Three years ago, Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. The nation had a squad that needed to be refreshed and an identify that required an overhaul. Roberto Mancini was hired to return his homeland to glory, and he is off to a great start.
The last time the 2019 Italian Sportsman of the Year featured for Gli Azzurri was when he was a player. Mancini was on the national team from 1984-94 but was never a regular due to the immense attacking options his country had. Prior to the 1994 World Cup, the forward decided to retire from the national team at the age of 29 because iconic manager Arrigo Sacchi did not guarantee him a place in the starting lineup.
“I refused to follow Arrigo Sacchi in the United States. Another mistake paid dearly. Today I can say I regret it, but of course it’s too late,” said Mancini to Il Corriere della Sera in 2009.
Mancini has been a successful club manager by winning 13 trophies at four different clubs. In his first stint at Inter Milan, he won seven of those trophies including three consecutive Serie A titles. He laid the building blocks for Jose Mourinho to win the treble with Inter during the 2009-10 season. The 1996-97 Serie A Footballer of the Year also led Manchester City to their first Premier League triumph in 2011-12. Following unsuccessful stints after his return to Inter and at Zenit Saint Petersburg, the 2007-08 Panchina d’Oro winner found a project that would reinvigorate him.
After winning the World Cup in 2006, Italy did not advance past the Group Stage in 2010 and 2014. They fared better in the European Championship as they lost in the final to Spain in 2012 and in the quarterfinal to Germany in 2016. In 2017, the four-time World Cup champions lost to Sweden in a two-legged playoff, 1-0 on aggregate. That was rock bottom.
Mancini was hired on May 14, 2018 and vowed to change the identity of his nation. The Italians have produced remarkable forwards and midfielders for almost a century. But defending has been the hallmark to their success. Some may think it’s boring, but it has gotten results for decades. Eventually, Mancini realized that if Gli Azzurri wanted to return to being an international powerhouse, they had to modernize their approach.
“We are a team that always looks to play good football. Obviously, sometimes it doesn’t go our way. Maybe sometimes we’ve won without deserving it, but that’s football. This has been our philosophy for the past few years, and it has enabled us to achieve some positive results, so we’ll continue in this way,” said Mancini to UEFA.
The use of a 4-3-3 formation has gotten the best out of his side. The fullbacks are encouraged to participate in the final third. The wingers move into the half spaces to get in goalscoring positions and midfielders such as Jorginho and Marco Verratti dictate play from the back.
The goalscoring and playmaking has come from all over the pitch. Forward Domenico Berardi, left-back Leonardo Spinazzola and Verratti each led the team with two assists. Forwards Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne along with midfielders Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina each lead with two goals.
Heading into their semifinal match against Spain, Italy has won five consecutive matches at Euro 2020. The only other time that has happened was when France won the European Championship in 1984. When they face La Roja, they will be without Spinazzola after he tore his Achilles tendon in their 2-1 victory over Belgium in the quarterfinal.
Mancini has done remarkable work in a short time. The 56-year-old has turned Gli Azzurri from a pragmatic posse into an attacking machine. His job is still not done because he has a major goal in mind.
“I have a dream. I want to win as a coach the thing that I did not win as a footballer: a World Cup,” said Mancini to Gazzetta dello Sport in 2018.
The Jules Rimet trophy is the ultimate prize in soccer, but the European Championship is also a great achievement, and it is tantalizingly attainable for the Italians.
Author: Dan Adu-Gyamfi