With the Azzurini’s defeat to Poland, their future is no long in their own hands. They now need to beat Belgium and hope for just the right result from Spain-Poland. Disappointment abounds for a squad bursting from the seams with talent in a tournament that they really ought to have grabbed by the horns.
But if there is a consistent positive to take from the past two games, it has to be the form of Lorenzo Pellegrini. The Roma youth product struggled for fitness this season, twice sitting out month-long stretches. It was his injury that really opened more playing time for Nicolò Zaniolo, who took over Eusebio Di Francesco’s trequartista role and subsequently overshadowed Pellegrini this season.
And it’s not just Zaniolo. While Federico Chiesa and Nicolò Barella have established themselves in the senior national team, Pellegrini has been intermittently called up, taking his minutes mostly as a substitute. But in the past two games, he has emerged as the most consistent player in the squad.
Against Spain, the Roma youth product successfully drew as many fouls and beat as many men one-on-one as Chiesa. And while Barella played some incredibly incisive passes, Pellegrini was the only one of the midfield three who wasn’t bossed by Spain’s superior quality in the middle of the park. He had more interceptions and completed more passes than any player in front of the defence on the night. To top it off, his cool-as-you-like penalty sealed the win.
The Italian youngsters dominated the game against Poland, with plenty of touches and passes to go around. Even so, the only players to complete more key passes than Pellegrini were Chiesa and Barella. They were also the only players to win the ball back more than Pellegrini — except Pellegrini managed it without giving up a single foul. And it was Pellegrini who came closest to equalising, his long-range rocket rattling off the upright.
Where Chiesa is streaky, Pellegrini is consistent. Where Barella is rash to the point of still making truly horrid challenges (something that proved quite costly against Poland), Pellegrini is poised and collected. He has future leader written all over him.
Am I saying he’s the saviour of Italian football? Hardly. Let’s avoid hyperbole. But let’s also acknowledge the simple fact: Pellegrini’s form, consistency, and versatility have been the most welcome surprises of the tournament so far. We’ve already known that Barella and Chiesa are world-class talents in the making. Pellegrini is just now starting to make the case that his name should be uttered alongside theirs when talking about Italian starlets.
His next season in the capital will prove decisive for his development. He is most likely to play in the double midfield pivot of newly appointed Coach Paola Fonseca’s 4-2-3-1, where he could be the more creative partner to Steven Nzonzi in the “destroyer” role. Given his high football IQ, Pellegrini getting more responsibility for controlling the game will do him well. It’s fine to leave the flair to players like Zaniolo or Javier Pastore, but hopefully Fonseca doesn’t discount what Pellegrini can contribute in attack with late runs, sharp passes, and shots from distance.
If he keeps playing like this, Pellegrini could approach becoming the kind of player Claudio Marchisio was when he was healthy: a versatile midfielder who can do a bit of everything and always plays for the team, even if other names steal the headlines. After a challenging few seasons, let’s hope Pellegrini is now finally ready to show us what he can really do.