The Stadio Dall’Ara in Bologna had been raucous and in the end infectious for the Azzurrini, as they came from behind to beat a good Spanish team by 3-1 in the first game of the Under-21 European Championship. As they stepped on to the same field to face Poland, they did it with the knowledge that their former opponents had beaten Belgium hours before. This meant that a win would see Italy go through to the next round, so could they do it with the same style?
The fact that Roberto Mancini has galvanised the national side only holds weight because the U21’s, U20’s and the women’s team are performing so well. This has allowed Italy to rise from the ‘Ventura apocalypse’ with tangible knowledge that their national game is still on a good trajectory. It isn’t perfect, the youth sides are not used properly by the main Serie A clubs, the women’s team is only just getting the recognition it deserves in the media, but for this moment in time, the future looks bright.
Luigi Di Biagio’s team had gone behind to Spain in the opener and had conceded a tremendous amount of possession early on, but the fightback was a testament to team spirit and individual brilliance. Federico Chiesa may have stolen the show, but the whole team played well, the cameos of Patrick Cutrone and Riccardo Orsolini enough to earn them starts against Poland.
The game itself showed once again just how well Di Biagio’s ideas are working. There was a clear idea of how to play, an intensity and a wealth of talent on the bench. The pressing game is modern, but yet has an Italian characteristic. There are partnerships all over the pitch and whilst individuals can display moments of brilliance, this Azzurrini squad is showing that they are the same old, yet brand new Italy.
Italy’s midfield of Nicolò Barella, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Rolando Mandragora are all technically superb and between the three of them, they dictated the play. The build-up was controlled and the pressing was in sync, with none of the three shirking their defensive duties.
The fact that Sandro Tonali and Nicolò Zaniolo started on the bench seemed incredible until you saw how well the three starters all seemed to play similar roles at different times. When Barella defended, Mandragora attacked. When Pellegrini stayed back, the Cagliari and Udinese midfielders moved up.
Chiesa is a world class talent in the making and Orsolini proved why, just earlier that day, Bologna had gone to great lengths to make use of the purchase clause from Juventus. The wide players consistently attacked, although some of the deliveries perhaps left something to be desired, but even when the team went into the break 0-1 down, they could be proud with 60% possession and 13 attempts to four.
They had missed too many chances and failed to find Cutrone enough, but they had dominated. The fact that they could call in a plethora of talent, such as Manuel Locatelli, Federico Bonazzoli, Moise Kean, Sandro Tonali, Zaniolo, Arturo Calabresi or even Emil Audero in goal speaks volumes about the strength in depth.
Poland have been defensively good in both games, with a clear policy of hold and then counter-attack. Italy could didn’t need to do a deep dive on their performance, they just needed to be more efficient in the final third.
Italy walk away from this defeat knowing that they have been beaten by what can only be seen as a professional ‘smash and grab’ by Poland. Italy have won like this in the past many times, so they cannot moan about the manner of the defeat. The positive is that Italy lost a game they should have won, but in doing so, gave the country hope of a new era that shows unity, commitment, patterns of play and style. They were not clinical, but they offer hope nonetheless.