Not a single thing worked for Italy at the Bernabeu, as gamble after gamble back-fired spectacularly on Giampiero Ventura. What is perhaps even more worrying than the 3-0 defeat and upcoming World Cup play-off is that the CT doesn’t seem to have learned any lessons from the present or past, so is doomed to repeat these mistakes in future as well. Everything the Azzurri did ran counter to received wisdom.
Spain have traditionally struggled against a three-man defence with packed midfield, everyone knows this, and even Ventura switched to that approach midway through last year’s 1-1 draw in Turin to great effect. So using a team with no midfield at all was just asking for trouble. Marco Verratti gets older, his price-tag gets higher, but he still makes the same stupid rash challenges and is shrugged off when he does attempt to stay on his feet. In some ways, he hasn’t progressed at all since moving to Paris Saint-Germain, and I’m starting to wonder if he ever will.
Ventura spent months complaining that this fixture was set for September 2, when only two Serie A rounds would be played, as he wanted a squad with better match fitness. So he picks Leonardo Spinazzola, who hasn’t managed a single minute of pre-season football with Atalanta due to a contract dispute, and barely-used Matteo Darmian on the other flank.
Lorenzo Insigne has been sensational so far this term and started training early for Napoli’s Champions League play-offs. He had to be the danger man we were all looking to in order to create problems for the fragile Spanish defence. So why did all the Italian moves go down the right, leaving Insigne totally isolated? It was the equivalent of bringing a soprano on to the stage and putting them on backing vocals.
Ventura continues to insist the 4-2-4 project must be worked on to grow, but there is such a thing as tactical nous in a big match and adjusting to counter your opponent’s strengths. The CT seems to believe sticking to your guns is more important than learning from mistakes, but that kind of tactical fundamentalism can only lead to disaster.
Having said all of that, let’s just confront some of the criticism too. Gigi Buffon’s positioning was poor on the free kick, but let’s not suddenly say he’s past it and should be replaced by Gianluigi Donnarumma. The man just received the award for Champions League Goalkeeper of the Season and Donnarumma was dismal at the European Under-21 Championship. It’s comical to see some complain about Buffon’s passing when the Milan teenager is far worse in that area.
Those who say Insigne chokes in big games – he scored against Spain last time out, he scored against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, but he was simply given no service and played out of position. That is hardly his fault. Ventura is also perfectly right to point out only 24 hours ago everyone was protesting that a 3-4-1-2 system would mean dropping Insigne to the bench, then the same keyboard warriors complained at the 4-2-4. The CT had his bravery commended for playing four strikers in Spain, only to be called foolhardy 90 minutes later.
Giorgio Chiellini’s latest calf injury threw a massive spanner in the works, because until that point, Ventura had been using a three-man defence in training. He should’ve stuck to the plan, but Chiellini is not an easy man to replace and even Max Allegri doesn’t appear to have much faith in Daniele Rugani.
It should be the job of the national team boss to take the best from his league and help form a representative unit. Nobody plays 4-2-4 in Serie A, and even 4-4-2 is dying out. We see the 4-3-3 going from strength to strength, or variations of it, so why not move in that direction? On the other hand, do not call for Antonio Conte’s swift return and complain that Jorginho isn’t used, because Ventura is hardly the first Azzurri boss to ignore the Napoli midfielder. Suddenly people forget the problems of the Conte era – the negative defend and counter tactics, refusal to trust young players, focus on grit over quality. Don’t pretend it was some golden age of calcio, because it really wasn’t.
Hindsight is 20-20 and, ultimately, we knew it would come to this. The moment Italy drew Spain in the same World Cup qualifying group and realised only one could go through automatically, it felt inevitable. The Azzurri lost one match. The method of the defeat was painful, even embarrassing, but it will be worth it if Ventura and the Nazionale can learn from it.