Duck and cover, sports fans, Italy are on a roll!
The Azzurri have won both their opening games of Euro 2020 by a score of 3-0, despite never once scoring three (or more) in any of their previous appearances at the European Championships.
Roberto Mancini’s men look fierce and formidable, but some are not impressed. After the match TV pundit and Euro 2000 winner Patrick Vieira said: “I think the first two games that they played were two easy games. I believe that they lack intensity, lack power, pace, to be even more dangerous going forward, so I’m still going to wait.”
Not wanting to be left out, TV pundit and Euro 1996 semi-finalist Gary Neville chirped in: “Italy are achieving their maximum, but I agree with Patrick, I feel they will fall short.”
However, the Englishman did at least give Italy some praise, adding: “They do everything they do well. You know they will give their all, they fill the areas, fill the box, midfield runners. They are a passionate team and it will be interesting to see how they do against a good team.”
— Squawka (@Squawka) June 16, 2021
Are these former superstars correct in their assessment of Italy? Are they, in fact, being propped up by good results over bad teams? Well, while we’ve seen Turkey twice and on neither occasion did they excel, perhaps we can say that the win over Turkey was not too impressive.
Switzerland, however, are ranked 13th in the world! That’s above Croatia who England just about scraped by to much acclaim, and only one below Germany who France gave a sound slapping to. Hell Belgium, everyone’s joint-faves, only beat rank-38 Russia in their first game. So why is everyone getting so gassed over Lukaku and co.? Hmmm???
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Obviously the FIFA rankings don’t really tell you too much, but they do illustrate how bizarre it is to rate a team based solely on who they play. No other team is rated this way, what’s so special about Italy that their success must be qualified??
And to be clear, Italy are no tournament surprise. This has been coming for a very long time.
The Azzurri lost twice in he first five games under Roberto Mancini (in fact, they only won one of those) back in 2018, but since drawing 1-1 with Ukraine they went 27 games without defeat on the way into Euro 2020. That record now stands at 29 games unbeaten and approaching Italy’s all-time record which is 30, and that was set in the 1930s by Vittorio Pozzo’s legendary back-to-back world champions.
Additionally, since a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in October 2020, Italy have now won 10 straight games without conceding. Sure, some of the opponents haven’t been the best, but 10 straight clean sheets does not happen by accident, that is something only a very good football team could put together.
Gianluigi Donnarumma is the first goalkeeper other than Gianluigi Buffon to keep a clean sheet for Italy at a major tournament since Francesco Toldo at Euro 2000.
From one Gigi to another. ? pic.twitter.com/6Jh1ET7vzQ
— Squawka (@Squawka) June 11, 2021
And sure enough, Italy are a very good football team.
So they may not have many household names, especially in attack, but this is a team that just flat-out works.
Gianluigi Donnarumma is a fantastic, world-class goalkeeper. A brick wall at the back. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are magnificent defenders and though they’re both on the downslope, can still get it done together. And if one of them has to drop out (as Chiellini did through injury against Switzerland) they have the brilliant Francesco Acerbi or Alessandro Bastoni to step in.
Giovanni di Lorenzo and Leonardo Spinazzola are not fashionable full-backs but they are relentless up and down the touchline, providing constant width in attack. Wingers Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne don’t look like much but both have the dribbling and shooting skills to turn out your lights in a heartbeat. They don’t play complex, they play simple but as with the full-backs it’s so effective.
Leading the line is Ciro Immobile who, at 31, is finally in the peak of his career. The striker has 150 goals in 219 games for Lazio, an outstanding return for a player many deemed a flop after he failed to perform for Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla. He can hold the ball up, he can run in behind and the man can really, really shoot.
The midfield, however, is where the magic happens. Nicolo Barella is the one breaking lines and joining the attack. His passes are perceptive and so often incisive. He was involved in all three goals against Turkey and bagged an assist for Locatelli against the Swiss.
