Prior to Friday evening’s UEFA Nations League group opener versus Poland, Italy had not played a major international match in 10 months.
The cataclysmic failure of not qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup last November meant the Azzurri faithful, and the remnants of the embarrassing Gian Piero Ventura era, had plenty of time for soul-searching at home as everyone focused on Russia. It was the wake-up call both the FIGC and Nazionale needed in hopes of restoring order and re-route the four-time World Cup winners on the right path.
Fast forward, and Roberto Mancini now acts as the CT, having managed one win (vs Saudi Arabia), one loss (vs France) and one draw (vs Netherlands). Albeit friendlies, a lax approach towards these fixtures resulted in Italy being dumped into a more difficult WCQ group so without question, each match holds weight – and Friday’s match with Poland was no exception.
Mancini’s 4-3-3 featured a tasteful blend of veterans and youth, with only captain Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci remaining from the old guard. Flanking the Juventus duo was Davide Zappacosta and Cristiano Biraghi. The midfield, an area starved of world-class difference-makers, contained Roberto Gagliardini, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Chelsea’s Jorginho. Up top, Lorenzo insigne and Federico Bernardeschi supported Mario Balotelli.
On paper, quality was there for Italy to play encouraging football, one with an emphasis on directness and desire to create chances. Yet, the Italians played with anything but attacking verve and inspiration.
Instead, too much time and possession was spent outside of dangerous areas to apply pressure to a Poland side in transition with a new Coach. Beyond the individual errors that summoned Gianluigi Donnarumma to bail out his teammates with two superb saves, Italy’s style of play was casual and lethargic – and this was no more prevalent than in the midfield.
Compounded by the fact both Gagliardini and Pellegrini turned in ineffective shifts, Jorginho uncharacteristically left much to be desired himself. Because of this, it would be wise for Mancini to include Giacomo Bonaventura from the start, as his cameo in the second half helped encourage Italy to stretch the field and open up opportunities going forward.
Italy’s full-back problem persists, and that was quite obvious with the way Biraghi failed to beat the first man to deliver a single decent cross into Balotelli, along with Zappacosta showing why he is not cut out for the National Team. Or at least not in a four-man defence.
Unfortunately for Mancini, much like in the middle of the park, there is little in the way of depth or quality. However, Emerson Palmieri excels at getting into advanced areas and at the very least applying pressure. Expect Mancini to take a real hard look at the former Roma man versus Portugal.
In the first half against Poland, Balotelli touched the ball just 10 times, with just one inside the penalty area. While the Nice hitman was silent, he did not necessarily receive proper service from either Insigne or Bernardeschi.
Considering Italy’s insufficient amount of playmakers, Mancini ought to examine his options in this department, including Federico Chiesa.
Fiorentina’s young ace immediately provided a spark from the bench and that directness Mancini hoped for. The 20-year-old’s quickness and confidence running at defenders ultimately led to not only Italy’s first shot on goal in the 73rd minute, but also the penalty that Jorginho buried shortly after. Based on his brief but influential appearance, Chiesa cannot be left on the bench vs Portugal.
Expecting a complete re-shuffling of the starting XI for Portugal is daft, but there are several switches Mancini must make if Italy are to respond in a positive manner. The Azzurri let Poland’s simple counter-attacking and Piotr Zielinski’s blanketing of Jorginho render their build-up useless, so besides altering the personnel, Mancini needs to change the mindset of the group altogether from one rooted in conservative play to a style with emphasis on taking the game to the opposition.