Tuesday September 8 2020
Golden generation of Italy midfielders

The Azzurri took the game to Holland and showed hints of what their quality midfield can do for years to come, writes Kaustubh Pandey.

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.

Have your say...
@AAA the 02 team was robbed by corrupted officiating in what was a grand travesty of sports justice... I'll give you 98 and 04.. but two finals and a World Cup in that span.. not bad.. How did England do during that period? Or were they still banned for their hooliganism during that time?
on the 14th September, 2020 at 7:08am
pfft... Italys golden generation was 1994-2006 with their total peak in 2000-2004 yet failed at winning anything other than heartbreaking runners up @ euro 2000 finalists... WC'94 finalists, but knocked out early in WC '98,'02, and euro '04... not til WC '06 did we win. had a little resurgence under Prandelli and a brief miracle with Conte, but those teams eh...
Mancini is doing an amazing job with the youth and considering whats available...and it surely aint golden.
on the 13th September, 2020 at 3:24am
Hardly Golden.
I mean there are a couple of good players but to call them golden is far to extreme.
on the 11th September, 2020 at 12:55pm
Golden generation? What Is a golden generation for Italy in the 21st it jogo bonito or one that wins at all cost?
on the 10th September, 2020 at 11:14am
Italy's problems started when Juventus started fielding more international players in their pursue of winning the champions league thinking that is the way to win it. Italy will be much stronger if the top 4 teams field more Italians. Locatelli looks very promising. I feel sorry for Zaniolo, seems to be another Giuseppe Rossi unfortunately.. Mancini is trying well to stitch together a team and he is managing.
on the 9th September, 2020 at 10:39pm
The crazy thing is you listed all our great midfield players and missed maybe the most important one - Tonali! What a superb class of midfielders! Forza Azzurri!
on the 9th September, 2020 at 2:24am
Many of you more critical contributors often cite the fact that Itay no longer has the greats of the past... the Baggios, Maldinis, Delpieros. But I've been watching Nazionale for nearly 4 decades and I can say without a doubt, I see these young players coming through as young men of great potential. Over the past 18 months under Mancio, I've seen them perform better often than they have for 30 years - many of those star-studded teams came up with duds. This group works and is showing results.
on the 9th September, 2020 at 12:44am
I thought Locatelli did very well subbing for Verrati. Was never dispossed, made excellent passes out of pressure. Immobile did well in every respect and set up numerous goal scoring chances with well weighted passes, but for some goofy reason he is not clinical in front of goal for the nazionale.
Locatelli will be an excellent deputy for Verrati when he gets his obligatory red cards. And don't underestimate D'ambrosio, he was strong in defense. and we have strong centerbacks coming through.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 9:36pm
Oh, one last thing. If they're gonna push Spinazzola up, I think Di Lorenzo is the best defender Italy has at right-back. Whether it's because of their more expansive play + with Jorginho in middle, they do look a bit open to counter but with Verratti + Barella, they should be enough bite in there + IF Tonali can replicate Jorginho in his role then Italy are more than all-set in that area. Hopefully Bastoni + Romagnoli can be integrated in time too!
on the 8th September, 2020 at 8:12pm
Only complaints-poor Zaniolo, all the best to him. I'm starting to think Roma make em train in Pontine marshes? + a no9. They shoulda had 3 last night. Give Kean a run or Belotti has to step-up or Immobile has to replicate his Lazio form. He was good overall but he hasn't the same conviction for Italy. Maybe he just needs 1 to go in or a lucky break, that's all this team needs, a break other than Zaniolo's knees + they'll be a real strong side! It's great to see em play so well + positive though
on the 8th September, 2020 at 7:54pm
Great performance by Italy. Other than last 10mins when they inevitably tired, they dominated in every area. I saw it more as a 3 at the back with Spinazzola pushed up to overload just behind LW. He was very good + had the confidence to take it on himself rather than use Insigne, who's main purpose it seemed was to try + not get in way but when it did come off, they were dangerous down that side + in general the team combined well. And the midfield passing and patterns of play are impressive.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 7:36pm
Why does Mancini continue to put Immobile, Kean, and Belotti on the team. They will never score.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 7:33pm
I agree with Luca and Luciano we don't have the players to play with a front 3. With the talent in midfield a 4 man unit maybe the way to go.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 6:47pm
At this rate we might have to follow Spain's lead and play with 4 or even five central midfielders: Jorginho and Verratti the base of the 5, with Barella, Locatelli and Sensi playing further ahead.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 6:22pm
Sorry who provided the assist for the goal? Immobile, not one of these supposedly great midfielders. Sorry but Italy lack the quality in midfield, and why Lazzari, one of the few Italians with pace doesnt even make the squad shows how much Mancini really knows about football. He has talent at his disposal but cant decide on a best 11. If you have the European Golden Boot winner in your team and cant help him score the formation and selection is wrong.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 5:39pm
Still interested to see if Castrovilli can fight his way into this team as well, at least on the bench. He offers something different in midfield.
Great debut for Locatelli. Milan should have never let him go.
Really feel for Zaniolo...
on the 8th September, 2020 at 4:44pm
Please carry on slating Insigne when he is one of our best players.
Well done.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 4:40pm
So Barella can't play anywhere in the midfield? The guy who started deep, then got pushed farther forward at Cagliari, and is, by definition, a box-to-box player?
on the 8th September, 2020 at 4:31pm
@Luciano I completely agree about the lack of pace, even Chiesa and Zaniolo aren't THAT quick compared to the likes of Mane, Sterling, Mbpappe, etc. There must be something in the Italian gene pool that means they never produce lightning fast players, I can't think of a single Italian player who was known for being super fast and whilst I am not one of those who think you should be turning professional sprinters into footballers having genuine pace going forward helps a lot. Italy have none
on the 8th September, 2020 at 3:30pm
Italy's midfield is indeed strong with strong depth but the attack is weak. I've said for years now I don't care how good insigne is for napoli, he should never be a starter for italy. He's a completely different player for italy, which is useless. Maybe play a more direct game with two strikers and a 4 man mid cause I don't know how much longer I can watch insigne
on the 8th September, 2020 at 2:30pm
Good performance overall against an out of sorts Holland. As everyone has said, the idea of football is to score more goals than the opposition and I fear against the better teams we'll be beaten. Can you imagine Spain's defenders fearing any of our front two or three? I'd suggest finding the fastest forward in Serie A and just trying to add a bit of pace upfront. We look slow and cumbersome. Otherwise it has to be 4-4-1-1, because we haven't got the strikers.Playing 4-3-3 won't win us anything.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 1:46pm
Zaniolo Injuries are a concern it might be too risk to take him to EURO 2021. Italy strikers need to score more goals as we can't win by 1-0 all the time. Future looks good and exciting and i'm expecting semi finals target Euro 2021.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 1:44pm
@ Gozen

