Giorgio Chiellini hates Pep Guardiola ball. Guardiolismo, the Italian defender calls it. You and I might call it “modern football.” You know, the possession-dominating style of play in which defenders are expected to be comfortable on the ball and play out from the back. What was once credited as a tactical revolution has now become a default system of play for teams all over Europe, a transition that has “ruined a generation of Italian defenders” in Chiellini’s eyes.
“Now everyone is looking to push up, defenders know how to set the tone of play and they can spread the ball, but they don’t know how to mark,” Chiellini said ahead of Italy’s World Cup playoff against Sweden in 2017. “Nowadays, from crosses, Italian defenders—and I can only really talk for Italian defenders, I am only relatively interested in foreign players—don’t mark their man. It’s a great pity because we’re losing our DNA a bit and some of those characteristics which had made us excel in the world.”
Italy lost that game to Sweden, and the playoff on aggregate, and the defeat knocked the Azzurri out of World Cup qualification for the first time in 60 years. The aftermath cost manager Gian Piero Ventura his job. Carlo Tavecchio resigned as president of the Italian Football Federation. And Chiellini, along with fellow stalwarts Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi, and captain Gianluigi Buffon, promptly retired from the national team.
But four years later, Italy returned to a major competition, demolishing Turkey 3-0 in the opening game of Euro 2020 last week, and there was Chiellini, back in the Italian starting 11 and galloping past the halfway line like a deep-lying playmaker looking to spread the ball. Under manager Roberto Mancini, who took over in 2018, Italy appear to have morphed into the attack-minded side Chiellini describes as putting defenders at risk. At the very least, it’s a far cry from the traditional catenaccio, or “door bolt,” that once was a hallmark of Italian tactical philosophy. In catenaccio, the system emphasizes strong defense and counterattacking, and while the method in Italy has since given way to zona mista and more progressive styles of play, the reputation of staunch Italian defense has lingered both internationally and in the country’s domestic Serie A league. That is, until the 2018 World Cup debacle and the hiring of Mancini. Now, the Italians look more like their southern European counterparts in Spain, with tiki-taka-esque buildup.
Against Turkey, Italy didn’t actively defend much; they simply kept hold of the ball. A higher percentage of possession was a safe bet in a match where the Azzurri were heavily favored and playing in front of their own fans in Rome. But Turkey wasn’t to be underestimated; the Crescent Stars coasted to Euro qualification and earned dark-horse backing from a number of respected pundits. Few would have predicted a 3-0 scoreline. But the Italians stifled Turkey from the start, pressing high and playing line-breaking passes through the middle courtesy of a highly technical midfield anchored by Jorginho. Where Italy really found joy, though, was in the wide spaces. Right back Alessandro Florenzi often tucked into a lopsided backline, allowing Chiellini to push up the left and find left back Leonardo Spinazzola out wide. Turkey’s double-pivot midfield was frequently dragged left to guard against the danger, leaving Italian midfielder Nicolò Barella with acres of space to find Domenico Berardi on the right. The pair’s combination contributed to Italy’s opening two goals.
The Italians have been labeled something of a dark horse themselves, a surprising description for a country that has lifted the World Cup trophy four times. But their failure to qualify in 2018 has dampened expectations, and they presently lack superstar goal scorers in the vein of Kylian Mbappé or Romelu Lukaku. Still, the Azzurri won all 10 of their Euro qualifying matches and are now unbeaten in 28 matches (their international record is 30). They look every part of a team that hasn’t lost in three years. And they’re doing it without the low block and back five that has defined Italian football, for better or worse, for decades.
Still, Italy isn’t without its weaknesses. Chiellini, 36, and longtime Juventus partner Leonardo Bonucci, 34, are tactical masterminds, but they are not as fast or mobile as they once were. The freedom for Italy’s fullbacks to attack leaves space in behind, and Florenzi, though less willing to go forward, isn’t the strongest one-on-one defender. Jorginho is not really a defensive midfielder, yet is being tasked as playing one (though Italy will welcome the return of Marco Verratti, who missed the game against Turkey due to injury). Italy play Switzerland Wednesday and then Wales in their final match of the group stage; it’s worrying to imagine passes slipping through the lines with Breel Embolo or Gareth Bale latching onto the end of them. Italy’s defense should continue to excel at reading the game, but having the physical traits to stop the opposition is another problem altogether, though. And up top, despite his nicely taken goal last week, questions linger over Ciro Immobile’s finishing ability. He’s undoubtedly prolific at the club level—150 goals in 219 appearances for Lazio through the past five seasons. Internationally, though, he has just 14 in 47 caps.
But for now, Italy have every reason to believe they’ll progress out of their group. On paper, Turkey was the toughest test, and a three-goal margin gives them favorable odds to advance even if they somehow finish in third place. Just a tie against Switzerland on Wednesday and Mancini will have his assistants prepping for potential opponents in the knockouts. Anything can happen from there, and by that point, we could be questioning whether Italy is really a dark horse or if they’ve been in the race the entire time.