A simple qualification campaign can't erase the pain of Italy's failure to make the 2018 World Cup, but thanks to their clean sweep through the Euro 2020 qualification rounds, Italy fans felt safe in the knowledge that their beloved Azzurri were, if nothing else, in safe hands under Roberto Mancini's leadership. Mancini, a title-winning manager at the club level in Italy and abroad, will look to build on that goodwill with a successful run through Euro 2020, potentially setting Italy up as favorites for World Cup 2022.
The former Inter and Manchester City manager doesn't necessarily have to win Euro 2020 to remove the stains of 2018, but after their dominant qualification campaign, advancing to the knockout stages is likely the minimally acceptable outcome this month for Mancini and the Azzurri. And with a potentially favorable draw into the knockout stages, Italy won't have to deal with Spain, France, or Germany until the semi-finals.
With an unblemished run through the Euro 2020 qualification rounds and a fresh contract extension through the 2026 World Cup cycle in his pocket, Mancini's future as Italy's maestro is secure. But kicking off the next stage of his career as Italy's manager with a European championship could set Mancini down a path tread by only the most legendary names in Italian managerial history.
So, with only a few days left before Italy breaks the seal on Euro 2020 against Turkey at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, let's run through some likely keys to success for Mancini and the rest of the Azzurri.
Before we dive into the Xs and Os, a quick look at Italy's fixture list. Please note, this is just a quick look at the schedule—we'll have dedicated previews for each match approximately 24 hours prior to each kickoff time.
After erasing the ghosts of 2018 and topping their qualification group, the Azzurri enter Euro 2020 as FIFA's 7th-ranked national team and have been cast into Group A alongside Switzerland (13th), Wales (17th), and Turkey (29th) and should be the prohibitive favorites to win the group.
As the ostensible host of the tournament, Italy gets the honor of kicking off the tournament on Friday, so let's take a look at the Azzurri's group stage fixture lists.
Group Stage Matchday 1: Turkey vs. Italy
Date: June 11th
Time: 21:00 CET/3:00 EDT
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Roma
Starting way back in 1962, Italy and Turkey have met eight times, with the Azzurri holding a slight advantage, winning five of eight matches. Despite a shared history of nearly 60 years, these two nations have only squared off three times in the 21st century: a 2-1 Italy win at Euro 2000 and then a pair of 1-1 friendly draws in 2002 and 2006.
With a 5-3-0 (W-D-L) record and +11 goal differential against Turkey, Italy should be heavy favorites in this opener.
Group Stage Matchday 2: Italy vs. Switzerland
Date: June 16th
Time: 21:00 CET/3:00 EDT
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Roma
Dating all the way back to 1954, these two European neighbors have faced each other 20 times, including three World Cup matches and numerous qualification fixtures but they've never actually met in a European Championship. And much like their history against Turkey, Italy holds a slight advantage over their northern neighbors, running out to a 9-8-3 record while outscoring the Swiss by a 27 to 16 margin.
Drawn into the same World Cup 2022 qualification group, these two nations will grow increasingly familiar with one another after this month's tournament and have two fixtures slated for late 2021.
Group Stage Matchday 3: Italy vs. Wales
Date: June 20th
Time: 18:00 CET/12:00 EDT
Venue: Stadio Olimpico, Roma
With only six contests since 1968, Italy and Wales seldom cross paths but when they do the town is usually painted blue. With five victories, one defeat, and a healthy +13 goal differential, it's safe to say that Italy has dominated Great Britain's westernmost nation.
Okay, now that we know when Italy are playing, it's time to shift the focus to how they play.
Tactics, Formations, Mancini & More
All Roberto Mancini really had to do to set himself apart from his predecessor was bring a basic level of competency to the position—that and avoid the rath of Daniele De Rossi. Since taking the post in 2018, Mancini has managed a 23-7-2 (W-D-L) record, putting himself in some elite company already. At the dawn of Euro 2020, Mancini's 71% win rate is the best in Italian history, better than legends like Vittorio Pozzo and Arrigo Sachi. Granted, he's only been at the helm for 32 matches and might not be able to sustain this pace, but Mancini has made most Italy fans forget about Ventura's reign of disaster.
Apart from basic competency, Mancini has brought a new level of style and panache to the Azzurri bench, slowly shedding the nation's reputation for a grind-it-out-at-all-costs approach in favor of a more aesthetically pleasing (and effective) form of football. From a narrative perspective, it would be great if we could attribute this change to some new pioneering tactic or if Mancini was somehow able to single-handedly alter an entire nation's concept of the sport, but the key to Mancini's revival has been consistency: in his tactical approach, his choice of formations and his demands.
