Roberto Mancini is a winner. He was a winner as a player with Sampdoria and Lazio, and as a manager with Inter Milan and Manchester City. But the biggest challenge of his career will be to revive the fortunes of Italy’s beloved national team, the Azzurri.

Mancini comes in at a time when the Azzurri is at its lowest, having failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and having not won a competitive match for nearly a year. Mancini’s first two matches in charge were part of the newly formed UEFA Nations League against Poland and Portugal. 

In the opening match against Poland, Mancini selected a mix of experienced players (Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Davide Zappacosta, Jorginho and Mario Balotelli) and inexperienced players (Cristiano Biraghi, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Roberto Gagliardini, Federico Bernardeschi, Federico Chiesa) for his managerial debut. It was a lacklustre performance only saved by a late Jorginho penalty in the 1-1 draw.

In the next match against Portugal, Mancini selected a side without any Juventus players in the starting line-up, the first time this rare occurrence has happened for the Azzurri in 20 years. With nine changes made from the team which started against Poland, the team couldn’t find its rhythm and lost 1-0.  

Whilst Mancini will be afforded the luxury of a honeymoon period during the UEFA Nations League matches, he will need to find a settled line up, create a winning mentality and deliver a style of play to appease the Italian faithful by the time the 2020 European Championship qualifiers start in March 2019.

The Italian national team has been labelled ‘insipid, awful, boring, and devoid of any ideas’ in recent times, particularly under the reign of former manager Giampiero Ventura. Yet it was only 12 years ago Italy were world champions.

Where are the next generation of stars? 

Azzurri fans have been spoilt in the recent past with legends of Serie A and world football playing for the national team, including, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini and Filippo Inzaghi. 

The problem is these living legends were allowed to play for way too long, retiring in their late thirties, Maldini and Totti in their forties, with no-one groomed to take their places.

Serie A historically has not been a league which has invested in its youth. Italy does have a lot of talented young players but the truth is they don’t get enough playing time at their clubs and are often loaned out to lower divisions. 

Case in point, 20 year old Juventus forward Andrea Favilli was the star of the Bianconeri’s pre-season tour of the USA, looking the part and scored lots of goals. Since returning to Italy he has been loaned out to Genoa, having played just half a game of football after the first four rounds. 

If Favilli stayed at Juventus, he would be behind Ronaldo, Paolo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Moise Kean in the pecking order. Playing time would be limited, he moves to Genoa on loan, and again his playing time is limited. This is a fundamental problem with lots of Italian players plying their trade in Serie A, stay at a big club and hardly play or move to a lower based club and hopefully play and become a regular, but nothing is guaranteed. 

All major clubs in La Liga, the English Premier League, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga have B or reserve teams, a critical bloodline to the first teams, and is a great pathway for the development of young talent. Juventus is the only club in Italy to have a B team, debuting in Serie C for the first time this season.

Italy can reach the top of the mountain again, but change is necessary.

One way Italy can improve is to identify that there is in fact a problem and then follow in the footsteps of how Germany dealt with the same failings at international level several years ago.

In the space of four years, Germany were knocked out of the 1998 World Cup at the quarter-final stage, finished bottom of their group at the 2000 European Championships and lost the 2002 World Cup final to Brazil. Some countries may view making the final of the World Cup a success, but not Germany.

The German Football Association wanted sweeping changes to the way the game was run, starting with a significant redevelopment of the country's youth system. All clubs in the top two divisions were to create academy programs that needed to meet certain standards in order to allow the nation’s best young talent to grow. The German government invested over $1billion in funding and trusted the German Football Association was heading in the right direction. 

Which they were, with many German superstars getting their chances in club owned academies, including, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Alaba and Thomas Müller at Bayern Munich and Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Nuri Sahin, all graduates from Borussia Dortmund’s academy. 

The German national team also prospered since these drastic changes were first introduced by winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, their fourth title and created history in the process becoming the first European country to win on American soil.

Italian clubs and the national team have achieved success in the past at both European and international levels. However, if you don’t adapt to changing game styles, training methods, coaching techniques and strategies you will get left behind and that is what has happened to the Italian national team and Italian football in general.

Many Italian managers and Italian football hierarchy can be traditionally stubborn, be reluctant to change or being told what to do. It’s going to take a massive cultural change for the Azzurri to be great once again, hopefully the Italian Football Federation and Roberto Mancini are up for the challenge. 

Categories: Opinion | Europe

italy, azzurri, roberto mancini

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