A 1-0 defeat in Sweden has raised even further the possibility of Italy missing its first World Cup tournament in around 60 years. Former Torino coach Gian Piero Ventura has taken Italy on a roller coaster journey and unfortunately for Azzurri fans it has strictly been a downward spiral with no uptick in fortune.
Below are some of the main points behind Italy’s struggles:
1) Bad results and even poorer performances: The Azzurri were dismantled by Spain with Isco running the show. Things did not get better when Italy managed a 1-1 draw with Macedonia followed by an unconvincing 1-0 win at Albania.
The results were definitely poor but what is more troubling has been the bad performances. Italy’s struggles have been down to multiple factors but much revolves around Ventura’s inability to get the best out of his players.
2) Players are uncertain of what are supposed to do: Imagine you are playing in a decisive play-off match and your team is down by one goal in Sweden, but you are unsure of your role on the pitch! Well, that is exactly how Lorzeno Insigne felt when subbed on with around 15 minutes left on the clock. Ventura played him out of position (again)! One of Italy’s brightest talents this season yet Insigne continues to be played out of position, or to be used in ways which hinder his skills.
3) Selection Nightmare: Ventura’s selection process has been controversial to say the least as he excluded the likes of Napoli’s Jorginho from the entire campaign before finally selecting him for the playoffs against Sweden! Jorginho and Insigne have built a solid understanding while both have played a critical role in Napoli’s rise to the top of Serie A.
Excluding Jorginho may perhaps be forgiven, yet Ventura’s decision to pick Eder defies all odds. Eder cannot start for Inter with stats showing the striker has not made a single start in Serie A- Eder has so far made 9 substitute appearances in Italy’s top flight in the 2017/18 campaign.
Eder’s curious case is but one example. In previous matches, Ventura opted to select Leonardo Spinazzola who had not featured for his club Atalanta during the first 4 matches in the current Serie A season. Thus, Spinazzola was clearly short on match fitness. One disappointing omission is perhaps that of his teammate Mattia Caldara who has been one of the most consistent centre-backs in Serie A over the last 15 months while also showing a knack for scoring goals.
4) Italy’s Age Question: Ventura took over insisting he wants to rejuvenate the side yet he has taken Italy backwards several steps since taking charge.
Performances and results aside, Ventura has also failed to blend in younger faces into the squad. Against Sweden, the likes of Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi were both selected despite being 36 and 34 years old respectively. While selecting Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon makes sense considering the vast experience he possesses as a goalkeeper and his much needed leadership, having Barzagli and De Rossi start is confounding. Both cannot cover much space anymore and both would be expected to struggle against a physical Swedish team. However, Ventura decided to start both.
5) Conte vs Ventura: Current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte guided Italy to some solid displays during Euro 2016 despite having a less talented squad at his disposal. Conte’s attack consisted of Eder and Graziano Pellè. Ventura has had the choice of picking between the Best Player in Italy during the Month of October- based on detailed Fantasy Football stats- in the shape of Ciro Immobile and Torino’s top scorer Andrea Belotti. What does Ventura do? He rightfully selects both in his squad, yet mistakenly, again, forces both to play in the Starting XI despite the clear indications the two cannot perform well together.
Conte’s midfield options were rather limited as well, with injury depriving him of key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio. Ventura can start one or both of the midfielders yet has continued to misuse Verratti, just as he has misused Insigne.
6) Wrong Formation: Ventura used his beloved 4-2-4 formation against Spain and not only did it backfire but it also led to a humiliating defeat in Madrid. Despite lacking the players to produce the result while using a 4-2-4 formation, Ventura continued to press with it. Ventura clearly failed to acknowledge his squad is not suited for 4-2-4.
Against Sweden, he switched to a 3-5-2 yet that backfired as well because of a number of reasons.
7) Confusion, Chaos & Tinkering: You would forgive a coach for making changes during the early stages of his reign, yet for Ventura to reinforce his uncertainty before and during the two-match playoffs against Sweden spells disaster for Italy.
