The Azzurri have an Achilles’ heel: Mancini needs to deal with it

by | Aug 11, 2021 09:31

Exactly one month after Italy’s victory at Euro 2020, Andrea Tallarita explains what the Azzurri must improve ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

 Widely hailed as the best and most entertaining team of the tournament, Italy emerged from Euro 2020 with the title and an exceptional prestige boost. However, for all of their undeniable all-round quality, the Nazionale also revealed a critical weakness that could prove fatal at the next major tournament, the World Cup in 2022.

The weakness of the Azzurri is that they play a 4-3-3 formation with an attacking trident built around a prima punta, or classical poacher. Yet, they lack any acceptable candidates to cover that role. Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti were alternately asked to spearhead the offence in the Euros, yet both proved underwhelming. Immobile managed only two goals, both in his home stadium (the Olimpico in Rome, no doubt especially cushy for a Lazio player), while Belotti scored none.

Equally worrying was their poor shot accuracy, which tallied at 25% and 28.5% respectively. Very low figures not just by comparison with the tournament’s other prime punte (Alvaro Morata and Harry Kane managed 60%, Romelu Lukaku no less than 77.8%), but even with their teammates playing as supporting strikers. Lorenzo Insigne’s shot accuracy was 43.8%, and that of Federico Chiesa 50%.

If this weakness doesn’t seem critical, consider that it massively dragged down Italy’s overall efficiency in the final third. Their shot-to-goal conversion rate for Euro 2020 was 13.7%, trailing England (21.2%), France (14.9%), Belgium (24.3%) and Spain (14.4%). Their collective shot accuracy was also the lowest among these teams: 37.9% for Italy, against 53.9% for England, 38.3% for France, 56.8% for Belgium, and 48.9% for Spain.

Unable to score when they needed to, Italy were dragged into extra time in three out of four of their knock-out games, and to penalty shoot-outs twice. Their deserved final victory belies a grim reality – a team that exposes itself to sudden-death scenarios with such frequency is unlikely to meet success at the World Cup, which is substantially more competitive than the Euros. Going to Qatar without a quality prima punta is not a gamble, it’s hara-kiri.

Applause

What, then, are Mancini’s options for 2022? The first and most obvious is to play the waiting game. Immobile and Belotti are not bad strikers. The former managed 36 goals in Serie A in the 2019-20 season, the latter notched 26 in 2016-17, and if either reaches November of 2022 on a similar stride, then fielding them is a no-brainer.

They are also not the only options. Young Moise Kean and Gianluca Scamacca, though perhaps not traditional prime punte, both have potential as power forwards. Older players can pull off surprises too – Luca Toni was 27 when he made his debut with la Nazionale in 2004, and two years later, he was lifting the World Cup in Berlin.

On the other hand, what if no great poacher emerges by late 2022? Then Mancini has no choice but to amend his tactics. This means either rethinking the role of the forefront striker or changing the 4-3-3 formation itself.

Rethinking the striker’s role means changing the prima punta into something different. The natural alternative seems to be playing Chiesa or Insigne as a false nine, which might go well with Italy’s newfound tiki-taka identity, although Mancini could also surprise us with another idea. This would effectively switch the responsibilities of the central and lateral strikers: in the current system, creativity comes from the flanks and goals are (supposed to be) finished through the centre, while a false nine would flip that dynamic.

Italy’s wingers wouldn’t need to be as creative for this to work, but they would have to be faster, more physical, and more ruthless when converting chances. The good news is that there are promising candidates who match that description. Domenico Berardi has both speed and killer instinct, while Nicolò Zaniolo used to be unstoppable in just that role (his injuries forced him to skip the Euros, but he has more than enough time to return to form). Even some of Italy’s more energetic midfielders, like Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina, might be repurposed on the wings – it’s not their natural position, but they are young and the midfield is crowded, so who knows?