Not sure your point about physicality is completely true and if that is an issue you're worried about then consider this. Tonali 182cms, Locatelli 186cms, Lorenzo Pellegrini 188cms, Zaniolo 190cms. All of those are tall for central midfielders whilst still being technically gifted. Barella and Verratti are short but they have tenacity and determination that makes up for their lack of height. If you want to add FBs in then Spinazzola 186cms and D'ambrosio 180cms are not small either
on the 8th September, 2020 at 1:36pm
Midfield looked good. Forwards remain a problem though. Immobile like usual was a workhorse but his decision making remains poor. Always goes for the outlandish which equals low percentage of success. Try's to outrun when he should cut, volley when he should control. Tracks back to help but then just gives the ball away. Insigne looked good always in the right positions when attacking. Kean also was in the right positions and had a decent game but needs more playing time to grow.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 1:30pm
This midfield group has great talent on the ball, unfortunately the lack of physicality shows up when the other team has some game control (as we saw toward the end).
Also the fb's should be included when talking about midfields as these days, they're 100% involved.

Chiellini is still the best defender by miles which is a big problem given his age.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 12:18pm
Such a shame about Zaniolo, as he appears to be the real deal.

His skill and driving runs from deep are a real threat to opposition teams, and hopefully he won't end up getting injured a lot as Luca said.

The midfield looks good, the defence decent, despite question marks over the full-bacls and who should be playing CB.

The number 9 is still a major problem, but Immobile is the only one who really deserves it atm.
on the 8th September, 2020 at 11:48am
Italy's midfield used to be our weak game (90s). Pirlo, Gattuso, De Rossi changed all that and as a result midfielder is a popular role amongst this generation of Italian footballers. I think Locatelli has even more to give. There is plenty of attacking intent with players in advance mid positions, not just with Barella. The problem is we don't score enough goals. It will be our undoing. I'd throw Berardi in the mix up front. In defence I'd have Romagnoli over Bonucci any day (from Juve fan)
on the 8th September, 2020 at 11:46am

PSG's Star midfielder constantly labelled world's best at CM by Mbappe Neymar Xavi to name a few. His stats back it up too

If Barella and Jorginho are locked it means the trio is locked. Verratti is the first midfielder named in the team. The depth is incredible but Verratti deserves more respect. Tonali is likely to push Jorginho for his place
on the 8th September, 2020 at 11:24am
The midfield was an obvious highlight, tremendous in possession, especially at working the ball out of tight situations. When you consider arguably the best CM they have in Verratti wasn't even playing plus all the young names coming through that is a huge positive. We just need a top class Striker and Winger (could be Chiesa but i'm having doubts) to emerge and then Italy will go from being a good team to a very very good team in 3 or 4 years time
on the 8th September, 2020 at 11:11am
Immobile actually played quite well, his hold up play and touch was good but he's not clinical enough which is odd given his Lazio form. Belloti will work his socks off all game for you but again isn't world class. Chisea needs a big breakout season now, he's starting to stagnate. Insigne was good but is inconsistent. Kean is a poor footballer, his technique is not good and I doubt he'll ever become a top striker. Zaniolo is obviously a worry with injuries so it doesn't leave you with much
on the 8th September, 2020 at 11:06am

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