Ventura has yet to settle on a formation and moved to a 3-5-2 for the first game in Sweden while he is expected to change again for Monday’s game in Milan!
The constant change leads to confusion among the players due to the lack of familiarity with the formation. In fact, the Italian team lacked cohesion versus Sweden and struggled to impose its style, that is if Ventura’s Italy did have any style to showcase.
The turnover and changes lead to a lack of stability. Imagine if this happens during critical matches in a playoff battle for qualification for the World Cup.
8) Last but not least, where is the Passion? From the beginning of the World Cup qualifying campaign, Ventura’s Italy has lacked the conviction and determination displayed under his predecessor Conte during Euro 2016.
The current squad lacks confidence too. The instability and the lack of a clear vision under Ventura has also been quite detrimental in terms of motivating the players and building their confidence. The players are clearly not confident and do not seem to trust Ventura’s tactics.
The Italian manager has failed to transmit clear ideas and has not been able to get the best out of his squad. To make matters worse, the lack of a coherent plan has resulted in a lack of commitment and dedication from the players.
To blame everything on Ventura would be a mistake because the first party to be held responsible should be the FIGC for hiring an unqualified coach in the shape of Ventura. Even if Italy turn things around and qualify to World Cup 2018, the Azzurri will be knocked out from the group stage unless drastic changes are introduced starting with the sacking of Ventura.
There is talk that Ventura does not even control the locker room with some hinting the veterans and the more experienced players have had a strong influence on Ventura and his actions. To fire him will result in a much needed jolt and perhaps see the hiring of a well respected manager who can bring order back to the locker room.
Azzurri fans deserve better. Legendary goalkeeper Buffon deserves better. Instead of celebrating a remarkable career by playing in a record 6th World Cup tournament, Buffon may end up watching World Cup 2018 as a retired player.
Some of the big name no showed in Week 12, but there were still few strong performances among the midfielders. Here is the top 5. Continue reading
Differently from other positions, there is no shortage of excellent young central midfielders in Serie A. Besides Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who is among the league’s best outright, there are several upcoming players who have already earned primary roles in the top teams.
Unsurprisingly, two of them were raised by Atalanta and then moved to bigger clubs. Roberto Gagliardini joined Inter last January and his consistency has been a pleasant surprise, because he was lost in the shuffle prior to the 2016/2017 season. Gian Piero Gasperini trusted him, the Nerazzurri nabbed him quickly and he has been very reliable: he is not flashy, but an all-around midfielder, whose work is always precious. Franck Kessie is more muscular and explosive, but Milan got what they hoped for: a dominating presence in the middle of the field. Lucas Torreira’s play in the last two seasons has been superb: he is rather tiny but he is imposing in both phases, he has great feet and he is an excellent distributor. His full arsenal was on display in the last win over Chievo Verona. Continue reading
There are not many young fullbacks who have managed to assert themselves in Serie A this year. Injuries have also deprived the League of some of the best players in this position. Milan’s Andrea Conti had a marvellous season at Atalanta before his move, but went down early with an ACL tear; Emerson Palmieri is rehabbing last year’s knee issue and might struggle to re-take his job considering the strong performances of Aleksandar Kolarov. Massimiliano Allegri’s reclamation project, Mattia De Sciglio, has been temporarily interrupted by a big ankle sprain. Roma’s newcomer Rick Karsdorp has been sidelined since the start of his Italian career by a meniscus ailment and he suffered an ACL tear on his debut.
The two more consistent players have been Elseid Hysaj and Leonardo Spinazzola. Hysaj is only 23 years old but he immediately became a staple at Napoli. Maybe not the flashiest fullback, but he is extremely diligent and has great chemistry with José Maria Callejon on that flank. He is averaging 2.8 tackles, 1 interception, 1.9 clearances, 0.9 key passes per game, 0.1 crosses, 1.4 long balls per game per WhoScored. His offensive game is limited, but he fits in fine in a team with so many quality attackers, where he is assigned to defensive duties first and foremost.
