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.
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.
Could 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 cambia – the 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.