Where his two immediate predecessors, Gian Piero Ventura and interim manager Luigi Di Biagio, failed to establish and maintain a consistent identity—frequently changing formations and personnel combinations—Mancini has utilized an open and attacking 4-3-3 formation in 30 of his 32 matches in charge, and the results have been impressive. In addition to winning 71% of his matches, Mancini's Italy has averaged an astounding 2.46 goals per match—a 57% improvement over Ventura's record—and sported a +33 goal differential in Italy's Euro 2020 qualification group, a marked improvement over the +9 record they managed in the Euro 2016 qualification rounds. Italy has also seen their possession rates, shot totals, passes completed and goals conceded improve under Mancini's watchful eye.
While Mancini's tactical approach (and results) have been consistent, he hasn't been afraid to mix and match his lineups, seeking the perfect combination of talents prior to this, his first major tournament in charge. In the Euro 2020 qualification campaign alone, Mancini used 40 different players, seeing 19 different players find the back of the net.
We'll talk more about Italy's key players in the next section, but despite his penchant for experimenting with lineups, Mancini has leaned on Leonardo Bonucci, Jorgiho, Nicolo Barella, and Gianluigi Donnarumma throughout his three years in charge.
By instituting (and maintaining) a 4-3-3 that flexes the brawn and brains of players like Jorginho, Barella, and Verratti (when healthy), Mancini's system manages the perfect blend of action and reaction. They can press opponents high up the pitch, they can overload either flank by flooding midfielders forward, the defenders are all adept at passing, and the wide players can quickly track back to prevent opponents from gaining numerical advantages in the final third.
Mancini isn't exactly changing the way we think about the sport, but the system he’s installed (and remained committed to) has enabled him to replicate the form and results no matter who he selects for any given match. Mancini's 4-3-3- system has run roughshod over opponents thus far despite lacking a true ace goalscorer—Belotti led the way in qualifying with only four goals. So, in that sense, the Azzurri's success has been a tale of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—and we mean that as a compliment.
With many nations in this tournament banking on one or two star players, Italy's collective approach should give them an advantage in such a compressed tournament.
Now that we have a rough idea of how Italy plays, let's take a look at a few of Mancini's bedrock.
Leonardo Bonucci (D)
Bonucci, Juve's 34-year-old veteran, is as much a stalwart for his country as he his for his club. With 10 appearances, nine starts, and 780 minutes played in the qualification rounds, Bonucci was the busiest man in the Italy camp. Sitting in the heart of the defense, Bonucci continued to defy father time during the qualification season, scoring one goal and providing three assists for Mancini's side.
With players like Giorgio Chiellini or Francesco Acerbi taking the more reserved role in defense, Bonucci is free to distribute from the back and often sees as much of the ball as Italy's midfielders. In 10 qualification appearances, Bonucci chipped in three assists while averaging 84 touches per game, one key pass per game, and seven accurate long-balls per match. Whether he's dropping Andrea Pirlo-like passes from the backline or pushing further up the pitch (frequently into attacking positions), Bonucci's passing is a key element in Mancini's attack.
At the back, Bonucci, as the typically more mobile half of Italy's central pairing, is free to sweep his area, covering any gaps or cracks at the back. In his two most recent World Cup qualifiers, Bonucci racked up eight clearances and during Italy's Euro 2020 qualification campaign, he averaged nearly four tackles/interceptions/clearances per match while winning nearly 60% of all duels.
Mancini's side doesn't necessarily operate like Italy squads of old, but there is one common thread between the Azzurri's glory days and Mancini's restoration project: a midfield maestro. Where Italy fans once basked in the glory of Andrea Pirlo and his resplendent beard, our latest object of affection has a decidedly different personal style but is no less effective.
Jorginho, a duel Brazilian-Italian citizen, has represented Italy since 2016 and brings the same understated brilliance to the national team that has seen him achieve enormous success with Napoli and Chelsea. Second to only Bonucci in minutes played during the qualification rounds, Jorginho is the transmission in Mancini's engine, dictating the pace of play, spreading the ball throughout the middle and attacking thirds, and taking more touches than any other player.
Depending on the particular matchups or game states, Jorginho can serve a more defensive role, allowing someone like Nicola Barella to get forward and join the attack to a greater extent, or push forward himself to provide service to Belotti, Immobile, or Insigne.
In nine qualification matches, Jorginho was a whirlwind, averaging 113 touches per match, including 1.7 key passes and five accurate long balls per match. What's more, Jorginho completed an average of 53 passes in the opposition's half per game while completing 92% of all his passes. He also scored three goals and chipped in one assist during those nine matches.
