Roberto Mancini made history. Following Italy’s fluid 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Bilino Polje stadium in Zenica. This was Mancini’s 10th consecutive win with the Azzurri, surpassing the legendary Vittorio Pozzo’s record in the late 1930s. It was also a sixth consecutive away win, another first.
Mancini now stands alone in the pantheon of Italy CTs, yet the former Inter and Man City manager has always been a canny operator. He knows that if Italy flop next summer at Euro 2020, their brilliance in qualifying for the tournament won’t be remembered. The success of an Azzurri manager is always measured on tournament progress.
Yet for the here and the now, Mancini is building the most exciting Italy team in years, since the early days of the Cesare Prandelli era. Last night’s encounter against Bosnia felt nothing more than a formality; Italy controlled the game from start to finish, and could’ve easily won by more.
With the horrors of the Giampiero Ventura aberration still unfortunately burned into people’s minds, Mancini’s men played with panache and with a vibrancy that’s refreshing to see. That being said, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
On the occasion that Bosnia attacked with verve, Italy’s defensive pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Francesco Acerbi looked uncomfortable. For his club, Bonucci has looked a lot more assured this season than last, but you still get the feeling that he needs his hand held by another experienced defender.
Bonucci’s defensive frailties are badly exposed when Giorgio Chiellini isn’t around to mask them. Acerbi, with the greatest of respect, isn’t as good as the Juve captain, even if he did prove that he’s got a better foot than most centre-backs.
Mancini, admirably, wants his team to play out from the back, the in-vogue tactical style. However, it should be implemented when coaches have the players available that can comfortably execute the demand. At times the Azzurri back line ultimately invited undue pressure from Edin Dzeko and other Bosnian players due to their inability to circulate the ball around correctly.
Gigio Donnarumma, especially, is not good with the ball at his feet, at one stage in the first half kicking the ball straight to a Bosnian player on the edge of his own box. You suspect more accomplished sides in the future will punish Italy for being so haphazard.
Where Italy did look very comfortable was in the middle of the pitch. Aside from the 3-0 score line, 612 passes was the statistic that caught the eye. After half a decade of mourning since the retirement of Andrea Pirlo, they finally have players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet. It is not surprising that Jorginho was the midfield fulcrum making everything tick over.
Sandro Tonali was also impressive, playing to the left of Jorginho, shuttling up and down the field and putting himself about, whilst Tonali does indeed bear a striking semblance to a pre-bearded Pirlo, he doesn’t resemble Pirlo the player. And with Marco Verratti still to return, Stefano Sensi sure to get a call up for Euro 2020 and Nicolò Barella a capable passer with two assists in Zenica, Italy are suddenly overflowing with midfielders with the ability to maintain possession.
Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi, both of whom can fluctuate between brilliance and maddening exasperation in a single game, remained consistently good throughout. Bernardeschi, especially, caused havoc down Bosnia’s left-hand side, getting in behind time and again. However, as is the case with the former Fiorentina player at Juventus, his end product can let him down. Insigne’s game was simpler, not trying anything flash, yet his goal killed the game off.
Andrea Belotti led the line superbly. Whilst it would be foolish to make grand proclamations, his performance brought back memories of a peak Bobo Vieri at the turn of the century. Ciro Immobile might be Italy’s most lethal marksman at club level, but Belotti tends to perform better for the Azzurri, and you suspect that going into Euro 2020, Mancini will stick with the Torino man.
Mancini has, at long last, brought a footballing identity to the national side. After years of tailoring formations based upon available players, this CT picked a system very early in his tenure, a 4-3-3, and stuck to it. It also helps that many of the top sides in Serie A now function with a 4-3-3, easing his workload. Whilst it’s also imperative to have a Plan B, it’s refreshing to see the Azzurri head into a major tournament with an ethos in place.
A win against Armenia on Monday would see Mancini complete his 100% record in Group J. Confidence is rising, and whilst tougher challengers lie ahead in 2020, out of the wreckage of the disastrous Ventura years, Mancini has emerged to restore national pride. When considering where Italy was as a team two years ago, that is remarkable.
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