Russian Roulette: An Health Check for the Azzurri On Their Way to World Cup 2018

The Azzurri’s most recent efforts on their way to World Cup 2018 produced three points in the last two games against Spain and Israel, an outcome that left their chances for qualification unchanged.

Straight talk time: Few people could expect to win in Madrid against a superior Spanish squad, to take the lead of Group G in the European qualifiers. Italy’s realistic task was rather securing the second place in the group by beating Israel.

The fact that the mission was “accomplished” – so to say – by overcoming the Middle Easterners by a meager 1-0 score, after having suffered a crushing 0-3 defeat at the hands of La Roja, did spark some criticism over coach Giampiero Ventura’s choices and his players’ attitude. However, numbers say that Italy is indeed one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup, even if that will have to happen – as expected – via the back door of the European playoffs in November.

This will keep the noise at bay for a while, and legitimize coach Ventura and the Football Federation to keep going their way, much to the frustration of the Italian supporters, who had to witness the usual, bare-minimum-performance the Azzurri offer whenever there is not too much really at stake: Bad enough to generate harsh criticism, but not that bad to call for strong actions and radical changes.

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Still, the ticket to Russia is all but secured. Italy may be tied against a lower ranking team at the draw for the playoffs, but a two-leg round can be unpredictable and full of dangers, especially if the Azzurri refuse to address some concerning trends that the matches against Spain and Israel showed.

Sometimes il difetto sta nel manico, an Italian say goes. It roughly translates as “the problem is with the lack of grip,” and it’s an elegant way to express the local supporters’ doubts over coach Ventura’s aptness to lead La Nazionale. Giampiero Ventura is an experienced trainer whose extensive knowledge of calcio is not under discussion. But if you hardly know about him, that is because he spent his whole career coaching provinciali teams – Udinese, Cagliari, Torino to name a few – and he basically had no international experience prior to being appointed as coach for Italy.

At 70 years and with such a background on your back, it’s not easy to change your football credo and adapt it to the international stage, and Ventura indeed distinguished himself for stubbornly persisting with his decisions – whether good or bad. A couple of illusory friendly matches and a qualification group that, if you exclude Spain, was objectively the easiest of the lot masqueraded the real effectiveness of his choices until going got tough for the first time.

>>>ANSA/ Calcio: Ventura, ko duro ma Italia non perde autostima
Photo Credit: ANSA / Daniel Dal Zennaro

 

In Madrid, it took less than 15 minutes for everyone to realize that pretending to tackle Spain and their top-class midfielders with a 4-2-4 lineup, was not only a suicidal, but also a pretentious gamble. On top of the module itself, the Italian trainer ventured into other questionable choices, like forcing Lorenzo Insigne to play in a position that is not his own, and lining up a player at his seasonal debut like Leonardo Spinazzola on the left back side.

But aside from the tactical hazards and the fact that La Roja was indeed superior, it was the Azzurri’s mental approach to both games and their lack of grit to cast further shadows over Ventura’s ability to shake the team up when needed. After 45 minutes of corrida, with Italy impersonating the bull, you would have expected some sort of reaction on the blue jerseys side, and to see them at least trying to change the game’s inertia. None of that happened, and radio silence continued for the full first half of the match against Israel, which offered an easy chance for redeem.

Passionate former coach Antonio Conte would have literally kicked his player asses, to wake them up and have them put some soul and balls into their efforts. That was indeed one of the secrets of Conte’s successful campaign as Italy coach, as he led an even less talented Nazionale than this one to a European Championships Quarter Finals last year. We don’t know what kind of talk went on in the changing rooms, but surely Giampiero Ventura’s gentleman appearance and attitude don’t exactly look like the one needed to motivate a squad featuring multiple primadonna.

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On top of that, a subtle arrogance even in the communication part didn’t help making Ventura popular among fans. Right after the hammering against Spain, he reiterated his mantra that “In Russia, we will be the surprise of the World Cup.” As much as it’s good to maintain confidence, we should make sure that we actually get there first – and the problems with Italy unfortunately don’t end with their coach’s tactics and attitude.

Monument goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon did save the day against Israel with an important save when the score was still 0-0. However, the match against the Furias Rojas highlighted once again the 39-year-old’s inevitable loss of reactivity – which was evident on both Isco’s goals. Buffon’s charisma and authority might still be important to cement the team spirit, but one may ask whether his obstinacy to keep defending Italy’s goal well past his prime is actually becoming detrimental, and preventing his potential successors to accumulate international experience.

Speaking of veterans, Buffon is not the only one from which you would have expected more, at least from a motivational point of view. When times are stormy, a team turns to their leaders to get the right guidance on the pitch, and seasoned warriors like Daniele De Rossi and Leonardo Bonucci surely don’t lack the personality to do that. Still, you didn’t see any of them barking at their numb teammates, you didn’t hear any “Let’s try at least to save the face!,” with Milan’s new captain in a confused state after having caused the free kick that gave Spain the lead. When as a leader you seem to have lost the eye of the tiger, it might be time for a motivation self-check. De Rossi is 34 and has already won a World Cup. Just saying.

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But if the old golden generation were to quit, who would take their place?
Talent indeed abounds among the Nazionale younger ranks, if only those who have more of it managed to put it to use. Italian fans have been waiting for players like Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Verratti to perform at their best with the national squad for years, yet the two once club-mates keep showing only a spark of their talent when wearing an Azzurri jersey.

Giampiero Ventura’s positioning in not helping any of them, with the Neapolitan forced to play wide on the left side, and Paris St. Germain’s play maker left to guard an unprotected midfield almost by himself. But you would still expect Insigne to be able to perform out of the comfort zone of his Napoli’s well-known position, and someone who was rumored to be on the radar of Barcelona like Verratti not to be simply humiliated by Isco. It cannot just be due to coach Ventura’s positioning.

The feeling among Italian observers is that we might be waiting for Godot here, or – what’s worse – that we might have been simply overestimating them. And while genius among the current Italian pool of talents cannot match that of Spain, Germany or France, and the lack of one true world class player is evident, there also seems to be a problem with attitude and, in some cases, with lack of humility.

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Take the case of Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the best prospects among the new generation of Italian defenders: Atalanta’s 24-year-old, who is on loan from Juventus, was supposed to spend one more year in Bergamo before going back to the Bianconeri. But this Summer he dug his heels in, and pretended to anticipate his comeback to Juve and get his international chances right away. As a result, his current – legitimate – team left him on the bench in the first Serie A games, and Spinazzola stepped foot on the pitch in Madrid without having played any official match this season. Take another look at the recording of Spain-Italy to see the results…

It’s not all dark on the Italian side, and coach Ventura will need to leverage on the few good signs that the matches with Spain and Israel gave him: defender Matteo Darmian confirmed to be able to play and make the difference on both sides on the pitch, Antonio Candreva from Inter was among the best in both occasions, and players like Ciro Immobile and Davide Zappacosta showed that they are in a pretty good shape, as their following Serie A and Champions League exploits eventually confirmed.

The Road to 2018 is coming to an end and final verdicts will be emitted in November. The Azzurri can face the last call with the advantage of a likely favorable draw and of their indisputable experience. There’s still time to learn from the past errors, and realize that the November playoff will require a different mentality. In that view, Spain might have done us a favor – provided that we learn the lesson once and forever.

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