How good is the Italian U21 squad?

Italy U21 v Albania U21 - International Friendly

The Italian Under 21 squad:

Goalkeepers: 

Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan)
Alessio Cragno (Cagliari, loaned to Benevento)
Alex Meret (Udinese, loaned to SPAL)

Defenders:

 Daniele Rugani (Juventus)
Alessio Romagnoli (Milan)
Mattia Caldara (Atalanta, Juventus transfer set for July 2018)
Alex Ferrari (Bologna, loaned to Hellas Verona)
Andrea Conti (Atalanta)
Davide Calabria (Milan)
Nicola Murru (Cagliari)
Antonio Barreca (Torino)

Midfielders: 

Marco Benassi (Torino)
Roberto Gagliardini (Inter)
Manuel Locatelli (Milan)
Rolando Mandragora (Juventus)
Danilo Cataldi (Lazio, loaned to Genoa)
Stefano Sensi (Sassoulo)

Strikers: 

Domenico Berardi (Sassoulo)
Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina)
Andrea Petagna (Atalanta)
Alberto Cerri (Juventus, loaned to Pescara)
Federico Chiesa (Fiorentina)
Federico Di Francesco (Bologna)

While it is fun and dandy to assemble the top rated youth of the nation, what is more concerning will be how to make them click together. Obvious thoughts will need to focus on what tactics, movements and strategies best fit these players. Furthermore, what will need to be addressed; will the first eleven need a more technical approach or more physical approach? Those decisions will most probably hinge on scouting and the oppositions’ weaknesses. Adaptability was at the forefront on these choices of players, so then any adversary can be dealt with, with relative ease.

Firstly, the formations that best suit these players will be the first topic of discussion. Italy, historically, have always tampered with what best fits as formations and as modern football goes, so will this squad. Two formations that could possibly be utilized – considering what has been seen in recent times in Italy – should be the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3. The beauty in these circumstances is the fluidity of the two. When absorbing or defending, they can easily be deployed as 5-4-1, 4-5-1 or a 4-4-2. The obvious question will be why those two particular setups.

All of the players in this team, with the exception of one or two, currently play within these tactics at their respective clubs, so familiarity will not be an issue. Also, one tactic has a three-center back system while the other has a two-center back system. Case in point, if the opposition is playing a lone striker or two man strike-force then 1v1’s can be averted. Baring in mind that if two wingers are supporting a lone striker then wingbacks should be used in a flat 4 back-line, which is a possibility within the 4-3-3.

In terms of the center backs, the only appointments that need be determined are: who will be utilized more as a stopper and who will be in a cover position? Depending on which system, all are capable and versatile. If the 3 center back system is used, then Romagnoli should most probably be the ball playing center back with the other two in coverage positions. The discussion shifts when using a 2 center back system with the holding midfielder being the primary outlet for technical support, while also aiding in ball winning so these defenders can remain compact and tight together. A high backline would be best utilized if possible, so to limit space and time on the ball for the opposition. Concerns in this regard will be long vertical balls. They can be averted if pressure/closing down is done on behalf of the forward line, unless belief in the back-line’s pace is superior to the oppositions forward line. By default, this will also keep defensive, midfield and forward lines in a compact state. Defending, transitional play and attacking should be done in unison.

In regards to the midfield when utilizing the 3-4-3, the fact of the matter is the wide players are actually “terzinos“, so coverage is not undermined. Those same wide players, when attacking, have shown great presence as is seen with Antonio Barreca’s technique and Andrea Conti’s off the ball movements in the advanced quarter of the field. A central block of five players to absorb the oppostion remains intact. If opportunities arise, then a box to box midfielder can advance while still having 4 players in coverage positions.

