- Although there is confusion over what purpose the UEFA Nations League fulfills in an already bloated tournament calendar, one cannot doubt its impact as European sides play their top players as opposed to the usual doldrum of half-hearted friendly matches. Italy drew Poland 1-1 in their opening match after equalizing through Jorginho’s trademark jump penalty.
- Roberto Mancini was hired to reshape the Italian national team in May after they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. While previous manager Gian Piero Ventura was the most immediate target for criticism, there are those who point to a lack of quality in the national player pool.
- It is an interesting dichotomy as Serie A continues to rise again as a brand, and one would surmise that the quality of Italian talent would increase as well. Mancini called out Antonio Conte for using foreign born Eder and Franco Vazquez in previous matches for the national side, and you could see these arguments of player development taking a similar shape over debates over Premier League and the England.
- Mancini dropped Mario Balotelli after a poor performance against Poland. Their on and off relationship will forever be linked by Balotelli getting subbed off in a preseason match against the LA Galaxy for a failed backheel followed by his role in holding up the ball for Sergio Aguero’s title winning goal that same season.
- A side note: Mancini’s coaching thesis on the role of the attacking playmaker is online on his personal website.
- His counterpart, Fernando Santos, has been with Portugal since 2014. It would have been a convenient move for Portugal to change managers after losing to Uruguay in the round of 16 and with Ronaldo aging, but Santos remains.
- Mancini kept only Jorginho and Gianluigi Donnarumma in the starting lineup from the Poland match. But both lineups tell the story of a new generation, with Italy’s attack turned over to winger Frederico Chiesa and Ronaldo’s attacking role on the left wing replaced by RB Leipzig’s Bruma.
- Italy are pressing high early in the match, leading to Chiesa getting free down the right wing for an open cross. They fall back into a traditional 4-4-2 formation as Portugal regain possession.
- Portugal respond with their own high press as they create two good chances shortly after forcing turnovers in Italy’s own third. Jorginho is surprisingly struggling to keep hold of the ball.
- Chiesa directly attacking Mario Rui is 1-on-1 is Italy’s best attack
- With Ruben Neves’ flashing his trademark field switching passes, the directness of Rui and Bruma on the left are causing Italy problems in transition. But Bruma’s lack of a final ball - whether crossing the ball with too much power or not making a decision on whether to pass, dribble or shoot - is keeping Italy in this match.
- The official “Bernardo Silva the best playmaker in the world” watch: his influence is growing as the first half progresses and Portugal control the match. Although much of this credit goes to William Carvalho’s assuredness in holding down the central midfield.
- Andre Silva’s goal shortly after halftime was coming as Carvalho wins the ball at the halfway line and plays Bruma through into open space on the wing. With the international goal and his aggressiveness in the Seville derby, Silva has had an impressive week.
- Going back to Mancini’s coaching thesis emphasizing the playmaker, their inability to break down a defense becomes even more apparent when playing organized, similarly talented sides. Jorginho has the passing vision further back and Chielsa can play direct on the wing, but there is nobody between the lines to unlock a defense higher up the field.
- Thus, who can Italy call upon to get back a goal? Chiesa is the only player looking remotely threatening through the first 60 minutes of the match. Ciro Immobile scored 29 goals in 33 matches last season, but his style thrives in transitions with Luis Alberto handling the creative duties. We can cue back to ongoing criticisms of European strikers when compared to their South American counterparts, but Immobile - and even Silva - are more functional than they are creators.
- The camera flashes to a bored Balotelli in the crowd.
- With a lack of attacking options for Italy, this second half has been comfortable for Portugal as they see out the match.
- Update on Bernardo Silva’s playmaking ability: his feints, hesitations, and accelerations have been unplayable this second half.
- A moment on Jorginho’s passing: he put a lot of his teammates under pressure with his short passing in Italy’s own third against Portugal’s high press, leading to turnovers and direct opportunities for Santos’ side. This highlights the importance of positioning and structure when a team is in possession and playing out of a press. With Napoli and now with Chelsea, those dangerous moments can get solved a combination of spacing and quick thinking, quick passing, and quick moving teammates. Mancini won’t get the time to implement those structures like Maurizio Sarri can at the club level, but they might not have the individual quality to play that style as well.
- The match appropriately ends with Pepe getting a yellow card for a reckless tackle.
- In regards to Santos committing for another international run heading into Euro 2020, the likes of Carvalho, Bruma, Bernardo and Andre Silva are each in their early to mid-20s. This is a side can that grow and peak in two seasons with those four players. Santos will need to eventually replace the 35-year-old Pepe.
- Italy have won just once in their last seven matches, highlighting a player development problem beyond changing managers. There was no sign of a equalizer and Mancini continues to emphasize the importance of young Italian players getting playing time at larger clubs. As for goalscoring, the manager will have to solve this either by overrelying on Balotelli or through some structural change, but a team still needs creative quality regardless.
UEFA Nations League Match Abstract: Portugal 1, Italy 0