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Three Takeaways From Italy’s Exhibition Games As Manager Roberto Mancini Continues To Rebuild

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For Italy, failing to qualify for two consecutive FIFA World Cup editions was a clear sign that the team needed rebuilding.

Manager Roberto Mancini is very well aware of that, which is why he has been introducing several elements of novelty in Italy’s most recent exhibition games, including making tactical adjustments to the lineup and adding young players to the group.

Here are three major takeaways about this revised Italy squad as the Azzurri look at what’s awaiting them in 2023.

Last week, as the best national teams flew to Qatar to compete in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Italy were involved in two friendly matches that saw them defeat Albania 3-1 and lose 2-0 against Austria, leaving Italian fans with mixed feelings about this squad.

Results aside, the Azzurri are in good hands as far as the goalkeeper position. For years, the Italian soccer community had been wondering whether there would be an heir to legend Gianluigi Buffon, and Gianluigi Donnarumma seems to have responded to that call: At just 23 years old, Donnarumma has already collected 50 appearances with Italy, including lifting the UEFA Euro 2020 trophy. Donnarumma also enjoys international stature at the club level, where he regularly starts for European soccer giant Paris Saint-Germain.

What’s more, Italy have highly talented back-up options in goal: Alex Meret is the starting goalkeeper in the Napoli side that has been dominating in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League, Empoli’s Guglielmo Vicario has been so impressive that transfer rumors have strongly linked him with a move to Juventus and Lazio’s Ivan Provedel is the league’s second-best goalkeeper in goals conceded.

These friendly games have given head coach Mancini a chance to experiment with a three-man back line, thus temporarily abandoning the four-man system that he successfully adopted in the UEFA Euro 2020.

This kind of formation requires the right and left-sided center-backs to be very aggressive on the opponent’s strikers, while the wing-backs are asked to consistently run up and down the flank to perform both defensive and offensive duties.

In the Italy national team, this work rate can be handled by Federico Dimarco, who is having a breakthrough season in Serie A with Inter Milan, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, a restless runner and regular starter at Napoli, or Leonardo Spinazzola, who was one of Europe’s best sprinters at the latest UEFA Euro Cup edition with his 33.8 km/h (21 mph) maximum speed.

It remains to be seen whether Mancini will stick to a 3-4-3 or switch back to the 4-3-3 formation that last summer allowed the Azzurri to lift their first UEFA Euro Cup in 53 years.

“The 3-4-3 didn’t go very well,” Mancini said to Italian television RAI last night as Italy fell 2-0 against Austria. “We didn’t press enough with our strikers, we found ourselves stretched out and this has penalized us because we conceded many spaces for the opponent to attack.”

A positive takeaway from Italy’s exhibition games relates to the amount of young players that Mancini has been able to put on the field.

Some of them are still unproven at the highest level, such as 16-year-old Simone Pafundi, who has only one appearance in Serie A with Udinese. Others, like Juventus’s midfielders Nicolò Fagioli and Fabio Miretti, 21 and 19 respectively, have just begun getting playing time in the league, and the same can be said for 2003-born Wilfried Gnonto, the Leeds United forward who has featured in three English Premier League games. Italy might have found their next defensive pillar in Giorgio Scalvini, who is just 18 but is already in his second Serie A season with Atalanta.

While waiting for raw talent to flourish, Italy have the luxury of relying on players who boast international experience despite being still very young, such as 22-year-old Giacomo Raspadori and Sandro Tonali, respectively a striker for Napoli and a midfielder at AC Milan.

One of this generation’s most gifted footballers is surely Nicolò Zaniolo, the AS Roma midfielder that combines physical prowess with incredible technical skills. After a wearing battle with knee injuries, Zaniolo, 23, is ready to become one of the faces of Italy’s rebirth.

The Italy national team now look at their next big event, the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifiers, which is scheduled to begin in March 2023.

The Azzurri, who are in Group C with England, Ukraine, Malta and North Macedonia, will need to clinch one of the top-two positions to gain access to the 2024 UEFA Euros in Germany.

It will be the first major test for this revised Italian team, who are under extreme pressure not to make any more mistakes.

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