Jorginho is malleable and magnificent—Mancini's system cannot function without him.
Nicolò Barella (M)
With Jorginho occupying large swaths of the middle of the pitch, Barella is free to move further afield on the right, linking up with Italy's wide players like Domenico Berardi and Federico Chiesa to put pressure on opposing full-backs and the defense as a whole.
In eight qualification matches, Barella spent most of his time on the right flank and was arguably the Azzurri's most productive attacking player. With three goals, two assists, and nearly two key passes per match, Barella made the most of his 50 touches per match.
Passing, moving, and progression are the hallmarks of Barella's role for Italy. By pushing further up the right flank, Barella helps provide width for Mancini's attack, heaps pressure on opposing full-backs, offers cover for his own full-backs, and, perhaps most importantly, presses the issue in the attacking third where his mobility, playmaking, and progressive passing and dribbling helps keep opponents at bay.
Andrea Belotti & Ciro Immobile (F)
With a near-even share of minutes throughout Italy's qualification campaign, we're going to lump these two forwards together. Belotti (388 minutes) and Immobile (325 minutes) saw the lion's share of minutes at forward for Mancini in Italy's 10 qualification matches and combined to score eight goals and provide four assists.
While Belotti and Immobile offer Mancini slightly different skillsets, their job is clear: anchor the offense and allow the wide players and midfielders to join the attack, and then plant yourself as close to the area as possible. Attempting approximately 2.5 shots per match in Euro 2020 qualification, Italy's strikers don't have a lot of room for error so they must be accurate and efficient in front of goal. Fortunately for Mancini, both Belotti (57% accuracy and 36% conversion rate) and Immobile (46% accuracy and 23% conversion rate) made the most of their few opportunities.
There are some slight differences between Belotti and Immobile's respective functioning in Mancini's system. During the Euro 2020 qualification season, Immobile averaged more shots and touches than Belotti and had a greater concentration of hotspots around the edge of the area than his Torino counterpart, perhaps suggesting that Mancini trusts Immobile a tad more in deeper and wider areas. On the flip side, this could also suggest that Belotti is better at the more bruising aspects of striker play in the box.
Either way, the spread of Italy's scoring options throughout the qualification rounds suggests that Mancini isn't relying solely on his strikers to provide the punch for the Azzurri. Jorginho and Barella each added three goals from midfield while wide players like Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Chiesa, and Berardi added their fair share of goals and assists to the Azzurri cause.
Federico Chiesa & Lorenzo Insigne (F/W)
We're taking the tandem approach again when describing Italy's two chief wide players, though Domenico Berardi and Federico Bernardeschi saw significant time throughout Italy's recent qualification and friendly cycles.
In 10 combined qualification matches, Chiesa and Insigne teamed up to provide four goals and four assists. While their roles are essentially similar—provide width, pressure the defense down the flanks and create—the manner in which they carried out those tasks were slightly different.
Averaging nearly 30 more touches per match than Chiesa, Insigne was more likely to influence the game via passing, alternating between quick, ground-based passes in conjunction with midfielders and longer, more direct passes into the final third.
For his part, Chiesa made incredibly efficient use of his 38 touches per match in Italy's qualification matches, averaging 2.2 key passes and 1.8 dribbles per match. Chiesa eschewed the long passes (only 0.5 per match) in favor of a quicker, give-and-go approach, working in tandem with the striker and wide midfielders to advance the ball up the pitch. Chiesa was also far more likely to pump in crosses than Insigne, averaging 1.2 accurate crosses per match.
When Mancini fields these two on opposite flanks, the blend of approaches helps keep defenses off-kilter. Insigne is death by a thousand cuts while Chiesa goes right for the jugular, dribbling and quick-passing his way to success. Neither player is a mountain of a man but they've proven to be perfect foils and complements for Belotti and Immobile in the middle.
Italy's transformation under Roberto Mancini has been a sight to behold. Ripping through the qualification rounds with a perfect record, Mancini left little room for doubt among the Azzurri faithful. His Italy side was quick, aggressive, and decisive in attack, and effective and efficient in defense. Critics will cite Italy's relatively light qualification group as a contributing factor to their unbeaten run, but their +33 goal differential is evidence of one thing: they weren't playing around.
Regardless of the level of competition, Mancini achieved exactly what he set out to, restoring Italy's self-confidence. World Cup 2018 felt a little hollow without the four-time world champions and by implementing a system that is consistent yet flexible and one that features quality at nearly every position without being overly reliant on any given player, Mancini has set Italy up for a period of sustained success.
And it all starts Friday in Rome.