The alternative to rethinking the striker is to rethink the formation. This option leads to some intriguing speculation – what might a two-pronged attack composed of such unpredictable fantasisti as Insigne and Chiesa be capable of in a 4-4-2? – but it also raises more questions than it answers.

Italy’s greatest strength lies in their extraordinary, world-class central midfield roster. If not self-defeating, it would be suboptimal for Mancini to switch to anything with less than three central midfielders. This instantly rules out the 4-4-2 and all of its variants.

Italy Euro 2020Could Italy go for a 3-5-2? They did this to good effect in 2016, but it remains to be seen if Mancini is comfortable with a three-man backline. Alternatively, why not an old classic? The 4-2-3-1 works very well with false nines, while the ‘Christmas tree’ 4-3-2-1 suits teams with a strong central midfield. Both are variations of the 4-3-3 anyway, which means the team’s transition should be relatively gentle.

All in all, Mancini would probably best be served by a hybrid approach, one which allows him to alternate between his current tactics and something different. This will be difficult to find, as the pressure is now on the 56-year-old not to change his system. An old Calcio idiom percolated into everyday Italian parlance dictates that squadra che vince non si cambiathe winning team must not be changed. With the entire nation beating those very drums for the next 18 months, it will take all of Mancio’s guts – and all of his intelligence – to fix a machine that nobody wants to admit needs repair.

Roberto Mancini

23 Comments

  1. Kruizer

    Interesting article. I don’t think much change is needed, maybe a 4-3 stays the same till midfield, but the attack could use a false 9 in center or maybe Zaniolo as a central striker. Immobile and Belotti have had their chances. Immobile is alright as a backup as he has some speed and could be thrown on later in the game, but he’s not starter quality, as he did not really do it in the knockout stages of Euros again.

  2. Rosario

    Since Vieri retired, we haven’t had a real world class centre forward who can be relied upon at international level. Immobile is quality, but he just somehow always feel like a fish out of water in blue. This is the only critical factor that allowed England to take Italy to penalties. If we had a genuine centre forward in the form of a benzema for example, then we could go into tournaments with a lot more confidence. Case in point being again spain – immensely difficult game vs an exceptional national team. That fact that we didn’t have a genuine centre forward to push back their defence, just made it easier for them to constantly link up from back to front. Ironically, it ended up being their Achilles heel as well.

    Other areas to improve are at full back. If Mancini had taken Calabria and played him instead of Di Lorenzo, we would’ve had genuine threat on both wings. It was also principally the reason why we suffered more vs spain and then england, because with spinazzola out, we didn’t have threat from either wing. It would be outrageous to criticise mancini in hindsight, but I honestly cannot understand how he didn’t take calabria. The goal conceded vs England – it would’ve never happened with Calabria on the pitch.

    The other ‘issue’ is Verratti. Iknow that he’s a great player. But a midfield of Jorginho, Verratti and Barella puts a lot of pressure on the 3 upfront to create. Argue all you like, but Italy looked so much more fluid in the first two games. I know it was vs turkey and switzerland, but Locatelli operating almost as a halfway line to opposition box midfield was working a treat. Our game and system slowed down when Verratti came back in. Barella is an outstanding midfield. Either he or verratti will have to make way for Zaniolo IF he regains his fitness and form. A player who can take a ball and attack from the midfield, but also be relied upon tactically when out of possession.

    Finally, and naturally – Chiellini and Bonucci can’t go on forever. This could be an area of weakness, but I have a lot of faith in Bastoni stepping up.

  3. Rosario

    PS. Belotti didn’t score at the Euro. He only scored in the penalty shootouts vs Spain.

  4. Frank B.

    I agree with much of what was said in the article. We won the EURO despite the lack of a true goalscorer AND without our first choice wingbacks (Spina & Florenzi) for much of the tournament. My preference would be to not change the formation that is working with 4 at the back and a world class midfield.

