Apocalypse, how? The Italian Football Federation’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, had defined the prospect of missing out on the 2018 World Cup as a disaster of biblical proportions. Now the worst has come to pass, the Azzurri failing to qualify for the first time in 60 years, after losing their play-off with Sweden. All that remains for a proud football nation is to analyse where it went wrong.
A partial answer could be found on the pitch at San Siro. Italy dominated Sweden with more than 75% of possession, yet lacked the subtlety to unpick a packed defence: pumping endless crosses into a penalty area where their opponents held a clear height advantage. A lack of nuance in the final third has been an ongoing problem for a team that has scored just three times in its last six competitive fixtures.
More revealing scenes, though, were playing out on the bench. Midway through the second half, a member of Italy’s coaching staff asked Daniele De Rossi to warm up. The midfielder reacted angrily, appearing to reply: “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win.”
His words were accompanied by a gesture in the direction of Lorenzo Insigne. De Rossi would later explain that he was making a broader point about the need for attackers, rather than seeking to single any individual out, yet many will wonder how the Napoli forward could be overlooked by manager Gian Piero Ventura.
Insigne is a man in the prime of his career, one who scored 18 league goals from the left wing for Napoli last season and almost reached double-digits for assists as well. He is the only Italian valued at over €100m by the CIES football observatory, and yet never made it on to the pitch on Monday – after making only the briefest of cameos in the first leg.
Nobody who has followed Ventura’s career could even be all that surprised. It is not that he underrates Insigne so much as that the manager is extraordinarily rigid in his selection process: a man fixated on square pegs and square holes. Insigne is a wide forward, and Italy were lined up in a 3-5-2. Therefore, there was no space available.
Ventura had sought to make room earlier in the qualifying campaign, sending his team out in a 4-2-4 and later a 3-4-3. The first formation was made to look wildly naive during a 3-0 thrashing by Spain in Madrid, while the latter yielded only a 1-1 draw at home to Macedonia.
It might actually have been player power that provoked a retreat, with veteran stars arranging a team meeting independent of the coaching staff after the latter result. Reports at the time suggested they were agitating for a return to the more familiar 3-5-2. That formation had been used to great effect by Antonio Conte at Euro 2016, but the truth is that all these numbers become meaningless without a coherent plan. Italy were fluid under the now Chelsea manager, a dynamic shape-shifting collective. Under Ventura, the connections between defence, midfield and attack have all but disappeared.
The fact that players felt compelled to meet without him might itself offer evidence – supplemented by De Rossi’s pitchside rebellion – of a lack of faith in his ability to lead them. Ventura’s coaching CV was always a modest one, when compared to his predecessors in the role. The biggest club he ever coached was Torino, whom he took to the Europa League in 2014.
In some sense, that was a part of his appeal. Prior to Euro 2016, Conte had always seemed restless as Italy manager – too young and too brilliant not to miss the week-to-week intensity of club football. Ventura was 68 when he took the job, and knew it was likely to be the greatest he ever held. He was perceived to have the right temperament to hang around and bring through the next generation of talent, and for a substantially lower salary, too.
That he was not up to this task, with hindsight, is clear. Italy’s talent pool has dwindled since their 2006 World Cup win and, despite the recent success of Atalanta with a squad founded on homegrown talent, investment in academy systems remains patchy. “In Spain the big clubs spend at least 10% of their enormous turnover on their youth teams,” noted one editorial in Tuesday’s Gazzetta dello Sport. “In Italy the most virtuous get to €10m.”
And yet Ventura had more to work with than Conte before him. The likes of Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti have blossomed at club level in the last 18 months. It is unforgiveable that Insigne’s club-mate Jorginho, a key pillar of the Napoli team leading Serie A, had not made his competitive debut for Italy before Monday.
Which is not to say that all blame should be placed on one man’s shoulders. Ventura will doubtless be removed from his post, his recent contract extension understood to contain a break clause covering this eventuality. Whether or not a similar fate awaits the men who appointed him remains to be seen.
Carlo Tavecchio’s presidency has been turbulent from the get-go: with many Italians outraged that he could win an election in the first place despite remarks about “banana eaters” flooding the league. There is a valid discussion to be had about whether a growing foreign presence – 53.3% of Serie A players hail from abroad, according to Transfermarket.com – has harmed the national team, but never on such grim racist terms.
Supporters of Tavecchio might argue that he has otherwise been a moderniser: playing his part in the introduction of video assistant referees in Serie A. Both Italy and Sweden might have had several penalties at San Siro had Fifa been similarly proactive.
It was telling, though, that the beaten team did not dwell on the latter point at full-time. No slow-motion replay could change the reality that they will not go to the World Cup next year.
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