Gigi Di Biagio named one of the strongest ever squads for the European Under-21 Championship, including the likes of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Federico Bernardeschi, Domenico Berardi, Andrea Conti and Roberto Gagliardini. Several of them won’t be able to join up with their teammates because they’re already on international duty for the senior Italy side.
The friendlies against San Marino, won 8-0 last week, and tonight’s Uruguay outing do present some cross-over for the two generations of Azzurri.
Eight debutants started last week’s 8-0 win over San Marino, with the other players boasting just three caps between them. And yet, despite the limited strength of their opposition, the match provided a key opportunity for CT Giampiero Ventura to learn more about his team.
Ventura has locked in the 4-2-4 formation. This offensively tweaked 4-4-2 has long been a favourite of the Genovese tactician, and so it was more a case of when he would implement it, rather than if. The fact that the experimental side fielded against San Marino set up in this formation suggests that Ventura’s ideology is now firmly in place.
In the Azzurri’s only previous run-out with the 4-2-4, a 4-0 win over Lichtenstein, Ventura showed that the formation was equally suited to his strongest XI. With two world-class centre-backs in Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, two creative central-defensive-midfielders, Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti, and two of Italy’s top scorers in Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile, Italy’s strength is in its spine.
With the centre of the pitch covered, the formation allows Ventura the flexibility to affect the game, with his choice of wide players. On one hand, the likes of Antonio Candreva and Jack Bonaventura provide a guarantee of hard work and defensive rigour, whilst on the other Lorenzo Insigne and Bernardeschi deliver more of an attacking threat.
The match against San Marino, and the ease with which new players adopted the new shape, is testament to the squad depth currently available to Ventura. The hat trick scored by Gianluca Lapadula, following on from a goal in each of his final two Serie A games, is a promising sign for his Coach.
It is not just up-front that Ventura has a wealth of options, as he proved in fielding a team comprised almost entirely of players promoted from the Azzurrini. Yet, this was far from an inexperienced side. As between them, Andrea Petagna, Andrea Conti and Mattia Caldara have over 90 Serie appearances for Atalanta this season.
Not to be outshone by the Bergamo talent factory, Sassuolo, famed for their development of young players, were represented by Berardi, Matteo Politano and Luca Pellegrini.
Berardi, captain on his debut, has already hit the 50-goal mark in Serie A, whilst Politano showed his quality with the strike of the night, a delightful chip from just inside the box. Clearly these are young players ready for the big time.
In fact, with the European Under-21 Championships kicking off on June 16, the number of Azzurrini who were capped against San Marino might’ve caused a conundrum for Di Biagio.
There were reports Milan goalkeeper Donnarumma would not be released for the Under-21 tournament, while Bernardeschi, Caldara, Conti, Gagliardini, Bernardeschi, Berardi and Petagna all arguably belong in the senior squad.
The truly remarkable thing about Di Biagio’s selection is how many of them have a very long future ahead. Donnarumma, Manuel Locatelli and Federico Chiesa are all only 18 years old, so could comfortably have been in the Under-20 World Cup. Italy face England in the semi-finals this week, so the waves of talent coming through in the Peninsula just keep coming.
Tonight’s friendly against Uruguay is a prime opportunity for Ventura to test out his new formation against a high-quality opposition. However, as the likes of Pellegrini and Caldara are in the squad, and with Donnarumma to start, clearly Ventura’s experiments are looking well beyond the short-term and could give beneficial experience to the Under-21 talents.