Jorginho anchors with all his usual panache, passing the ball around the pitch for fun. Manuel Locatelli next to him is an incredible combination of passing and tackling, a real engine and a selfless worker that helps make the system tick over. Marco Verratti was meant to be the man in that spot but injury gave Locatelli a chance and, with his brace against Switzerland, he has very emphatically taken it.
The key thing to note about the midfield, well, about everyone really but especially the midfield, is how they press. Italy’s press is relentless. Turkey (who came into the tournament with a fair bit of hype) were suffocated by it, as were Switzerland who are also no pushovers.
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Italy’s ability to press is not only what has helped them romp to two consecutive victories, it is also what stands them in good stead for the rest of the tournament as the quality of their opponents will doubtless improve. They’ve not won 3-0 twice because of weak opponents, they’ve done that because they are a good team. But there are better sides to face that Turkey and Switzerland, and playing the way the are Italy will almost certainly meet them.
The Azzurri are through to the last-16 for sure, and anything but a defeat against Wales will see them top the group. And remember: they haven’t lost since 2018 and haven’t even conceded in 10 straight. Winning the group will see them travel to Wembley to take on the runner-up from Group C, which will be one of Ukraine, Netherlands or Austria.
After that it becomes more fantasy booking, but if Italy do get that far then they will have at least set a new record of 31 games unbeaten, surpassing Pozzo’s side. That will be tremendous cause for celebration and give them the momentum to help them run over anyone that could be put into their path. Yes, France included.
The last time #ITA lost a game was September 2018.
The last time Italy conceded a goal was October 2020.
Italy are one of two teams to win every #EURO2020 qualifier. ??
— Squawka (@Squawka) June 11, 2021
Obviously the defending world champions are a cut above everyone else in the tournament. That was obvious even before they wiped the floor with Germany while never getting out of first gear. But where no other team looks prepared to handle the French, Italy just might be.
And the reason for that is their press. The midfield press, to be precise. No one selected for this tournament can keep Kylian Mbappé quiet, certainly not 1-v-1. So the solution to keeping a lid on France’s explosive game-winning striker is to cut off his supply. And the best way to do that is to press, press, press.
Paul Pogba is the best French midfielder, but he is extremely non-press resistant. By swarming midfield as they have done with intense and relentless defensive pressure, Italy can both prevent French attacks from building up properly and also force turnovers that could lead to them catching the otherwise excellent French defence out.
Of course it’s all theoretical at this point, but no one else has the kind of midfield needed to suppress France, except for maybe England who have a whole host of other issues unlike Italy, who are literally in historic form and have built up an incredible amount of momentum.
#ITA have kept TEN consecutive clean sheets, winning every single game and scoring 31 goals without reply.
Roberto Mancini insists there's still room for improvement. pic.twitter.com/k8cQn0mplG
— Squawka (@Squawka) June 17, 2021
Yes the opponents may not have been the best, but what Gary Neville and Patrick Vieira seem to have forgotten is Italy haven’t been stuttering through these wins based on individual quality. No, they have been comprehensively outplaying their opponents with a coherent style and consistent patterns of play. And when you win a lot of games playing that way, the ability to scale up becomes much easier. Bigger and better opponents fall into the same traps the weaker ones did because you, as a team, believe in yourself and what you’re doing.
When Spain won Euro 2008 they finished top of a group containing Russia, Sweden and Greece. They needed late winners to beat both Sweden and Greece but every game was played on their terms, with their style, when better opponents came (Italy in the quarter-finals, Germany in the final) they were dispatched all the same. And after winning those Euros, Spain went on an era of ideological domination that lasted until 2014 when they were taken apart at the World Cup. That’s six years at the top of the world, and it started against weaker teams.
It always starts against weaker teams. That’s not important. What matters is where it ends up, and for Italy they want that to be Wembley on 11 July, lifting the country’s second-ever European Championship.