Italy have emerged as outside favourites after registering three successive wins over Turkey, Switzerland and Wales respectively to finish at the summit of Group A.
The Italians have been imperious – scoring seven goals and keeping three straight clean sheets in the process. Their form ahead of the tournament was impressive and they’ve further illustrated their brilliance by extending their unbeaten run to 30 matches across all competitions.
Italian sides of the past have been built on a strong defensive unit, yet the foundation of their recent resurgence is the midfield triumvirate of Manuel Locatelli, Nicolo Barella and Jorginho.
Roberto Mancini has talked about the importance of “taking risks” but his midfield structure has enabled them to play in such an expressive and open manner. Jorginho acts as the pivot, Locatelli creates from deep with a capacity to drive forward and Barella floats into pockets of space between the lines. It’s a wonderful balance which has thus far proved uncontainable and the stability provided by the midfield has ensured that the rest of the team function efficiently.
The experience of Juventus’ defensive duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci is a major asset – substantiated by the eleven consecutive clean sheets that Italy have registered since conceding against the Netherlands in October 2020.
Chiellini and Bonucci, with a combined age of 70, have over 200 international caps between them, but the recent injury to Chiellini in Italy’s 3-0 win over Switzerland, showcased their incredible squad depth.
Francesco Acerbi stepped into the breach for the remainder of the Swiss victory, marshalling the threat of Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo with relative ease. Inter Milan’s 22-year-old centre-back Alessandro Bastoni provided a more attacking option against Wales with his tendency to venture forward and distribute the ball effectively, although he executed his defensive responsibilities to keep Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey at bay.
The midfield has been the ultimate base for Italy, providing protection for the marauding runs of left-back Leandro Spinazzola and the evasive movement of Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne.
Ciro Immobile has also answered his critics by producing on the international stage with two goals in as many games. Mancini will inevitably face a selection dilemma ahead of Saturday’s Round of 16 tie against Austria at Wembley but this can only be a positive problem.
Marco Verratti and Matteo Pessina played excellently against Wales as Mancini rung the changes to give his usual starters a well deserved rest. Juventus winger Federico Chiesa also staked a claim for a starting place although Berardi has understandably been Mancini’s favoured choice.
One player who has surely done enough to be assured of a starting place is Locatelli. The 23-year-old, who plies his trade at Sassuolo alongside Berardi, has been one of the standout players at Euro 2020 so far. His first career brace against Switzerland, especially his second goal, was a sight to behold but the role Verratti plays could see him cruelly dropped.
The most important theme implemented by Mancini is the side’s ability to adapt to the system regardless of the personnel on the pitch. This was perfectly demonstrated in the final group match against Wales with Verratti driving forward and launching attacks with penetrative passes, Pessina floating between the lines and Chiesa playing an integral role in attacks on the right wing. The aforementioned trio in many ways mirrored the roles played by Locatelli, Barella and Berardi in the victories over Turkey and Switzerland respectively.
Squad depth, an efficient brand of football and a complimentary balance between defence and attack has given Italy every chance of ending their European Championship hoodoo. Italy reached the final in 2000 and 2012 but have not lifted the trophy since hosting the competition in 1968 when it was in its infant stages as a four-team tournament.
Mancini has an incredible track record at club level – winning silverware in Italy, England and Turkey respectively. The former Manchester City manager has sensibly refused to be drawn into the excitement building around this Italian side but regardless of whether they lift the trophy or not, Mancini has undoubtedly re-established Italy as an international super heavyweight!