    I believe that when Zaniolo is fit, he should be slotted into Immobile’s position. Until then, I would continue to do what Mancini did a few times during the tournament – play with Chiesa, Insigne and Berardi up front.

    When Spina comes back to full fitness, Calabria gets his opportunity to play right wingback, and Zaniolo is integrated into the squad, we will be able to reach our full potential with the lineup below:

    ————–Donnarumma————

    Calabria—Bonucci—Chiellini—Spina

    —–Verratti—Jorginho—Barella——-

    Berardi—-Zaniolo/Insigne—–Chiesa

  5. joe del monte

    Ciro Immobile was absolutely the worst player for Italy, he constantly turned the ball over and ended scoring threats. There has to be a better striker in Italy somewhere.

  6. Feroli

    It’s doubtful a ‘world class’ striker will emerge before the WC. Immobile and Belotti work hard but they don’t score. Belotti is good at holding up the play – and did that when he came on as substitute. Perhaps that should be is role – to come on and to relieve the pressure (if Italy are under pressure) I agree with comments here – had Italy a lethal striker the final would not have gone to penalties.
    In 2006, Lippi rotated the squad according to the opposition. Lucas Toni was not ‘world class’ but did the job against Ukraine. Del Piero was mostly a sub as was Inzaghi. Matrix was the top scorer in 2006!
    Mancini has the talent to adapt.

  7. Rosario

    @Feroli

    In 13 more games played, Immobile has only contributed 3 more goals than Belotti for Italy. I actually felt that his style and especially his grit would’ve suited Italy better in the Euro’s. A lot will depend on how the both of them will perform in Serie A this coming season. Naturally though, Belotti is effectively playing in a relegation fighting side so of course Immobile will have more chances created for him.
    In terms of alternatives, I feel very hopefully that Raspadori will develop more after a very commendable breakout season. There is something Aguero like about him and I think he could do well in that role. Realistically though, it is difficult to look past Scamacca. There is just something about him that cries ‘International striker’. I just sincerely hope he continues to play regular football next season, rather than get a big move too early and then stagnate.
    Could we also maybe finally see Pellegri come to the fore?

  8. geedup

    Sometimes people make mountains out of molehills. Italy won the tournament and yet the writer is suggesting the entire system is overhauled because the CFs didn’t score as many goals as their counterparts. I seem to recall Luca Toni only scored 2 goals in 2006 and Italy also won that tournament.

    First, it’s easy to just look at goals scored and completely ignore everything else the CF brings to the game. On many occasions, Immobile and Belotti held up play to bring other players into attack and created space for their teammates. Also, along with his two goals, Immobile got 2 assists, both of which were provided for the other forwards. Bear in mind, none of the other big name CFs like Lukaku, Kane, Benzema or Lewandowski registered a single assist – Ronaldo got one but he wasn’t played as a CF. Could it be maybe that was more important to Mancini than a poacher that didn’t contribute more to the team?

    Second, it’s easy to point out that 3 out of 4 Italy games went into extra time, while ignoring that Spain also went into extra time in all their 3 knockout games and England in 2 out of 4. It’s not like the games that went to penalties were against Ukraine and Poland. Spain are a quality side and England were the home team. Assuming that having a clinical CF would have won Italy those games is a poor assessment, particularly vs Spain. Belgium had one of the top CFs in Europe and were still beaten by Italy (in regular time). Kane barely had a sniff against Italy.

    At the past two WCs, the winning team didn’t have the classic number 9 as their top scorer – France in 2018 with Giroud or Germany in 2014 with Klose. In fact, I’d argue the key to winning today is having top quality CMs and not great CFs. That’s why Belgium and England struggle to beat sides with top quality midfielders. I’m not saying Italy should not be on the lookout for a classic poacher for the WC but I don’t see it as the be all and end all.

