There is perhaps some irony seeing Claudio Marchisio showing off his new Zenit St Petersburg shirt just days before the latest outing for the Italian national team.
When the former Juventus man pulls on the sky blue kit of the Russian Premier League side, he will no longer wear the No.8 shirt that had long been on the back of his Bianconero one. Instead it will be a 10, and on Monday evening in Lisbon, the Azzurri lacked both a player fit to wear that most prestigious of numbers and any representative from the midfielder’s former club.
Indeed, Italy’s trip to Portugal – which they lost 1-0 courtesy of a second-half Andre Silva strike – marked the first time since June 1998 that the Azzurri began a game without a single Juve player. They did so because Roberto Mancini had decided to rotate his squad, claiming at his pre-match press conference that he didn’t want to “put anyone at risk” of injury with two games in quick succession so early in the season.
While the solidity provided by Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini was sorely missed, it was good to see Alessio Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara tested together, the young Milan duo surely set to be the backbone of the side for years to come.
Yet more than anyone in defence, it was a creative attacking force – the kind worthy of the No.10 shirt – that the Azzurri so desperately needed. Still only 20 years old, Federico Chiesa needs time to work on his decision-making and could well blossom into such a player, but in fielding both Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza alongside the Fiorentina man, Mancini negated the strengths of all three men.
For La Viola, Chiesa is an unpredictable livewire, regularly swapping flanks with the team’s other winger or popping up in the centre behind the strikers. With two out-and-out strikers on the pitch, he had nobody to exchange spots with, nobody to go deep for the ball and instead found two team-mates looking to occupy the same space and make the same runs.
Behind them, Jorginho’s ability on the ball was nullified because his team could not win it back, both Bryan Cristante and Giacomo Bonaventura looking desperately off the pace for large portions of the match. The play never flowed, Mancini’s game plan was impossible to decipher and there was nobody to link midfield and attack, a disjointed team that lacked both direction and invention throughout the 90 minutes.
Looking at the options available beyond Monday evening, it is difficult to see where Mancini can pin his hopes. Marco Verratti has shown in Paris that he is an elite level player, but he has rarely ever demonstrated that for the national team, while Federico Bernardeschi is yet to even become a regular member of the Juve starting XI.
Even if Mancini can unlock the immense potential of a front three that could include Lorenzo Insigne, Mario Balotelli and Chiesa, he will still need to find answers in midfield in order to supply them with enough ammunition to score goals on a regular basis.
Unlike Zenit, it is not really a No.10 they need, but a younger Claudio Marchisio, a midfielder who can break the lines, push the ball forward and bridge the gap between attack and defence. Until they find one, Italy will continue to struggle.