Spinazzola pushed hard this summer to return to Juventus, ending the two-year loan spell early, but Atalanta managed to keep him and he continued to impress on the left. His growth in the past two seasons after being a journeyman in the lower leagues has been remarkable and Gian Piero Gasperini deserves a lot of the credit for finding him a role where he could thrive. A dynamo, he is averaging 2 tackles, 0.5 interceptions, 1 clearance, 2 key passes, 2 dribbles, 1.5 crosses and 3 long balls per game per WhoScored: he should not disappoint when he takes his talent to a bigger stage next season.
There is a clear drop-off after these two names. Inter signed Dalbert from Nice this summer, but his defence has been a little too shaky for Luciano Spalletti’s liking and so far the manager has preferred Yuto Nagatomo over him. On the other flank, the coach has stated that the other newcomer, Joao Cancelo, is nowhere near ready to play as a fullback because he is too offensive, so Danilo D’Ambrosio will continue having a firm grip on the job.
There are some interesting names in the less heralded teams, but neither is a slam-dunk prospect. Adam Masina seemed poised to make the jump to Sevilla this summer, but the deal fell through: he has been constant since emerging from Serie B, but he has not progressed much and still makes some blunders at times. Sassuolo’s Pol Lirola is excellent going forward, but struggling teams need big defensive contributions and that is his Achilles’ heel, so he has found himself behind the veteran Marcello Gazzola in the pecking order when Cristian Bucchi veered back from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3. He is owned by Juventus as well. Playing time has been hard to come by for another promising youngster, Torino’s Antonio Barreca, who has been slowed down by injuries. On a more positive note, Atalanta’s Hans Hateboer might not be as good as Conti, but he is still a very useful player with a ton of upside.
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Serie A is renowned for its strong defending and this year is no different. In a culture that values that side of the ball so highly, it is inevitable that centre-backs prosper and new youngster manage to establish every season. The best one so far has been Milan Skriniar: there was a little scepticism when Inter picked him as the lone reinforcement in that area, but he has been granitic. An all-around player with no clear flaws. The couple with Joao Miranda is among the league’s finest, if it not the best already. He is averaging 1.5 tackles, 1 interceptions, 5 clearances and 0.8 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored. He has drawn comparisons to a young Nemanja Vidic and Walter Samuel.
Mattia Caldara started the season late because of a summer injury and the U-21 European Championship, but he immediately went back to being the leader of the stout Atalanta backline. A rugged defender, he is a force in the air as his many goals testifies. He is averaging 1.7 tackles, 2.2 interceptions, 3.7 clearances and 0.8 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored. It will be his final season with the Bergamo club as Juventus already scooped him up a year ago.
His partner in the Bianconeri’s defence in the future will be Daniele Rugani. Massimiliano Allegri has been reluctant to thrust him in a bigger role, but in his limited appearances he has performed better than Andrea Barzagli and Medhi Benatia. He is more of a finesse player compared to Skriniar and Caldara, but his physical game has improved over the last two seasons. The duo with Giorgio Chiellini will eventually end up being Juventus’ go-to pairing in big games. He is averaging 0.4 tackles, 0.6 interceptions, 3.2 clearances and 1 blocked shots per game, per WhoScored.
Alessio Romagnoli has struggled at the start of the season, due to a tough summer where he had to deal with a meniscus injury and because the whole new Milan defence has not gelled yet. However, he remains squarely among the best Italian prospects in this role. There is no reason why a Mateo Musacchio-Leonardo Bonucci-Romagnoli backline should not work: the process simply takes some time. He is averaging 0.8 tackles, 1 interception, 4.2 clearances per game, per WhoScored.
