“You see that attacker. He’s coming to take the food off your table,” Helenio Herrera, Inter Milan’s legendary coach of the 1960s, once famously said to his defenders. Needless to say, the players defended like a pack of wolves for the rest of the match.
In Italy, defenders are heroes. Just think Paulo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavarro. Every tackle, every clearance and every save is celebrated at the back.
The Catenaccio, or door bolt in Italian, is football’s hardest defence mechanism. Breaking it down needs the highest form of skill and the purest of courage. Catenaccio is a form of chain defence, often featuring four defenders with an extra man as sweeper or libero. Though pioneered by Austrian coach Karl Rappan in the 1930s, the catenaccio was perfected by Herrera.
Post-war Italy was a tough period for its citizens. The economy was in doldrums and the people were unsure of the future. Football was the lone bright spot. Italy had won the World Cup back-to-back in 1934 and 1938 but the ensuing World War-II sunk that joy in no time. Defence had become Italian football’s hallmark and it resonated with the post-war mood. It was about survival at all costs.
So, when current Italian coach Roberto Mancini adopted a refreshingly attacking style of play during the ongoing Euro Cup, eyebrows were raised. Italy had not qualified for the 2018 World Cup under coach Gian Piero Ventura, following a listless display during the qualification stage, plunging the entire nation into despair. Italian football teams often challenge for the title (they have been World Champions on four occasions), but here they could not even enter the tournament. Mancini was summoned to take charge of the team. He had to do something different and he did.
Under Mancini, Italy started displaying a flowing, attacking brand of football after a decade of underperformance. From a rigid and defensive minded formation, the team switched to 4-3-3, liberating its forwards. Mancini brought in young players like Nicolo Barella, Federico Chiesa, Manuel Locatelli and Leonardo Spinazzola while retaining the experienced core of captain Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. Creative playmaker Lorenzo Insigne quickly regained his rhythm under Mancini and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma spread-eagled himself across the goal.
The result was a revitalised side that started a long, unbeaten run in Europe. It did not matter who they were playing, Italy stood its ground and unleashed some of the most fluidly attacking patterns that the game has seen in recent times. How can a nation that produces Ferrari and Maserati, shun creativity and design for long? They rolled over Turkey, Switzerland and Wales in the initial phase of the Euro, and then beat favourites Belgium and dislodged Spain in the semi-finals. Spinazzola’s surging runs on the left flank had played a key role in Italy’s progress. But despite losing him through injury in the quarter final, the team was able to put a stop to Spain’s bull run.
It became apparent that Italy could play the game in different gears. They were prepared to defend or play the waiting game when the opposition had the upper hand. At the same time, it continuously probed for weaknesses in the opposition line-up, always ready for the counter attack. Much like former coach Arrigo Sacchi, Mancini wasn’t afraid to let his players raid the penalty box repeatedly, knowing fully well that he had a water tight defence. Despite not having a deadly striker, the team scored freely in the early rounds of Euro, revealing the tactical nous shaped by the charismatic Mancini.
The Italian coach, who is now 56 years old, had a great career at Sampdoria helping the team win the league title Serie A, four Coppa Italia titles and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. The forward won 36 caps for Italy and represented the country in the 1988 Euro and the 1990 World Cup, entering the semi-finals on both occasions. His biggest regret was that he was not picked in the playing XI during the entire World Cup in 1990, despite being an established player in the squad. He became a coach at the age of 36 with Fiorentina, but did not taste success till he started managing Inter Milan.
After spells with many clubs in Europe, he finally took over the Italian national side in 2018 when the team was at its lowest ebb. But it’s not for nothing that Mancini is known to be football magician. His supreme tactical awareness, footballing intelligence and man management skills have had a deep impact on the new players and seniors alike.
However, it is significant to note that Italy’s progress hasn’t come at the expense of its traditional defensive style. Mancini has added an attacking flair to the defensive rigour of the backline manned by Chiellini and Bonucci. Like Barolo, Italy’s most famous wine from the Piedmont region, he has aged well.
The Italian resurgence on the football field seems to have rubbed off on the country’s economy as well. Bank of Italy has predicted a 5% rise in GDP for the year, improving on a previous forecast of 4.5% growth. The recovery is expected to be spurred by new investments, thanks to reduced Covid-19 uncertainty, low interest rates and projects funded by the European Union's Recovery Fund.
Exports have led the country’s economic recovery post-pandemic, with increased use of digital services. Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi is determined to speed up bureaucratic reforms and energise lethargic legal systems. He is looking to spend €250 billion (Italy’s share of EU’s recovery fund) to digitise public administration, health, education and infrastructure. Remember, for a long time, Italy was regarded as Europe’s digital laggard.
Mancini’s Italy is no laggard.
Italy is taking on England in the Euro final on Sunday. The Azzuri, as the Italian football team is known, is ready to belt out the national anthem at full tilt again. The wine growers of Tuscany, the shoe makers of San Mauro Pascoli and the car makers of Turin will be watching. And so will Helenio Herrera from the heaven above. Wembley is ready for a cracker.