“Un gol alla Del Piero” is what they call it, but this time it was a certain Lorenzo Insigne that curled a breathtaking shot into the top corner of Sweden ‘keeper Karl-Johan Johnsson’s net instead of the legendary Juventus captain on Tuesday evening. The Napoli striker’s sublime effort only typifies the quality Italy Under-21 Coach Devis Mangia has at his disposal ahead of next year’s European Championships, in an exciting time for the peninsula’s promising youngsters.
The arrival of the former Palermo tactician in July signaled a new chapter for the Azzurrini. Upon replacing alacklustreCiro Ferrara on the sidelines, close collaboration with Cesare Prandelli and the senior team was always going to be the major key to success. “We will follow Prandelli’s style, I am only moulding these young men for the biggest stage,” insisted Mangia during his official unveiling at Coverciano.
An alarmingly low level of exceptional youngsters making the grade over the past several years forced the FIGC to seek reform for the benefit of both the national team and the domestic game. The underage categories were losing sight of their primary objective – delivering players to the senior set-up that could easily adapt to the style of football being played and the level it was expected to be played at every time. Prandelli even suggested creating an Italy Under-21 team that would compete in Serie B, an idea that ultimately never made it past the drawing board.
A lack of playing time at the highest level was the real reason behind the decline, as young players simply could not get a look in at top Italian clubs. “Serie A managers are afraid to use youth as it is seen as too big a risk,” insisted former Milan boss Arrigo Sacchi in June when championing Samuele Longo’s cause at Inter. “A Coach at the top of the Italian League feels he cannot risk youth because if they do not come good and results go sour, as a consequence they could easily lose their job.”
The past year has unearthed a new generation of top Italian talent, however. Serie B champions Pescara brought to light the likes of Insigne, Ciro Immobile and Marco Verratti. Milan have consistently started Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia De Sciglio, while Roma have now got their hands on Mattia Destro and Alessandro Florenzi is the anchor of their midfield. Juventus have Luca Marrone captaining Mangia’s side, although in Turin he is used more as a centre-back than a midfielder.
Fortunately for Italy’s new up-and-comers, there is a different reason behind tacticians giving them a chance. Financial issues have forced many clubs to centre the heart of their team around youth, as expensive alternatives are no longer an option. Milan and Roma in particular are among the clubs that have drastically reduced their average age over the past few months.
Mangia and Prandelli have benefited from Serie A’s newfound dependency on youngsters. The play-off against Sweden was the perfect example of how the pair can work in harmony. Despite the likes of El Shaarawy, Verratti and Destro carrying the Azzurrini through the group stage, all three were whisked away by Prandelli this week for World Cup qualifiers against Armenia and Denmark.
While Italy were shaky at the back against the Scandinavians on Tuesday evening, the loss of their star players mattered little in truth. In place of the trio stepped in the equally capable Insigne, Immobile and Florenzi to guide the side to the tournament to be hosted in Israel next year. All three could easily be in the senior team themselves, and as such they played like they had a point to prove. In an exciting time for Italy’s youngsters, it is up to Prandelli and Mangia to work the system that gets the best out of them.