The chariot races of ancient Rome were quite the spectacle for the populous of the great City. They would line the seats of the stadiums of the day and marvel at the competitors as they bewitch the crowd with their skill guile. Fast forward a thousand years later and the Stadio Olympico will be the spiritual reincarnation of the Circus Maximus as horses of a different kind perform for the gathered spectators – instead of the hooven stallions; it’s the blue-clad dark horses of the national Italian football team as they vie for the Euros 2021 title.
Just as the Roman Legion marched across most of modern-day Europe to lay claim to land and resources, the present day Azzurri will need to rock up on unfamiliar shores far from home to conquer all once again if they are to be crowned kings of Europe for only the second time in their history. Italy haven’t won any major tournament since the 2006 World Cup and despite being 4-time world champions, they have not had the same kind of successes at the Euros. The last successful Italian conquest at the Euros came in 1968 when they were hosts – that was only the third edition of the tournament, and also Italy’s debut at the tournament. That year’s competition only consisted of four teams though. They have managed two other finals appearances since the 1968 victory, once in 2000 and again in 2012. It might be early days, but with all the attention elsewhere, Italy have a chance to steal a charge on their rivals to emerge as unlikely winners of the tournament, and here’s why.
Italy have looked like a revitalized side under Roberto Mancini, and he’s got them back to playing some of their best football since the early 2000’s. They’re currently on a 23-game unbeaten run in which they’ve kept a clean sheet in all of their last 7 games, and have only conceded more than a single goal once in the last 27 games. Within that stretch is 10 victories out of 10 during the Euros qualifying campaign. A convenient omen would suggest this superb form is a bad thing, as historically Italy do best at tournaments when their form leading into it is a bit dodgy – but no team playing that well would believe such a thing is fate, and consequently will have confidence which will encourage even better performances. This team genuinely has little experience of losing having lost just twice in three years! This Mancini led rebuilding project might not have been the most glamorous (evidenced by how much they’ve gone under the radar despite being perhaps the most in form team in the competition) but it certainly has been effective.
Mancini has taken much of his tactically influences from the greats of the past, not quite the hordes Julius Caesar but the teams of the Milanese clubs of the 50’s. These teams, particularly Inter, were famed for the catenaccio brand of football which is the clear inspiration for this current squad. Italy typically set up in a 4-3-3 lineup with one fullback tucking in to form a pseudo back three while the other pushes high up to join the attack to good effect. Meanwhile the midfield three features two deep-lying playmakers – usually any two of Jorginho, Manuel Locatelli or Marco Veratti – with one getting into more advanced positions to support an inverted winger. The front three are dynamic and often quick players who can counterattack effectively which is necessary for their game plan. Catenaccio (italian for “The Chain”) is characterized by the use of a spare man in defence known as “the bolt”, what this refers to is when one player pressurizes the opposition ball carrier, and then another shuffles across to cover for them. The idea is to keep one defender free at all times, that person often is Leonardo Bonucci as his centre-back partner is rotated he normally survives those switch ups. When playing alongside Francesco Acerbi or Alessandro Bastoni he is almost always the bolt, but when linking up with his longtime partner Giorgio Chellini the roles are rotated depending on the side of the field being attacked. After soaking up significant pressure, Italy can counterattack quickly and aggressively. That’s where the deep lying playmakers come in; they can quickly release the runners once possession has been regained. But that’s not the only way Italy plays. Those inverted wingers and dynamic forwards are a blur of motion in the final third with their fluid movement in conjunction with the two playmakers able to effectively retain and recycle possession. As a result, sitting off Italy is not an option because they will patiently control the game and break down the opposition, hence the low scoring nature of most of their games. But in open games that leave space for their forwards to run into they will bombard the opposing defence and are clinical to finish off chances – Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne will capitalize on anything and the likes of Domenico Berardi and the two Federico’s – Chiseas and Bernardeschi – provide penetration from wide.
With such a flexible game plan, when they play their Group A rivals, Turkey, Switzerland and Wales, however they choose to set up against Italy, the Azzurri will have a game plan, and can effortlessly alternate between the two styles of play, meaning Immobile and co getting the business done up top and Gigi Donnarumma’s goal will be largely untroubled. An expansive Wales team might appear to dominate their matchup on the day, but end up losing 2-0 because the Italians control their situation so well and hit them with two trademark counters. Meanwhile a well organized and cautious Turkey could pose the most problem for Italy, that said they should still make it through the group without too much worry. As group winners, they meet runners up of Group C which in all likelihood could be Ukraine, although Netherlands aren’t as fluent these days and could actually finish behind Ukraine in second. Either way, Italy should get past both no matter who they meet. From there they face their first real big test in the tournament playing (most likely) Belgium based on the bracket, and that’s when we see just how vintage this new look catenaccio redux will stack up. Just how vintage Italy can get, whether they conjure up the spirit of the gladiators when they host all comers in Rome, or just settle for the 1968 Euros team, we’re sure to be entertained! Italy gets the thumbs up.