  9. alec

    Mancini’s tactic is about not having a prima punta. He wants no prima-anything… The team attacks, the team defends, the team fights, the team works hard, the team wins. Immobile is a perfectly natural prima punta, and that is why he seems to struggle under Mancini. He is not the centre of all attention in attack, and his actual job is more to draw attention away from teammates, than to score himself. That is role of central striker in the 21st century on championship winning sides. If then the attention does not leave him, then he will be free to score loads of goals. And his job is also taking shots with low risk of scoring, so that attacks and finished off, instead of the ball being lost, which also keeps him seeming like a threat. Because he needs to keep (at least) pretending to be a threat, so his teammates will keep getting space for proper chances. If he then also by some miracle is able to be a real threat (defensive error by the opposition), then that is of course very nice.

    But Mancini’s tactic and style of football is very much about not having to deal with the primadonna Icardis of this world, and instead to have a team that plays like a cohesive unit. Immobile does his best to fit in, and for that reason he is still the best option in the central position.

    It might even have been a deciding positive factor for Italy that there was no Christian Vieri this time, and instead (like in 2006) there was a team of many players who each did their part in attack, when it was needed.

    But of course, for the “supporting targetman” central striker, then a Luca Toni type would be much better, than a small and fast poacher like Immobile. However, there has not been that type of player, at that level, which has been Italian, since Luca Toni.

    Simply put, there is no better option than Immobile for the moment, and it will likely remain so for the coming 2 years. Playing a false-9, will just mean a less physical player, who is easier for the opposing central defence to squash. The fear of Immobile is worth more than the possible greater skill inside the tactic of a false-9.

    And well, during the tournament. Usually Immobile came off long before Belotti came on. So Mancini is already using wingers in the position.

    The thing is just that for Mancini’s style of football, then of all the options available, then Immobile by far is still the best. Even if the tactic is not well suited for Immobile’s style of play (being a natural small and fast prima punta – just like Filippo Inzaghi), but much can change when new talent emerges. If Cutrone gets the most out of his talent in Empoli, then he might even be a serious candidate for the position. Since there seems to be no 190+ tall strikers of quality, unless Scamacca takes his game up a level further, soon.

    But in terms of experience and consistency. Then the Kean, Cutrone, Scamacca generation will not be relevant until the qualification for EURO 2024. It will still be Belotti and Immobile for the World Cup, and if Immobile has not shined yet at that time for Italy, then he should just concentrate on Lazio alone. The World Cup is after all in just over one year. There is not really enough time to experiment. The fact that there is 1.5 years between each major tournament at the moment, might mean it could get harder for new talent to get into the team. Especially, when you just won the last major championship.

    To be honest I am more worried about the long term issues in central defence. Chiellini is not getting younger and Bonucci seems to rely on Chiellini to reach his absolute peak level of play. Acerbi might be good enough to take over for Chiellini, but he will never have the same partnership with Bonucci…
    So if Chiellini taking another major tournament? And it his going to be able to maintain the quality, as he is in his late 30s already.

  10. MC Miker G

    Immobile is very well-named. He’s INCREDIBLY slow for a top-drawer forward. I prefer Belotti – at least he’s a physical presence – but Italy undoubtedly lack a great CF. This isn’t necessarily a barrier to them winning the WC next year, they can get goals from many other sources.

  11. Marz Cat

    Its true Immobile and Belotti where underwhelming. Immobile always looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders whilst Belotti spends to much time on the ground for my liking. Yet to their credit they were both part of a harmonious and winning group. Replacing them both with Zaniolo and Kean would be the natural evolution for this squad Italy would suddenly become even more of a tournament team with a far more potent attack. Any thought of an Achilles heal would quickly be forgotten. Bring on Qatar 22

  12. Peppino

    Italy wins the Euro; most dominant team in the whole tournament; and this reporter writes about an ‘Achilles heel’. Unbelievable the media….they have zero imagination to write about, so lets write something negative to stir it all up. This writer must be English!!!!

