The unbeaten streak suggests that we are watching the most on-form team in the world, regardless of international or domestic competition. Italy’s 3-0 win over Switzerland in their second match of the 2020 European Championship was their tenth in a row, a run in which they’ve scored 31 goals while conceding none. In fact, Italy haven’t given up a goal in eight months and are currently on a 29-match unbeaten streak with their last loss coming almost three years ago. Roberto Mancini’s appointment as manager following a 2018 campaign in which they missed the World Cup looked a puzzling decision as the now 56-year-old was still young enough to impact at the club level. But Mancini spotted an opportunity to do “something really different” following the existential disappointment. Decisive failures beget new beginnings, and Mancini has taken full advantage to create a modern image.
“I imagined it’d be like this,” proclaimed centerback Leonardo Bonucci after Italy’s win in the opener, from a player who had first-hand experience in the 2018 setback.
It’s not only in the win streak or the clean sheets, but in the how. Mancini has Italy playing an attacking, vertical style making them arguably the most modern side in the tournament. Just consider the pressure in their third goal against Turkey: four players press the backline leading to a turnover in the opposition third from Domenico Berardi. A sequence of one- and two-touch passes unfold from there between Nicolo Barella and Ciro Immobile, finishing with a one-touch goal from Lorenzo Insigne. The sequence hit the bingo card of modernity with pressing, quick interchanges, and a goal from inside the box, all taking place from a ball recovery in the final third.
This was from a manager previously seen as willing to sacrifice entertainment for the pragmatism of results, who once said he was “fine” with playing “boring football” as long as his team won the league. And while it is dangerous to extract statistics from just two matches, the manner of Italy’s lead over their opponents is worth noting. They have 18 more pressures in the opposition attacking third than the next closest side, along with the second highest pressures in the middle third. Immobile and Berardi currently rank second and fourth in pressures.
The balance of the midfield trio deservedly receives the plaudits, even with the missing Marco Verratti. Champions League winner Jorginho provides the tempo, Manuel Locatelli gives the line-breaking passes, and Scudetto holder Nicolo Barella adds late runs into the box. Rarely do national team pieces fit this well as lineups can often turn into an exercise of compromise. Adding Insigne and Berardi’s ability to cut inside with Immobile’s incisive off-ball runs, Italy’s 4-3-3 shape is as carefully constructed as a domestic side.
The positioning of the fullbacks are now the signal of a side’s modernity. Italy’s second goal against Turkey, scored off a rebound from Immobile, was initially taken by left back Leonardo Spinazzola (who was also named Man of the Match). Against Switzerland, Napoli right back Giovanni Di Lorenzo ranked second in the team with 71 touches while also playing a second-hand role in both goals with his runs into the box.
Even when the incisive passes fail to connect, Italy are structured for pressing, creating turnovers, and winning second balls. This aggressive approach was honed throughout the years, with Mancini’s combination of pressing and verticality taking from the innovative attacking principles of several Serie A sides. The new style played into provoking discussions of how “Serie A is back,” led by forward-thinking, progressive managers who eschewed defensive stereotypes.
The composition of the starting side is revealing. Milan keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Juventus stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, and Inter midfielder Nicolo Barella are the only players representing European Super League sides. The rest are made up of players from clubs who missed out on the Champions League this season yet are familiar with some form of positional play, whether in the remnants of Napoli’s Sarri-ball, Roma’s Paulo Fonseca, or Roberto De Zerbi’s Sassuolo. Even more staggering is the overall impact of Gian Piero Gaserpini’s Atalanta relative to their size and budget.
We’ve also written about the progressive nature of Sassuolo and De Zerbi with reverence over the years. The positional play theories focused on quick passing and width paid off with Domenico Berardi and Manuel Locatelli playing key roles in the opening goals of both matches. With Turkey dropping deep in the first half, it was up to Berardi to create something out of nothing from out wide to give his side breathing room. Then, it was an all Sassuolo-goal against Switzerland, with Locatelli initially playing a ball out wide to Berardi, who returned the favor for the late-running Locatelli.
And of course, Ciro Immobile added two trademark poacher goals. His eye for space inside the box was honed by now-Inter manager Simone Inzaghi at Lazio, with the 31-year-old scoring 123 goals over the past five seasons. Having never scored in a major tournament for Italy before the opening match, there were questions as to whether his idiosyncratic style could translate to a larger scale. But whether Inzaghi or now Mancini, attacking with fullbacks inside the box inevitably opens up space somewhere for Immobile to exploit just on numbers alone.
Mancini reaping the benefits of Serie A’s emphasis towards versatile, direct players adds another wrinkle to what a national team should represent. A national team is aspirational, displaying the highest qualities of a country’s footballing principles. But it is also a reflection and snapshot of an era. From that perspective, international managers are handicapped by developments within the domestic game, rarely creating their own style just based on the lack of training time. And with the return of Sarri, Luciano Spalletti, and Max Allegri to Serie A, the momentum is continuing to trend one way.
Though in a blow to the forward-thinking nature of Serie A, De Zerbi left the league to join Shakhtar Donetsk after not being considered for openings at Juventus and Inter. This could have been seen as a managerial glass ceiling for local talent as the bigger clubs picked from a global talent pool. But overlooking De Zerbi was simply a matter of an overload of quality as the old guard of managers remain relevant in the face of a new era. Language like “innovation” when used to describe 62-year-old Sarri and 63-year-old Gasperini weren’t placed just to fill space. Even as Italy catch up to their ideas, there’s a feeling that they still have an entire world left untapped.
We measure the quality of European domestic leagues by how far clubs get in the Champions League knockout rounds. No La Liga side made the Champions League semifinal in 2020 for the first time since the 2006/07 season, a sure sign of a failing national team. On the other hand, this year’s all-Premier League Champions League Final bred optimism for England’s chances in the Euros.
That narrative may be limited considering Italy’s dominance. Juventus and Lazio were knocked out in the round of 16, with Inter finishing last in the group stage phase. But if the core of this Italian side was developed outside of the globally-resourced clubs able to afford international players, we wouldn’t necessarily see the development in the Champions League. Instead, we get it here, with the quality of Locatelli, Berardi, and Spinazzola inevitably surprising supporters across the world. We may have been looking at the wrong results when we talk about how “Serie A is back” as we wait for Juventus, Inter, and Milan to win in Europe. Italy’s current run is a showcase for how the league has grown and expanded over the past three years, depending on where in the table you look.