The new-look Italy has survived its sternest test.
Since Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, manager Roberto Mancini has rebuilt the national team by emphasizing quick passing, high pressing, and, most of all, goals. The culture shift has worked better than anyone could have dreamed. Italy was on a 31-game unbeaten streak going into Friday’s match against Belgium. The advanced numbers approved of its form; the eye test liked its cohesion and the speed with which it drove at the goal after forcing turnovers. Italy flooded opposing nets during the streak, scoring four, five, six, seven, and nine goals at various times. It was the complete opposite of the dour, boring Italy teams that had earned reputations for defensive cynicism and attacking opportunism for generations.
The only caveat was whom all this came against. The best win of those 31 games occurred just two weeks ago against Switzerland, which is ranked 13th in the world by FIFA. Before that, it notched a 1–0 victory in 2020 against a manager-less Netherlands so desperate for a coach it hired MLS (and Serie A and Premier League) washout Frank de Boer a few weeks later. (De Boer stepped down again this week, after Holland lost to the Czech Republic in this Euro Cup’s Round of 16.) Italy used one of its warm-up friendlies for this tournament to beat what FIFA’s rankings say is the worst national team in the world, San Marino, 7–0. Yes, it looked good, but as they say in the old country, “Italy ain’t played nobody, Paolo.”
Not anymore. Belgium was the No. 1 team in the world, but they didn’t look like it during Friday’s Euro 2020 quarterfinal. Italy was easily the better side, pinning the Belgians back for much of its deserved victory. Unfortunately, even as the Italians booked their place in the final four, Friday’s win might have proved the apotheosis of Mancini’s revamp.
It was a clever bit of Italian pressing that led to the first goal. Belgium tried to play out the back, Italy’s midfielder Marco Verratti jumped into a passing lane and slid the ball quickly forward for Nicolò Barella to finish before Belgium could recover. But it was the second that proved just how scared Belgium was of Italy. When Italy’s Lorenzo Insigne picked up the ball and steered it around midfielder Youri Tielemans, no one from Belgium’s aging backline stepped to him. The defenders all seemed to hope they could get out of the moment without having to stand up to Insigne one-on-one. Mission accomplished, since their hesitance gave him plenty of time to measure a curling shot around Thibaut Courtois without dribbling past anyone else.
But even as Italy had the better first half, there were warning signs. Often the only recourse Italy’s aging central defenders had against Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku seemed to be to foul him and hope the refs let it go. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma made great saves on both Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. But it was the pace of a different Belgian player—19-year-old Jérémy Doku—that led to the Belgian goal, when he rounded Italian fullback Giovanni Di Lorenzo and was pushed down, earning a penalty for Lukaku to convert.
Belgium had one great chance in the second half to tie it, but the shot bounced off the thigh of the Italians’ breakout player this tournament, Roma left back Leonardo Spinazzola.
Spinazzola had been good defensively all tournament, but his biggest contributions have come on the offensive end, bombing down the flank to combine with Insigne and Verratti. Spinazzola went so far and so early that he was often the Italian player farthest forward on the pitch against Belgium. In this sense, Mancini’s Italy is calling back to Italy’s stylistic heritage—just a different part of it. The same Inter Milan team from the 1960’s that gave the world the catenaccio style and Italy its ultra-defensive reputation also introduced the world to Giacinto Facchetti, perhaps the first fullback to be an attacking star in his own right.
Facchetti’s legacy has lived on during Euro 2020. The Netherlands’ secret weapon as it ran through its group was right-sided wingback Denzel Dumfries, ghosting late to the far post for easy finishes. Denmark’s left wingback Joakim Maehle has been one of its stars of the tournament as the team searched for creativity in the wake of Christian Eriksen’s collapse. Portugal appeared bamboozled by the mere concept in its 4–2 defeat to Germany during the group stages; Die Mannschaft’s Robin Gosens spent what felt like the entire game unmarked as the Portuguese defense pinched in time and time again. The goal that then knocked Portugal out of the tournament for good was scored by Belgian wingback Thorgan Hazard arriving late and finding the time to wind up a long-range shot. Hazard, Maehle, and Dumfries have each scored twice in these Euros. And the tournament’s leading assister so far is the Swiss wingback Steven Zuber.
What Spinazzola has allowed Italy to do is to get all the offensive contributions of a wingback without sacrificing a forward or midfielder for an extra defender. Most international teams with outside defenders that push that high up the pitch—certainly all the ones mentioned above—play three central defenders behind those two to help cover for their forward forays. U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter positioned three at the back against Mexico in the Nations League final to provide cover for Sergiño Dest, a valuable offensive contributor who still struggles defensively.
But Italy’s legion of midfielders who never seem to turn the ball over allows Mancini’s team to keep the line of confrontation higher. It can control the game in its opponent’s half of the pitch instead of retreating into its own to regroup, as the more traditional Italian style would demand of it.
Even with the team’s history and reputation, the new Italian style shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Italian soccer has been growing more open for years. Last season, the best defensive record in the nation’s Serie A league was champion Inter Milan’s 35 goals against. In 2017-2018, four teams allowed 30 or fewer. In 2015-2016, Juventus allowed just 20.
While the trend holds broadly true league-wide, no side has done more to turbocharge Serie A in the past several years than manager Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta. Despite its mid-level budget—the five teams that spend the most on player wages in Italy all more than double its bill—Atalanta has led Serie A in scoring for three years running, and finished third in the standings in each of those years. Euro 2020 owes much of its shape and cast of characters to Atalanta. Gosens and Maehle both play there currently, often as wingbacks on opposite sides. Spinazzola spent two years there on loan from Juventus before he was sold to Roma. Atalanta central midfielders Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler started in central midfield for the Dutch and Swiss teams, respectively, providing cover for their wingbacks.
At the core of Atalanta’s high-powered scheme are passing combinations and player interchanges between the wingbacks and forwards moving away from the congested center of the pitch, forcing central and outside defenders to make hard choices about who’s covering where, in search of short crosses or cutback passes from the end line. Those are the same sorts of sequences that have gotten Hazard and Maehle free to score their goals and that have directed so much of Italy’s offense through Spinazzola and Insigne.
Italy had the better of Friday’s match in large part because Belgium’s wingbacks contributed so little in attack, too frightened by the speed of the Italian transitions and the threat of the overlapping Spinazzola to get forward and create these kinds of chances themselves. Belgium’s game plan instead was mostly to look for Doku, De Bruyne, and Lukaku on the counter. The only extended period of Belgian attacking came in the game’s final 10 minutes.
Unfortunately for Italy, this coincided with when Spinazzola left the game on a stretcher with what has been reported as a ruptured Achilles tendon. Given the game’s state, Italy probably would have spent most of the final period defending anyway, but it’s almost a little too on the nose that the moment their rampaging left back exited the game, Italy reverted back to its old ways, defending with 10 men behind the ball and turning every bump and tap into an opportunity to hit the deck and waste time, as though Spinazzola alone was the one who unlocked his team’s new potential. There’s too much attacking talent on this team for Italy to spend the rest of Euro 2020 on the back foot. It has the quality and the players to beat both Spain and whomever comes out of the other side of the bracket. But in a tournament defined by who can get their defenders forward into the best spots, the loss of Spinazzola threatens to make a sensational Italy side that much more ordinary.