Italy’s latest round of fixtures in the 2016 European Championship qualification process had a familiar outcome. The results were positive; the performances, not so much. 1-0 wins over both Malta and Bulgaria ensured the Azzurri extended their unbeaten run in qualifying matches to 48 games but, despite the consummate record, Antonio Conte’s side look far from the finished article.
The wins mean that with two matches left to play – one at home to Norway, one away to Azerbaijan – Italy sit atop Group H with progress to next summer’s finals in France all but assured. Yet on Monday morning, the papers espoused more a feeling of relief than of potential continental supremacy. “It’s almost done”, groaned Tuttosport. “Two steps forward”, heaved La Gazzetta dello Sport. Evidently, confidence in Conte’s men is not particularly high.
The former Juventus don’s time as national team manager has been anything other than a smooth ride. So far, his time in the hot seat has involved fresh match-fixing allegations, death threats and controversy over his calling up of foreign-born players. Pertaining team performance, critics have bemoaned the inability of Conte’s Italy to kill off weaker opposition and a lack of young talent coming through.
Conte has addressed the tactical concerns by altering formations, ending his steadfast preoccupation with a 3-5-2 setup in favour of a 4-3-3. The issue regarding young talent remains, however. Conte has wielded the axe on several underperforming members of the Italy squad following their 2014 World Cup group stage exit but, while he has shown a degree of ruthlessness, his call-ups have been fairly risk-averse, with little faith placed in the untested.
There is still some time for Conte to change this prior to Euro 2016. The young talent certainly exists, the only uncertainty is whether the vociferous coach will utilise it. Conte’s Italy are stagnant and in need of rejuvenation. Should he wish to open the door to new faces, there are several uncapped players willing and able to make the step up. Here are four of them.
Domenico Berardi (21, Inverted Winger, Sassuolo)
A sleek and elegant attacker with nimble footwork and an assured touch, Domenico Berardi’s abundant technical skills mean that his continued appearance in the green and black of Sassuolo is a slight surprise. It was with the Emilia-Romagna outfit that Berardi first broke through as a twinkle-toed teenager and it is with them that he remains in spite of a goalscoring record that even the greats would envy.
Having starred in Sassuolo’s promotion from Serie B in the 2012/13 season, Berardi has acclimatised with remarkable comfort to top-tier surroundings, hitting double figures in each of his first two Serie A campaigns. Indeed, he reached the 30-goal mark faster than anyone in the last half-century of Serie A football, etching his name ahead of the likes of Roberto Mancini, Francesco Totti, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero to do so.
Berardi has thrived as an inverted winger on the right-hand side of a front trident within Sassuolo coach Eusebio Di Francesco’s favoured 4-3-3 system at club level and it’s that exact role he could undertake to great effect at international level should Azzurri coach Conte choose to persist with the same system. Stephan El Shaarawy performed admirably as the left-sided inverted winger for Italy against Bulgaria on Sunday evening and Berardi could quite aptly slot in on the opposite flank, providing flair, inward incision and additional goal threat. Alternately, he could just as easily play behind a lone centre forward as a second striker.
Alessio Romagnoli (20, Central Defender, AC Milan)
Italian football’s proudest tradition lies in its incessant production of world class defensive talent. When it came to canny hard men, the Azzurri have always been covered by the likes of Claudio Gentile and Fabio Cannavaro, while they have also laid claim to more than their fair share of classy ball-players, such as Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi. In the present, Italy boast two central defenders capable of combining the ruthless with the technical in Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Clearly, Alessio Romagnoli has a lot to live up to.
The 20-year-old centre-back recently joined AC Milan for a €25 million fee, leaving Roma after an impressive spell on loan at Sampdoria last season. Upon walking through the doors at Milanello, Romagnoli was reunited with his coach at Samp, Sinisa Mihajlovic, who had made it a priority to bring the youngster with him to San Siro. His signing came on the back of a lengthy pursuit, something which gave a good indication as to just how highly Romagnoli is rated.
Romagnoli possesses a refined left foot, one that allows him to spray passes out from the back with unerring accuracy. While an efficient ball player, his primary qualities are of a purely defensive nature; his positioning is intelligent, he reads the game well and more often than not he times his tackles to perfection. While still to mature physically, he undoubtedly has the necessary attributes to make the step up from Italian Under-21 side to the senior team and, while Antonio Conte has recently shifted away from a back three, a return to the old system would allow space for Romagnoli to line up alongside Chiellini and Bonucci.
Riccardo Saponara (23, Trequartista, Empoli)
Watching Riccardo Saponara is akin to witnessing perpetual motion, he never stops moving. With the ball at feet, he slaloms; without it, he explores. Foraging for space, his movement found him in a scoring position for Empoli after 20 minutes of their clash with Milan at San Siro in the second weekend of this season. He quietly converted to equalise and the home fans were once again left to lament their club’s perplexing transfer policy of recent times, for it was this very policy that saw Saponara get away from them.
Saponara was given few opportunities while at Milan after arriving from Empoli in 2013 and, by January of this year, he was shunted back to the club from whence he’d came. But although he is a victim of Milan’s transfer market madness, truthfully Saponara cannot complain about the way things have turned out for him, as his return to Tuscany has brought about a resurgence in form.
Former Empoli head coach Maurizio Sarri transmogrified Saponara’s role, bringing him in from the wings to play behind two strikers in a 4-3-1-2 system. It is there that Saponara has been at his sparkling best, relishing the creative license handed to him in a more central area. While there are currently no vacancies for Italy in the trequartista role, there are few who could perform the role for them as well as Saponara. Conte’s Italian side have lacked goals of late and Saponara’s curious probing and vibrant connective play could be just the tonic should they ever opt to line up with a midfield diamond.
Davide Zappacosta (23, Wing-Back, Torino)
Matteo Darmian’s summer transfer to Manchester United was a deal that made sense to all involved parties. Torino got £12.7 million, Darmian got a shot at Champions League football and Manchester United got a versatile and effective full-back for what they consider a very reasonable price. The money involved was far more significant for Torino, who wasted little time reinvesting the fee in new players to strengthen their squad across the board. One of those players was Davide Zappacosta.
Zappacosta is similar to Darmian in some ways. He is right-footed, primarily plays as a right-sided full-back or wing-back and enjoys the thrill of bombing forward. He joined il Toro from Atalanta along with Daniele Baselli in a €10 million double-deal and their concurrent signatures were immediately heralded as a steal for Torino. Both players are in their early 20s, both represented Italy during the summer’s European Under-21 Championships and both fit coach Giampiero Ventura’s 3-5-2 system.
As a player who spent some of his time at Atalanta playing on the right of midfield, Zappacosta is well attuned to the requirements of a more advanced wide role and should continue to progress well as the right wing-back in Ventura’s formation, galloping forward to take on opposition full-backs and provide sound crossing. It’s these traits that would make him a valuable asset for Conte’s Italy, too. Whether opting for a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3, Conte wants his wide defenders to push forward and support attacks. In the former system they provide the sole source of width, while in the latter they make overlapping runs beyond the wingers. Zappacosta’s energy and drive make him a perfect fit for either setup.