One rookie quickly rose to the upper echelon of young defenders: Torino’s newcomer Lyanco. It is not easy for youngsters to win over Sinisa Mihajlovic right away, but he managed to do just that. He is only 20-years-old and he has immense potential. He has beaten out Emiliano Moretti and Kevin Bonifazi for the starting job, unfortunately he has suffered an ankle sprain that will sideline him for a while.
There are a couple names in the smaller clubs that are worth monitoring. Sampdoria worked hard this summer to get Gianmarco Ferrari from Sassuolo, but Marco Giampaolo so far has preferred Vasco Regini over him, not so subtly inviting him to practice harder. He is talented and should end up playing a lot. Francesco Vicari is in a tough situation at Spal, but he is holding his own as anchor of the defence and he is one of the few highpoints of the Ferrara team.
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The summer is always a time for much fanfare: the clubs and the fans get excited about the new acquisitions, but when it is time to play, some of them could be quickly discarded by the coaches. There are teams that prefer to bring along the youngsters very slowly and at times injuries prevent the teams from seeing their investment pay off. Let’s take a look of a line-up composed by newcomers that have been underutilized, mostly because of coaching decisions: the tactic will be the 4-2-3-1 that is so in vogue right now.
The goalkeeper is the cleanest position from this standpoint: the newcomers are all covering the roles they were expected too. Maybe the only slight disappointment is Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, acquired very early by Torino from Lechia Gdansk for €2.6M, but Sinisa Mihajlovic did not like what he saw in the pre-season and they signed Salvatore Sirigu as a starter. The defence is formed by a couple of Cagliari players: Gregory Van der Wiel arrived from Fenerbahce, but due to a sore ankle and some conditioning issues he has barely practiced with the rest of the group and they have a big void on that flank after Mauricio Isla’s departure. They spent €7.6M on Filippo Romagna from Juventus, as part of a swap deal, but Massimo Rastelli picked Marco Andreolli, Fabio Pisacane and Luca Ceppittelli over him: he started, and struggled, only against Napoli when they ran out of options. The 19-year-old Nikola Milenkovic was signed by Fiorentina from Partizan for €5.1M, but he has yet to record a single minute. Sampdoria acquired Nicola Murru for €7M from Cagliari, but he quickly became a backup after they opted to bring in Ivan Strinic after the first subpar outings.
Maxime Gonalons transferred from Olympique Lyonnais to Roma for €5M mostly to be Daniele De Rossi’s reserve: it is tough to unseat the veteran, but it was reasonable to expect more than two mere starts at this point and the performances were rather underwhelming. His partner in the midfield is Francesco Cassata, whom Sassuolo signed from Juventus for €7M. The Neroverdi have had all sorts of problems and tried many different combinations, but the versatile youngster has yet to log a single minute.
In the three-man forward line behind the striker, we have Adam Ounas on the right flank: Maurizio Sarri is always very hesitant in giving minutes to newcomers, especially the younger ones, but right now he has a €10M player sitting on the bench. A magnified example of that is Federico Bernardeschi, which Juventus pried away from Fiorentina for €40M: he had a single start, against Atalanta, where he scored. Massimiliano Allegri did the same thing with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca in the previous seasons, so it is likely only a matter of time. Also, like Sarri, he had little reasons to move on from the regular starters. On the left wing, there is Oliver Kragl: he was a top player in Serie B and you would think that the talent-poor Crotone would be able to use him in some way, but so far he has not cracked the regular rotation, featuring only in small twenty-minute cameos.
There were some good candidates for the role of the lone strikers, such as Sampdoria’s Dawid Kownacki and Udinese’s Riad Bajic, but the starting job goes to Benevento’s Samuel Armenteros. It is tough for foreigners to adapt to a new league, but Benevento have struggled so much offensively and every combination of Massimo Coda, Pietro Iemmello and George Puscas has been disappointing. Perhaps the coach should trust Armenteros more, who scored 29 times with Heracles last season, but it looks like he will move to a trident, therefore limiting the playing opportunities for the strikers.
