Italy’s world-record unbeaten run finally ended as they lost 2-1 to Spain at San Siro in the UEFA Nations League semi-final on Wednesday evening. Carlo Garganese of The Italian Football Podcast looks at five lessons to take from the game.
1. The Azzurri made us proud
We should be proud of the Azzurri. All good things must come to an end and a 10-man Italy shouldn’t beat themselves up too much about losing to Spain. Instead, they can be proud of this incredible journey over the past three years. A journey that no one could possibly have believed was possible when the Azzurri failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Roberto Mancini masterminded a world record 37-game unbeaten run, which included the glory of winning Euro 2020. The last time Italy had lost a game before Wednesday night was on September 10, 2018 when they were defeated 1-0 by Portugal in another UEFA Nations League clash. One loss against a superb Spain team will not erase the past three years, nor will it erase what will be a very promising future for Italy. Indeed, a defeat will probably do Italy and Mancini good. They can learn from their mistakes and become even better. It is also better to lose now than next month when they need to ensure they clinch automatic qualification for the World Cup.
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2. Luis Enrique has Mancini’s number
Despite eliminating Spain on penalties in the UEFA Euro 2020 semi-final at Wembley, there is no doubt that Roberto Mancini lost the tactical battle to Luis Enrique that day. The Spain boss surprised Mancini with a strikerless system and sophisticated positional play and high press that caused Italy all kinds of problems. Once again on Wednesday, Luis Enrique made some tactical switches which Italy took at least half an hour to get to grips with. Spain kept pulling an extra man out wide, which dragged Giovanni Di Lorenzo out of position and created a huge space in Italy’s right-hand channel.
This is where Spain created their first goal from. Once Leonardo Bonucci was harshly sent off just before half-time, the match effectively ended as a tactical contest. But the Azzurri showed heart in the second half with 10 men to at least grab a consolation through substitute Lorenzo Pellegrini. That mental strength can take Italy a long way but Mancini must find a way to deal with Spain tactically if they are to meet again at the World Cup.
3. Bernardeschi is not a No. 9
Throughout Italy’s three-year run, there was one glaring weakness that has never been resolved. The No.9 conundrum. Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti have been rotated during most of Mancini’s reign, but neither has shown themselves to be up to the level required. The Azzurri won Euro 2020 despite Immobile and Belotti, not because of them.
The Azzurri have just over a year to find themselves a suitable No. 9 for the 2022 World Cup. What is for certain is that Federico Bernardeschi is not the answer. Aside from one shot that Unai Simon pushed onto the post, Bernardeschi offered nothing. Considering he has scored two goals in three years for Juventus, it’s safe to say he shouldn’t be Italy’s striker. Mancini is better experimenting now with Moise Kean, who at least added drive and aggression in the second half, or Giacomo Raspadori. Or perhaps, one of the other promising young strikers will develop, such as Gianluca Scamacca, Lorenzo Lucca, Pietro Pellegri and Lorenzo Colombo.
4. What was the point of booing Donnarumma?
The build-up to the game was dominated by talk over what the reception would be at San Siro towards goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. The 22-year-old, of course, left Milan this summer in hugely controversial circumstances in order to join PSG on a Bosman transfer. There were some insulting banners erected around the city while former Milan manager Fabio Capello branded Donnarumma “ungrateful to Milan after all the club did for him and his family when he was a kid.”
And during the game itself, Donnarumma was booed and jeered with every touch of the ball. It appeared to get to the goalkeeper who fumbled a simple shot onto the post shortly after Spain took the lead. While it is understandable that Milan fans are angry, this behaviour only penalised Italy. Instead of having the home crowd cheering them on to victory, the energy of the supporters created a negative vibe that helped Spain instead.
5. Bastoni still needs to mature
There is no doubt that Alessandro Bastoni is Italy’s best young defensive talent and that he has a very promising career in front of him. His ability to break the press and deliver a pin-point long pass or cross is almost unequalled in his age group around Europe. But the match against Spain shows that he is far from the finished article and still needs to mature. He was guilty of slack marking on Ferran Torres for Spain’s opener, while he was naïve in being caught in possession trying to bring the ball out of defence.
Playing in a back three for Inter each week means he needs more practice in a four, and experiences like these against Spain will certainly do him good. Mancini will also need to decide whether having two playmaking centre backs in the same team in Bastoni and Leonardo Bonucci provides Italy with the right balance. Both lacked defensive discipline versus Spain, with Bonucci sent off before halftime for an admittedly very harsh red card.