Italy’s Under-20 side took on their England counterparts in a rematch of the World Cup semi-final in 2017, a game the English won 3-1. Mill Farm, home of AFC Fylde, a team in England’s fifth tier, hosted the game and the facilities impressed the visitors. Many of the team claimed that this was a stadium that would stand proud in Serie B. Before the game, Coach Paolo Nicolato, who was charge of the Azzurrini at the UEFA U-19s European Championship, made it clear that he wanted his team to use this match as a stepping stone towards the World Cup that takes place in Poland next year.
The Azzurrini came into the game on the back of a 3-0 win against Poland in their last outing in Lodz. On that day, Moise Kean stole the show, netting a brace with Gianluca Scamacca also scoring, although only the latter was available for selection with the Juventus man named in the Under-21s against Belgium. Nicolato still had a wide range of talent to choose from, as Inter’s on-loan striker Andrea Pinamonti and Fiorentina’s Riccardo Sottil gave the team a strike force that promised much. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that goalkeeper Alessandro Plizzari of Milan was on the bench, whilst Michele Cerofolini (the Fiorentina custodian on loan at Cosenza) started. The 19-year-old departed for more game time after the arrival of Alban Lafont, but is highly rated in Florence.
Italy started the game in timid fashion, they allowed a pacey England side to have a lot of the early possession, moving between a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1. There was little pressing and too many misplaced passes, especially from Davide Frattesi and Enrico Brignola.
Cerofolini justified his inclusion by producing a superlative tip onto the cross bar early on and he could do nothing about England’s opener from Edward Nketiah. It was the pace of Nketiah and Joe Willock that highlighted a weakness in Nicolato’s team, as from the start it was evident that they couldn’t handle the tempo. They sat deep and the continued pressure eventually saw the Azzurrini go 2-0 down, as Willock converted a penalty that Cerofolini nearly kept out. By half time the away side had offered nothing other than a shot that was blazed over by captain Filippo Melegoni.
Nicolato needed to change something. The team had showed in Lodz that they could be expansive, but this was simply an example of giving an opponent too much respect. It had been the same story against the Czech Republic and Switzerland in March, although in the latter game they did put up a fight. The characteristics of the U-20s have mirrored the feelings of Italy as a nation when observing their football. They are lacking an identity and in a titanic struggle with themselves about whether to chance a new way of playing, or trying to remaster the old.
Nicolato himself seems to be insistent on the latter (well he is an ex-Chievo Coach), playing in a style that allows the opposition to come to them, almost challenging them to beat his defence. The problem is, whilst there are some talented defenders, Manchester United’s Luca Ercolani and Enrico Del Prato are just two, they do not have the confidence as a unit to absorb pressure.
The second half did see Italy start to play with more purpose and the braver they were, the better they became. Technically the away side were equals to the English players and even with the minor changes with additions of Matteo Gabbia and Gianluca Scamacca, they looked like a much more able opponent despite not threatening enough.
Their efforts paid off when Davide Frattesi headed home from a well-worked move. Serie A has changed much in the past decade and teams like Roma, Napoli and Fiorentina to name a few have engaged in fast-flowing football that has also seen them improve in European competition. When the Azzurrini decided to try and match the England team for intensity, it paid off, as they were also more organised at the back due to less pressure being applied.
Italy might be having a crisis of confidence at all levels about what their identity really is. The Under-20s confirm there is talent, there is technical ability and they can play at a high tempo. England are certainly an excellent team at this level and in the second half, Italy matched them. They just need to remember that Italy haven’t always been the most stylish in competition, but they have always gone far. This isn’t an issue of talent, it is simply one of application.