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On Sunday, Andrea Belotti left the pitch on a stretcher with a knee injury at the 82nd minute: Torino were up 2-0 against Hellas Verona and had already used the three substitutions, so they finished the game in ten men. The Scaligeri ended up tying the game thanks to a dubious Moise Kean’s goal and a penalty. Both circumstances were kind of fitting to underline how important Belotti is. Later tests revealed that Belotti avoided the dreaded ACL tear, but still sprained his MCL. He will not need surgery, but he will be sidelined him for four weeks, as per Torino’s official statement. According to Gazzetta dello Sport, the recovery might take a little longer and he could be out until mid-November. The Rooster has had a good start of the season: he has tallied three goals in seven Serie A matches, adding two more in Coppa Italia. Torino are in sixth place in the standings.
Last season, Torino struggled in the three occasions they were forced to play without the star centre-forward. He suffered a minor injury with Italy and missed two games early: they lost to Atalanta and drew a goalless against Empoli, scoring only once in that span, thanks to a Iago Falque free kick. He was suspended for Bologna-Torino later in the year and the Granata were defeated two-nil.
Torino have let Maxi Lopez go this summer, they do have a deeper roster but there is no readymade solution for the absence of their emotional leader. After flirting with the idea of adding another strong striker that could team up with Belotti upfront, such as Duvan Zapata, they settled on Umar Sadiq as backup centre-forward. Sadiq is a very different player from Belotti, much taller and more physical: he struggled with injuries in the loan spell at Bologna, recording only 230 minutes and failing to score. He never really managed to threat Mattia Destro’s spot. He has scored twice in the six Serie A matches with Roma: he was a force in the youth system, especially during his time with Spezia, but so far he has not managed to assert himself in the pros.
Even if that is the easiest route, Sinisa Mihajlovic sometimes struggles to trust the youngsters and the task is massive in this case. The first option will probably be to rely on M’baye Niang as lone striker: the former Milan player has had a poor start in Piedmont, but has found the first seasonal goal in last game. He is not a pure centre-forward, but he has showed the ability to play centrally with Genoa and Milan. With the Grifone, he scored five goals in 19 games in 2014/2015, when he was primarily used in a similar position, and earned a return at Milan. The following season, he logged five goals and five assists with the Rossoneri as a second-striker in an injury-plagued year. He was used as a forward also at Montpellier. He does not have Belotti’s muscularity and tenacity, but his quickness could still be menacing.
Using Niang centrally will open up some minutes on the left in their 4-2-3-1. They signed Alex Berenguer from Osasuna this summer, but they were not totally satisfied with him in the early games and opted to add Niang on that flank. A very technical player, he might be a little too defensive and passive for the coach’s liking, but could improve over time. They have kept the youngster Simone Edera after a stint at Parma in the third league where he did not feature much, but he impressed Mihajlovic in the preseason: another speedster, he could earn himself some valuable minutes. Lucas Boye has just returned from an injury and the fact that he was here last season puts him on top of the pecking order: a winger in a center-forward body, he collected thirty appearances in 2016/2017, scoring once and assisting twice. He has impressive technique and dribbling skills and could be another option centrally as he was deployed there with Newell’s Old Boys.
In the next few games, Torino will face Crotone, Roma, Fiorentina, Cagliari and Inter. No matter who is chosen to replace him, a lot more will be asked to Adem Ljajic and Iago Falque, who started the season well but will need to take a further step forward. If things go awry, Mihajlovic could decide to bolster the midfield and revert back to 4-3-3, moving Ljajic to the flank, or even opting for a false-nine as a hail mary. There are some very demanding games ahead for Torino and their success, or lack thereof, without Belotti will set the tone for the rest of their season.
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With another set of Serie A matches in the history books, it is now time to see just which attackers in the Italian top flight performed particularly well last weekend.