Monday is not my favourite day. Right through my school time, Mondays were haunted.
That is when the teachers were in caning mood, even for the least mistake done in the past week like speaking vernacular.
Yet, never in my wildest thoughts did I ever imagine that such nasty experiences I had with my Mondays during my younger years would come back full circle. It did with Italy failing to qualify for the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
It would be presumptuous of me to think that I feel worse than Giampiero Ventura, the disgraced coach who oversaw Italy’s failure this time round. That is why at this critical time, when the Azzurri are at their lowest, sober heads are needed.
Like is said, it is not the end of the world. But the fact that Italy can only wait for 2022 is still infuriating. Of course Ventura can only bear the full brunt of the public fury for being obstinate. When it was clear, particularly during the play-offs, that he needed to get his most potent attack force on the field, he defied logic.
Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El-Sharaawy are presently Italy’s best wing forwards. And they can best serve you in a 4-3-3. But Ventura stuck with what he wanted, as opposed to what was practical, to give him an edge over Sweden. For example, why did he have to use a right-footed Mateo Damian as a left-wing back?
This was bound to put Italy in a precarious position of lacking balance on the pitch. And it did. Italy did not play well. But before anything, why would Italy be struggling to have natural left-footers to play there? That is an indication that player development is lacking.
What Ventura was doing was going against the norm–a system works with the best players that can fit in it. You do not force players to be slaves of the system, when they will not operate well in it.
That said, much as Ventura will take a lot of stick for poor tactics, let everyone face it, some things were beyond him.
Some things happen and you cannot explain them, like the reason why, with all the possession Italy had on Monday, they failed to convert the chances they created.
In hindsight, Ventura cannot be entirely blamed for the profligacy of his attackers. Ciro Immobile has been scoring for fun in Serie A. But this time, Immobile and Andrea Belotti failed to replicate their group qualification form where they scored five and four goals respectively in ten games.
This is similar to how difficult it was to understand why Bayer Leverkusen lost all three possible trophies in 2002 despite the splendid form they had that season under Klaus Toppmoller. Or what could have happened to Chile.
Chile are two-time Copa America champions, losing finalists of the Fifa Confederations Cup 2017 and have some of the world’s best players, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal.
Under Ventura, Italy won seven in ten qualifiers, and only five table topping nations in the nine groups scored more than their 21 goals; Portugal 32, Germany 43, Poland 28 and Belgium 43. So, Italy cannot be a bad team.
But they are going through a phase of re-focusing. Apart from the banished Mario Balotelli, Italy have real classy strikers like Christian Vieri or Inzaghi were.
A number of Italy’s starters today come from the lesser sides. So, they do not get a chance to compete at the highest level consistently. For example, left-back Leonardo Spinnazola could not get into the Juventus starting eleven. So, he was shipped off to Atalanta.
Davide Zappacosta is a back-up for Victor Moses at Chelsea while Damian is normally picked by Jose Mourinho when the Manchester United bus needs more shock-absorbers. When Italy won the 2006 World Cup, the fulcrum of the team then was AC Milan and Juventus players, who were so dominant in European club football.
Andrea Pirlo, Filippo Inzaghi, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta and Alberto Gilardino did so well winning Uefa Champions League titles. Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluca Zambrota and Fabio Cannavaro were also ever present. De Rossi and Totti were also doing their thing for AS Roma.
National teams, like we have seen with Spain, base their success on how their clubs perform. Barcelona has been the basis for Spain’s dominance. Today, it is not the case with Italy. Sadly, a solution is needed in earnest, to build character in the national team.
Better still, Italy needs to export more talent like France, Spain and Germany do if they cannot accommodate all of it in Serie A. But that is on the assumption that they start wherever they go. But to have the majority of Italian talent, at for instance, Benevento or at the struggling Sassuolo is self-defeating to Azzurri’s prospects.
However, to suggest that it is the age of Italian players that has failed the Azzurri is laughable. It has no direct link. For goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to be in goal at 39 is rare, but a remarkable feat. Apart from the odd goal here and there, Buffon has been steadfast.
Besides, goalkeepers get better with age. So, hopefully, the pain Italian football is going through now can be a spark for self-reflection, to help them get better in time to win Euro 2020, to begin with.