Down 1-0 on aggregate to Sweden and on the verge of getting eliminated from the 2018 World Cup, Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi was summoned to warm off the bench. Instead, the 34-year-old with 117 national team caps dramatically implored the coaching staff to put on playmaker Lorenzo Insigne instead. The moment captured the divide between 69-year-old manager Gian Piero Ventura’s player selection and creativity that an otherwise battle tested side were missing. After scoring just three goals in their final six competitive matches, Italy failed to find the equalizer and missed their first World Cup since 1958. De Rossi, Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini retired following the match. And with Francesco Totti retiring last season and Andrea Pirlo retiring at the beginning of November, the announcements represent a clean break from the generation that won the World Cup eleven years earlier.
Knee jerk reactions understandably followed in the immediate aftermath of the failure. The two playoff matches against Sweden were only a symptom, but what exactly was the cause? Taking a narrow lens focused on this specific round of qualifiers, a troubling sign was in how thoroughly dominated they were in a 3-0 loss against Spain in early September. Ventura’s 4-2-4 formation that initially brought him international attention was overran and the manager looked out of his depth. Playing just Marco Verratti and De Rossi against midfield featuring Sergio Busquets, Koke, Andres Iniesta and Isco went as well as one would expect. Isco scoring twice and inspired an 11 minute video of him dancing in and out of the midfield.
It was a complete reversal of the knock out match between the two sides in the 2016 Euros, a 2-0 win for Italy ended Spain’s eight year title run. In what was the best tactical match of the tournament, then manager Antonio Conte overwhelmed Spain’s build up play with limited yet committed players like Emanuele Giaccherini and Eder. The win highlighted the tactical flexibility of a 3-5-2 formation, particularly in the role of the wingbacks and with striker Graziano Pelle marking Busquets out of the match. It was tactics combined with energy. And even as Italy lost to Germany in the following round, there was a blueprint to build upon.
Like at Bari in 2009, Ventura was brought in to build upon Conte’s foundation the following fall. Having managed 18 senior sides in his 40-year career, with his biggest success a Serie C trophy, there were questions of Ventura’s ability to lead a big team with personalities to match. Yet Ventura won seven out of his first ten matches as national team manager. That early success lead to a two-year contract extension last August handed down by Italian Football Federation president Carlo Tavecchio, a month before the rematch against Spain. How quickly opinions turn in a matter of months.
If there was one symbol representing Ventura’s lack of progression, it was in his treatment of Napoli playmakers Insigne and center midfielder Jorginho. Insigne, as highlighted above, was sparsely used. And as best passer of the best team in Serie A, Jorginho finally made his national team debut in the first leg against Sweden. The relationship between a country’s best club team and the national team is a discussion in itself, but here were two players on what is one of the most modern sides in the world going completely ignored. Was there a structural reason for Italy missing the World Cup, or was it just a matter of managerial incompetence?
More than seven months out, the 2018 World Cup has already had a significant impact in sparking existential debates about a country’s football identity. The USMNT’s failure to qualify for the first time since 1986 brought to the fore examinations ranging from youth player development to the MLS. The Netherlands' failure signaled the failure of the post-Cruyffians. Chile’s miss represented the passing of their golden generation. There was a moment when Argentina stared the same questions in the face, although they recovered in time. Why were so many traditional World Cup stalwarts struggling to qualify this time around?
Regardless of nation, there was a similar reaction advocating a Germany-esque rebuild from the ground up, as Italian sports minister Luca Lotti and Arrigo Sacchi suggested. There are inevitably calls to limit foreign players in the domestic league to increase playing time for the national team pool, although data suggests those limitations would only entrench veteran players. Is it systemic or incompetence? Is it a generational renewal in talent? Any far reaching actions will have its unintended consequences, thus the reasoning must be completely understood.
Before the tie against Sweden, Chiellini blamed Pep Guardiola for a lack of defensive nous amongst current Italian defenders. Whereas once they focused on man marking, he reasoned, Guardiola and Spain celebrated the ball playing center back thereby losing something fundamental to the Italian DNA. It was a conclusion he was criticized for last season by saying Juventus could never beat Real Madrid in the Champions League finals by a high margin because that’s not how Italian sides play.
There will always be a prevailing theme to balance nostalgia and keeping up with contemporary standards. Yet what if the problems could be solved just as easily as getting rid Tavecchio and Ventura, and the real lesson was in what happens when a national team tries goes with a financially cheap option as manager instead of paying for quality like Conte? Or what if the lesson was once again highlighting the gap between managing small clubs and international sides especially when it comes to handling player ego - a lesson we continue to see today in rumored names for top clubs?
Spain again presents itself as a useful comparison of how quickly a side renews itself. Just 16 months ago, they were slow and out of ideas, with their tiki taka style looking increasingly out of date. Turning over a new generation to the likes of 25-year-olds Isco and Koke, and 21-year-old Marco Asensio, they are back on form as one of the favorites to win the World Cup. Chiellini highlighted Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli as up and coming defenders for the national team built for this modern era where centerbacks both defend and play out of the back. On the future of the Dutch side, Ronald de Boer preaches patience in waiting for the younger generation to develop. Each national side has its own logic in renewing the talent cycle for future international tournaments. Sometimes, the least damaging response is to stay out of its way.