After Italy failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 60 years, it was clear that there was something badly wrong with a team that had enjoyed such a proud football history. Giampiero Ventura had bumbled along during his tenure, making huge mistakes with both his squad selection and formation, leaving the Azzurri devastated to be staying at home while others left for Russia.
So when the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) were in the process of appointing a successor for the incompetent Ventura, it was vitally important that they got it right. Carlo Ancelotti was approached but turned the opportunity down, but this was certainly not the case for Roberto Mancini, who – at an estimated personal cost of €13 million – successfully negotiated a release from his contract at Zenit St. Petersburg in order to take up the position.
The former Manchester City boss had accumulated 36 caps in a ten-year spell as a player with the Azzurri and spoke of his pride in taking on the managerial role when he was officially unveiled earlier this month. However, with many experienced internationals having already announced their retirement from the squad, Italy desperately need more than pride, rather someone who can rebuild a side and restore a reputation that had been so badly damaged.
How is Mancini likely to go about this difficult task?
The first thing we saw was a change in formation, after Ventura’s bizarre experiments with a 4-2-4 framework. Versus Saudi Arabia this week, the new man in charge deployed a 4-3-3 as expected, a system that undoubtedly suits many of the players available for selection. The boss has plenty of experience, having won three Serie A titles with Internazionale, the Premier League and FA Cup with Manchester City and four Coppa Italia trophies with Internazionale, Lazio and Fiorentina.
He also holds a proven track record with introducing young players into his teams, for example having handed 18-year-old Assane Gnoukouri his Internazionale first-team debut in April 2015, a player who went on to do well in the Milan derby later on in that campaign. It was imperative that the new boss started as he meant to go on and brought some of Italy’s best young talent into his first squad, in order that this team began to gel with Euro 2020 the firm target for the future.
Mancini would not disappoint, naming the likes of Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Pellegrini in the side, but arguably his best choice was up-front. As expected, the 53-year-old called up Mario Balotelli, the Nice striker making his first appearance for the Azzurri since World Cup 2014. A team that was crying out for some incisiveness during the ill-fated qualifiers earlier this year suddenly looked much more deadly as Balotelli scored from outside the box in a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia.
Italy had been heavily reliant on Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile in recent times, both excellent goal-scorers but too similar in their playing style. A look at statistics revealed that Balotelli took a shot from outside the box 2.5 times per 90 minutes on average, with Immobile and Belotti coming in at 0.7 and 0.6 times respectively in the same area. An ability to change things with a substitution could come in incredibly useful, and this decisive move to bring back the Ligue 1 star – where others hesitated – is already a step forward in what is undoubtedly a huge task for new Italy boss Roberto Mancini.
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