Screw the Catenaccio! When Italy Go into Full Attack Mode

There is a reason why Italy’s dazzling 9-1 win over a modest Armenia selection is sending the whole world of calcio in raptures. And it’s not because, by mercilessly trashing the Caucasian side in Palermo on Monday, The Azzurri put an official stamp on their qualification to the upcoming itinerant European Championship.

Historically, the Italians have not exactly been known for their offensive style of play, their football credo being rather exemplified by that notorious mark which bears the name of catenaccio: A hyper-defensive philosophy of play, consisting in parking the bus in front of the goal and waiting for the next chance to punish your opponent with a counterattack. One goal, and the job is done.

Catenaccio has its use, of course, but to call it an entertaining football philosophy to watch would be quite an overstatement. That’s why Italy’s traditional pride of their defensive showmanship has always been welcomed with mumbling and raised eyebrows in the international football community.

Such a defensive, essential attitude towards the beautiful game also has the collateral effect of making pretty much unbearable any football match where the Azzurri had the luck – or the merit – of scoring early in the game, especially when facing a much weaker opponent. And that’s without taking into account that going bare minimum could fatally expose to the risk of cutting a poor figure, should your lower-ranked adversary hit the jackpot and live a day as a lion.

To put things in perspective: We are talking about a national selection which in 1992 won “only” 1-2 in minuscule Malta, and if it weren’t for goalie Gianluca Pagliuca’s late save on a penalty by Kristian Laferla, we might even be talking about a completely different story. Make no mistake: That was an important match, as Italy were still struggling to qualify for World Cup 1994.

We are talking about a national selection which tied 0-0 in Georgia in a World Cup 1998 Qualifiers game, sparking a memorable post-match quarrel between coach Cesare Maldini and a TV journalist who had made him note that a goalless draw in Tbilisi was not exactly an outcome to be proud of – if only because it was forcing the Azzurri to pass through the playoff lottery to book their ticket to the French tournament.

And, we are talking about a national side whose manager Giovanni Trapattoni – a true herald of difensivismo – substituted striker Alessandro Del Piero with midfielder Gennaro Gattuso in that infamous World Cup 2002 Round of 16 match against South Korea, paving the way for the Azzurri’s elimination much before referee Byron Moreno’s shameless decisions and Han Jung-Hwan’s malicious header.

Armenia itself, to name one, had managed to come out of their only previous trip to Italy, back in 2013 for a World Cup 2014 Qualifiers, with a precious 2-2 tie – even leading 1-2 for a few minutes, before Mario Balotelli could equalize Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s second goal and save Italy from a memorable figuraccia.

But on Monday at the Renzo Barbera Stadium in Palermo, Roma’s star and Armenia’s only professional player could not be of the game, ruled out by an injury that has kept him at bay since October. Deprived of Mhkitaryan, coach Abraham Khashmanyan’s eleven men made easy prey for Roberto Mancini’s Italy, which surprisingly switched to full-scale attack mode despite the ticket for Euro 2020 being already in their pockets.

Not earlier than two years ago, the Azzurri would have hit the brake after the lightning-fast one-two by Ciro Immobile and Nicoló Zanioló which stunned the Armenians in the last Euro 2020 Qualifiers match in Group J and gave Italy a double lead after just nine minutes.

Instead, they kept attacking and attacking. In the 29th minute, Nicoló Barella scored his second Azzurri goal, before Ciro Immobile would make it to the scoresheet for the second time to wrap up some initial 45 minutes which saw Italy also hitting the posts twice. Mancio’s troops didn’t lower their guard in the second half either despite their quadruple lead.

Nicoló Zaniolo treated himself with his first personal brace with the Azzurri at just 20 years of age, then defender Alessio Romagnoli scored the 6th taking advantage of a blunder on the part of the Armenian goalkeeper. The 7th goal was a courtesy of Jorginho’s “usual” penalty, then debutant Ricardo Orsolini made it eight with a perfectly-timed header. Finally, there was some glory for Federico Chiesa as well – the young Fiorentina starlet scoring his first goal with the Italian senior selection after collecting 17 caps.

Armenia managed to save their honor between Orsolini and Chiesa’s goals with an out-of-the-box screamer by Edgar Babayan, who made Alex Meret’s late debut between the sticks a little less enthusiastic than he was probably hoping for. Think about the poor guy: Your team scores nine goals, but you concede one, albeit with no fault, two minutes after setting foot on the pitch…

A tiny spot on the otherwise-immaculate Azzurri’s night, but still unable to affect the historical meaning of a scorecard which read 9-1 at full time.

To give an idea of the magnitude of the event, this was only the third time in history that the Azzurri managed to put at least nine goals into an opposition’s net. After a prehistoric 9-4 goalfest against France in 1920, Italy repeated themselves in 1948, trampling the U.S.A. 9-0 in an Olympic Games match which constitutes the Italians’ all-time largest-margin win.

Before that, the Azzurri had won 11-3 against Egypt in Amsterdam to capture a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympic tournament. It would seem that the Olympian atmosphere used to have such an enhancing effect on Italy’s offensive skills…

Regardless of Roberto Mancini having maybe spent a few nights watching some old Olympic video tapes, one thing is for sure: His young, sparkling, offensive version of Italy – where even “old” players like Marco Verratti and Ciro Immobile seem to have changed their skin – has succeeded in winning back the disillusioned Nazionale fans’ hearts.

With an open winning streak now featuring 11 games, an European Championship Qualification round dominated with a perfect record of 10 wins out of 10 games (Reality check alert: Group J was easy. VERY easy. But still…), and a shocking +33 goal difference, the former Inter and Manchester City manager now appears to be on an even tougher mission than restoring Italy’s reputation in the football world: Doing so by scrapping the ill-famed catenaccio.



November 18, 2019 – European Championship 2020 Qualifiers Group J

SCORERS: 8′ Immobile (I), 9′ Zaniolo (I), 29′ Barella (I), 33′ Immobile (I), 64′ Zaniolo (I), 72′ Romagnoli (I), 75′ Jorginho (I, pen.), 78′ Orsolini (I), 80′ Babayan (A), 81′ Chiesa (I)

ITALY (4-3-3): Sirigu (77′ Meret); Di Lorenzo, Romagnoli, Bonucci (68′ Izzo), Biraghi; Barella (46′ Orsolini), Jorginho, Tonali; Chiesa, Immobile, Zaniolo (Donnarumma, Castrovilli, Florenzi, Belotti, Insigne, Acerbi, Mandragora, Bernardeschi, El Shaarawy) Coach: Mancini
ARMENIA (5-4-1): Airapetyan; Hambartsumyan, Haroyan, Calisir, Ishkhanyan (69′ Sarkisov), Hovhannisyan; Babayan, Grigoryan (60′ Simonyan), Edigaryan (82′ Avetisyan), Barseghyan; Karapetian (Beglaryan, Kasparov, Voskanyan, Manucharyan, Daniielian, Hovhannisyan, Vardanyan, Harutyunyan) Coach: Khashmanyan

REFEREE: Tiago Martins (Portugal)
NOTES: Yellow Card: Haroyan (A)

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