Italy’s win over the Netherlands on Monday wasn’t exactly a spotless performance, but it was already a world away from the stunted draw with Bosnia-Herzegovina just three days earlier. Seeing the Nazionale dominate possession, passing statistics and shots on goal, keeping the Dutch on the back foot in their own back yard for 80 minutes of the game, was proof of the new positive attitude brought by Roberto Mancini. Put simply, they had the mentality of a top team.
It was also filled with nervous moments from the Azzurri backline after Nicolò Barella had put Mancini’s men a goal up at the cusp of half-time. The usual problem of the ineffective forwards is becoming chronic, as time after time they waste clear-cut scoring opportunities and that leaves the game perilously open.
While the Italians were certainly helped by the poor performances of both Joel Veltman and Hans Hateboer, their strength and depth in midfield was the element that really came to the fore once again.
Against Bosnia, Mancini had started Stefano Sensi and Lorenzo Pellegrini just behind Barella. On Monday, he decided to rotate around the Inter dynamo, bringing in Jorginho as the anchorman and the in-demand Manuel Locatelli donned a more box-to-box role. Barella stayed as the advanced midfield option and thrived. More than anything else, Barella and Jorginho showed exactly what the Azzurri will look like when they play in the Euros next year, when Marco Verratti should complete the trio.
While Barella got the goal with a rare header against towering defenders thanks to a perfectly timed run into the box, Jorginho was at the centre of the attack when it comes to setting the tone from the deeper midfield. The Chelsea man’s well-timed passes cut through the Dutch midfield lines perfectly, setting Lorenzo Insigne or Leonardo Spinazzola through a large number of times to take advantage of a poor performance from Hateboer.
Barella often maintained a high press and almost helped Italy play a 4-2-3-1, but this press protected Jorginho and made sure that he didn’t have tackles and interceptions to make every time Georginio Wijnaldum got the ball. Locatelli’s positioning and Barella’s pressing shielded Jorginho, covering for his weaknesses off the ball.
In some ways, it was a pretty well-oiled midfield. It started from the most advanced midfielder in Barella and they were well organised, even when Mancini took the pragmatic route and wanted the side to drop deeper. There was tactical versatility in there and the game was managed very well - like Mancini would ideally want.
Most importantly, it was cohesive. One player’s strengths made up for another’s weaknesses. While it was Locatelli’s first start and he was usually silent, the performances of the two other suggested that maybe, Italy’s first-team perhaps just needs a box-to-box midfielder to complete the jigsaw. Barella’s role in advanced midfield complements that of Jorginho in the deeper midfield perfectly.
Mancini is certainly blessed with an abundance of options in that position - he’s almost spoilt for choice. A lot of the midfield options he has, bar Barella and Jorginho, can play any role in the heart of the park. Lorenzo Pellegrini can play further forward or don the box-to-box role. Sensi can play anywhere. Verratti can too, and Bryan Cristante adds depth to multiple roles.
The encouraging thing is almost all these midfielders are in their early 20s, so the future looks bright for the Nazionale. There’s a golden generation in the middle of the park and it’s a long time since we’ve been able to say that.
Going by Monday’s performance, it is the box-to-box role that becomes a dilemma. It is always too early to judge players by a single game, but Locatelli gave a good account of himself as well and there is a chance that he is in the running too. Verratti is out of action right now after reaching the Champions League Final with PSG and his availability will make things even more interesting.
All in all, the performance at the Amsterdam Arena answered a fair amount of questions for Mancini when it comes to knowing how his team should look for the big games. The performances of Jorginho and Barella will give him the certainty that they will do a job and as a result, the backline will also get a lot of help as well.
With maybe just one spot vacant in that midfield, it will surely be interesting to see who Mancini places in there. There will be different midfielders for different games, but the roles of Barella and Jorginho might just be locked down.
Time is also on Nicolò Zaniolo’s side. It is as tragic as it is rare to see a player tear the ACL in both knees at just 21, but the talent is undoubtedly there and he can make it back in time for the rescheduled Euro 2020. With this generation coming through, he can hopefully make his mark in many tournaments to come.