While the teeth-gnashing on these shores during the last World Cup were enough to drown out the laments of everyone else in the world, you may have forgotten that a true giant of the international game wasn’t in Russia either. That would be Italy, the first time they didn’t partake in the tournament since 1958. In some ways, it was the absolute nadir of Serie A’s decline from the best league in the world to one that was barely hanging on to its place among the “Big 5” and had become synonymous with insomnia cures. Juventus’ treatment of the rest of the league as a chew toy exposed a lack of depth and talent in the league.
But Serie A has had a revival the past couple of seasons, which finally saw the end of Juve’s reign. But more importantly, teams like Atalanta and Sassuolo this season have pushed the league away from its defensive, stodgy history and into a video game era, at least for Serie A. Inter won the title under the normally defensive Antonio Conte pouring in 89 goals. Their city rivals Milan finished second with a young, exciting roster. Atalanta continued to crash the party with 90 goals over the season.
That buoyancy has filtered up to the national team, which returns to tournament life on Friday when they open Euro 2020(1) against Turkey in Rome. It is apparently law in Italy that the national team must rest on a bedrock of older defenders, and this one will be no different as it sports Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in central defense, and Alessandro Florenzi at right-back, all over 30.
Chiellini and Bonucci didn’t exactly keep Juventus water-tight at the back this season, which means the Azzurri are going to have to score. And on the surface, that wouldn’t look like a problem. Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile will be two of the front-three in their normal 4-3-3, and they combined for 39 goals in the league this year. Immobile punted in 36 goals last season on his own. Throw in Domenico Berardi from the aforementioned upstarts Sassuolo with his 31 goals the past two seasons, and all would seem to be fine.
But under the hood, it’s not so simple. It’s never translated to the international scene for Immobile or Insigne. Immobile only has 13 goals for his country in 45 matches. Insigne only 7 in 40. Berardi has only suited up 11 times for Italy, though has scored at a higher rate than the other two with five. But he hasn’t seen a major tournament yet either.
They shouldn’t hurt for service. Italy’s likely starters in midfield include Manuel Locatelli, the engine of Sassuolo. Next to him will be Marco Verratti, who is the fulcrum for PSG. Both of them rank in the 95th percentile for their passing stats, according to FBref.com. Other options are Nicolo Barella, the creative leader of champions Inter’s midfield, or Jorginho, who was in the middle for the current Champions League holder Chelsea. Italy will not lack for endeavor in the middle.
But that will only matter if it turns into markings on the scoreboard. Otherwise it’s just noise. And there isn’t a lot of depth behind those three strikers. Perhaps Insigne and Immobile have benefitted from Serie A’s new, open-nature and struggle when the volume gets turned up at the international level. Perhaps they’ve just been snakebit. It’s unlikely that under manager Roberto Mancini, Italy will be as conservative as we usually think of them. There will be chances.
If Italy do start converting, their draw is relatively kind. They get to play all their group stage games at home. A possible round of 16 match would likely be against Austria or Ukraine, maybe Netherlands if they fuck up. The first two would be huge underdogs. The quarters could line up Belgium, who always seem to be looking for an excuse to shoot all their toes off and could have an unfit Kevin De Bruyne, or tough tests in Portugal or even possibly France. That might be the extent of expectations.
But Italian soccer isn’t what we remember these days. If that were to spread to its national team, surprises could be in store.
Elsewhere in Group A, Switzerland present an interesting case as they are the team with the most players in their peak years in the tournament (ages 24-29). If ever they were going to bust out, this is it. But regular cruxes of the team like Xherdan Shaqiri either haven’t played much for their clubs or like Granit Xhaka have had very up and down seasons. Turkey could honestly be anything. This is a team that gave up three goals in qualifying, and then was spitting out results like 3-3 and 4-2 regularly of late. This is a team that beat Netherlands 4-2 and then drew at home with Latvia 3-3 in the span of a week. There should be a solid defense here through Zeki Çelik, who was part of Lille’s backline that usurped PSG to the French title, as well as Leicester’s Çağlar Söyüncü . In midfield, they have AC Milan’s spark Hakan Çalhanoğlu, so this is a squad that could catch the Swiss or Welsh napping for sure. Or give up a touchdown.
Wales should benefit from Gareth Bale actually caring, but will have issues everywhere else. Aaron Ramsey was only a bit player for Juventus instead of a key Arsenal cog the last time Wales were in this tourney four years ago, and the defense has either Tottenham-itus (Ben Davies) or plies their trade in the Championship or lower. It’s a short tournament, and Wales proved just four years ago that just about anything can happen, but this would be a lot of anything to happen.
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Euro 2021 kicks off Friday, June 11