When it was put to Gareth Southgate that his full-backs were playing too defensively, it was revealing that he soon reached for the example of France. The 2018 World Cup winners are clearly the template for the England manager and understandably so.

Southgate is a student of the game, more pragmatist than philosopher, and he has observed what works. Didier Deschamps was criticised for going with Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez in Russia but nobody on the Champs-Elysees was bothered after the final.

This has been the lesson of international football for some time. Spain’s front six that won the 2010 World Cup final included five of the same players who would start the Champions League final for Barcelona against Manchester United the following year.

The one difference was that with Vicente Del Bosque unable to call upon Lionel Messi, he sat Xabi Alonso in front of the defence instead. All four knockout games were won by the same 1-0 scoreline. Often sterile but always in control.

The message: this is how winning is done.

It is not just history that is written by the winners but the future too. With that in mind, perhaps fans of the international game should be cheering on Italy now. Roberto Mancini has shown that the possibility of a more expansive approach remains. There is another way.

Italy are the only team at Euro 2020 to win all three of their group games without conceding a goal but it has been anything but conservative. They boast the best goal difference, have had the most shots and have attempted the most through-balls at the tournament.

Italy squad
Image: Italy are on a 30-game unbeaten run going into their game against Austria

Right from the opening night when Andrea Bocelli belted out Nessun Dorma at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, they seem to have been having the most fun. It is the country’s first taste of hosting a major finals since Italia ’90 and the players are revelling in it. The coach too.

Mancini’s own redemption arc is a seductive one. His was an unfulfilled playing career with the Azzurri, never making it off the bench at that World Cup in 1990. He is making up for it now and anyone suggesting this is an overreaction to three wins should look deeper.

It is 11 wins in a row for Italy now, in which they have scored 32 times without reply. The sequence of games without a defeat has been extended to 30 going into their last-16 game against Austria. Bigger tests are to come but momentum is with Mancini’s men.

He has been helped by a lowering of expectations. Italy did not even qualify for the World Cup in 2018 and have not reached the knockout stages since winning it 15 years ago. Freed somewhat by the weight of history, the time was right to embrace a new team.

Manuel Locatelli made 36 appearances for Sassuolo last season
Image: Manuel Locatelli has been a key figure in the heart of Italy’s midfield

In doing so, a familiar swagger has returned, a sense of optimism embodied by the Sassuolo duo of Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi. The enthusiastic running of Leonardo Spinazzola, entrusted with a marauding role from left-back, has been a feature.

That the 28-year-old Roma man has emerged as a star owes as much to the system as the individual gifts of the player. It reflects Mancini’s work, something that is also evident in the rotations in midfield, the sophisticated movements in attack and the switches of play.

Leonardo Spinazzola has had an unusually attacking role for Italy from left-back at Euro 2020
Image: Leonardo Spinazzola has had an unusually attacking role from left-back

Italy’s football is making a nonsense of the suggestion that the paucity of ambition shown by others is a necessity due to the lack of time that international coaches have to work with their players. There is another possibility: that it reflects the limitations of those coaches.

Compare the credentials. Mancini’s stock may have declined following stints at Galatasaray and Zenit Saint Petersburg either side of his second spell with Inter. But he has still won more titles in major leagues than the other 23 coaches at Euro 2020 put together.

The view has taken hold that international football is a different animal. This is a role that demands diplomacy. A world where knowledge of tournament logistics is perceived to be almost as important as the tactical nous that an elite coach can bring.

Mancini’s abrasive nature might have made him ill-suited for a job that is widely seen to require a more sanguine approach. But the word is that he has mellowed and the result is that Italy find themselves with a coach who has brought style on the pitch and off it.

Could his success change the thinking? That will depend on what happens next. Italy could yet become another statistic. The history of this tournament is littered with examples of teams who burned brightly but briefly, their legacy extinguished in the process.

At Euro 2008, the Netherlands were the outstanding team until they were surprisingly beaten by Russia in the quarter-finals. Four years on and Russia captured the imagination with an emphatic 4-1 win over the Czech Republic but did not even make it out of the group.

If Italy are stifled by Austria or picked off by Portugal, knowing glances will be exchanged, the status quo preserved. But if they can extend that winning run to 15 games, the accepted wisdom will be challenged. Southgate and his ilk will have a new template to copy.

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