All in all, the greatest aspect to this whole idea will stem from the notion of having Federico Bernardeschi and Domenico Berardi as the most advanced players. Even more so, the addition of Andrea Petagna centrally can be very interesting. The reason being, his link up play shows he is very able – technically that is – but what should be considered even more intriguing is his sacrifice. A great idea to only consider would be seeing Petagna the first of the three advanced players, dropping back once possession is lost. This would allow the most dynamic and dangerous players with abilities to dictate, that being Bernardeschi and Berardi who would have the least amount of defensive responsibilities.

A fantastic example of this would be footage of Bayern Munich’s treble run of 2012-2013, particularly the tactics used in the demolition of Barcelona in their 2 legged semifinal confrontation (below). A 4-3-3 used masterfully with wide strikers (Robben & Ribery) given freedom to receive and dictate while the center forward Gomez, who took on the task of doing so called dirty work as a striker.

If Petagna, or whoever is played as a central figure drops once defending, Bernardeschi and Berardi will be concerning themselves with pressure on center backs and deep central midfielders. Then, it can allow “mediano” midfielders or wingbacks to pick up any wide opposing options, while central threats can be absorbed by central midfielders. Petagna can then act as coverage in positional play between the midfield line and the forward line.

Many may wonder” why not play a traditional 4-4-2?” Petagna’s off the ball movements as a striker and his physicality on dead ball situations can be an underestimated asset, reaping many rewards. Also, his familiarity within the box is far greater than most midfielders. If possession is kept in abundance, then Petagna or Cerri’s physicality – considering the former is 6’2 and latter is 6’4 – can open up wide play with proper supply as an alternative to any central penetration.

Other options could be a technical forward in a central role, luring center backs out of position. This would be best used if a wide forward is making more vertical movements to offset the back-line. In this circumstance, Chiesa at wide right, Bernardeschi or Berardi central, with the other making up the left side. An additional reason to why this could be interesting would be if a box to box midfielder can make vertical movements while the central forward is in a support role. A perfect example would be footage of Milan’s Champions League final victory over Benfica in 1990.

If a first eleven were chose as of now within both formations (3-4-3, 4-3-3), it may look like this:

GK Donnarumma
CB Rugani
CB Romagnoli
CB Caldara
MR Conti
MC Benassi
MC Gagliardini
ML Barreca
FR Berardi
FC Petagna
FL Bernardeschi
GK Donnarumma
DR Conti
DC Rugani
DC Romagnoli
DL Barreca
MC Benassi
MC Locatelli
MC Gagliardini
FR Berardi
FC Petagna
FL Bernardeschi

Balance is well served in both ideas. Creativity and technical outlets are available if Bernardeschi & Berardi are used in support roles. Overlapping can be seen in the inclusions of Barreca and Conti. Also in both circumstances, nine of ten outfield players are six feet or taller, so defensive or attacking set pieces can be very promising. Without forgetting, having options in set pieces is one thing, but no one supplying the delivery would count for nothing. That will not be a concern considering Bernardeschi and Berardi are two very able set piece specialists. Great engines of the likes of Gagliardini, Benassi and Locatelli can boss the spine of the field. Wide play is being protected by Barreca and Conti, but this can only be justified if the central forward is a responsible team player. Defending is not just a defenders job, but a whole teams responsibility. It might be a phrase used rarely, but a team’s first defenders should be their strikers, no matter how talented a player may be. Defending is not a matter of what, when or why, but rather where. There is no team in the world that attacks with ten players, so it is a matter of who is there to absorb the pressure.

To conclude, these are opinions. The fact of the matter is there will be a multitude of components that will determine if any are a possibility. Morale, run of form, injuries, understanding of the task at hand and, even more so, the will to execute. Lastly, an element that is never put into consideration: luck, which is not awarded but rather appears and disappears when you least expect it. Only then can an idea, which is ultimately a thought or suggestion to a course of action, be propelled given ample amount of passion and belief towards that assumption. So if trust and dedication are given to this theory, it may very well bring about glory and success. So calculate and assess before expecting if victory is warranted.

 

 

 

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