  13. FERBAN

    @Peppino

    All teams have an Achilles heel. Are you saying Italy’s 2 CFs are not a weakness?
    And does the writer’s name sound English?

  14. Rosario

    @Peppino. Actually this is very much a well thought through article. Ask anyone who follows the national team and they’d have told you of the one area that Italy are lacking. Even during what was a wonderful tournament, we literally won it without Immobile ever turning up. The two matches he scored in – we would’ve won them anyway. A ghost vs Spain, England and Belgium. Top players rise to the big occasions. Constructive assessment is not being negative.

  15. DanIELLO

    One of Italy’s best / creative attacking spells came during the period when Insigne, Chiesa and Berardi were together up front, you could argue that this would work going forward as the opposing defenders would have a nightmare knowing who to pick up as the movement was fantastic. This is the main crux of the issue unfortunately – Immobile is just that, far to easy to pick up or see where he is heading.

    I also agree that the Verratti issue is an issue as once he returned this seemed (to me anyway) to impact Jorginho’s decisions and play i would not dispute either of them being world class but for my preference the pairing of Jorginho and Locatelli gave the best of the holding / creative and box box midfield dynamic.

    All said and done i was and still am tremendously proud of how the team played and the fact Mancini is strong and smart enough to make the difficult decisions others may shy away from so i am confident the answers will naturally present themselves before the World Cup.

  16. Bobby

    Geedup’s comments are spot on. CFs are important but their roles are more complex than simply poaching a few goals in a tournament.. I do wish that Ciro and Belotti would score a bit more often but they do contribute in other important ways. Zaniolo is a dynamic talent and IF he can come back, he will enhance that offence.

  17. who me ?

    ciro might be better as a sub. give him 25-30 minutes to use all his energy to makes runs and press, come back to defend spme in midfield.
    its all about chemistry too, he fits well with lads and is tight with insigne and veratti, so they play well together.
    chiesa is the glue and key standout machine that will drive the azzurri foward for many years to come. finding the right attacking mids, fowards to link up is crucial. berardi barella perhaps belotti.
    the euro championship trophy was monumental and well deserved and needed. still we need to keep building up, and get to nations league final in september for added glory and confidence heading into wc 2022.

  18. MrMens

    Zaniolo, maybe one of the midfielders (including those who didn’t make the cut this time) pushing up behind Chiesa/+1, maybe Mancini sees something in Raspadori? Think there’s more of a need to start making sure we start playing those who will cover for Chiellini and Bonucci. The players are probably there, but need playing time. Same with the full backs where there seems not so much depth. So basically, probably the defence is more of a problem – not that we don’t have good players, but they need more time. Obviously I have complete faith Mancini knows where there’s something lacking will sort this. What a tournament that was.

  19. Token Bubble

    When Zaniolo returns the goals will come, mark my words! A fluid front 3 of Insigne, Zaniolo and Chiesa will be a sight to behold.

  20. tony g graci

    What a totally useless article. The man just won the Euros undefeated. Give him a chance to enjoy it before trying to create the perfect team for him. What Peppino said…

  21. Seun AWOFODU

    Mancini should give Caputo and Raspadori a patience look-in. And helps Immobile build his self-confidence for the big stage, because the pressure to impress messed his euros up.

    As for Belotti, I feel that young man was carrying an injury or also under-pressure to deliver as well.

    Lastly, a swap on who starts might be favorable as well, We could have Belotti start and Immobile act as his cover.

  22. SE

    Italy fully deserved to win Euro 2020. The most entertaining and vibrant team of the tournament. A joy to watch. However, the lack of goals in the knock out stages when they needed it to underline their superiority is an area of weakness that they need to find solutions to improve on. Regardless of their lack of cutting edge up front at times, they were a purist delight to watch. Very fluid and dynamic. Very worthy European champions

  23. Joe del monte

    So happy they won the tournament but please drop Immobile

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