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PAUL ELLIOT – EURO 2020: Roberto Mancini has transformed the culture of defensive Italian football

PAUL ELLIOTT: Roberto Mancini has transformed the culture of defensive Italian football and unleashed his midfield with fluidity… he has taken the handbrake off while maintaining the Azzurri’s solid shape

  • Italy are set to face Gareth Southgate’s England side in the Euro 2020 final
  • They have always been known as a team who focuses on not getting beaten 
  • But manager Roberto Mancini has unleashed their creativity in midfield  
  • He’s still kept their defensive shape with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini

When Paul Elliott joined Pisa in 1987, he became the first black defender to ever play in Italy. He played in an era of Italian football when defence was king. 

It’s a far cry from Roberto Mancini’s explosive and expansive team that are on the brink of winning Euro 2020. Here, Elliott analyses Italian football’s transformation under Mancini.

The Italians were always so brilliant defensively, that was why Ian Rush suffered when he joined Juventus in 1986. Teams were only playing with one up front and Rush would always play as the lone striker.

Roberto Mancini has totally changed the culture at Italy to make them attack with fluidity 

I remember marking him, and with all due respect, he never had any support. No one would be willing to break forward because there was such a focus on not getting beat rather than the emphasis being on being creative and winning games.

Historically the whole Italian game was built on a defensive culture or Catenaccio – which translates to bolting the door shut.

I always saw that as a sadness with Italian football; they always had some great midfield players but they were conditioned in that culture, particularly away from home.

With that vast talent, you couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed to break the lines or have that aspiration to break forward because they were so technically good.

Mancini has evolved Italy more than any boss in 20 years and added creativity to the midfield

Mancini has evolved Italy more than any boss in 20 years and added creativity to the midfield

That’s why the Italian national team were always a well oiled, well drilled machine.

But the first change in Italian football came when Marco van Basten, Enzo Scifo, Ruud Gullit and Diego Maradona arrived.

They gave that confidence for teams to show creativity from midfield. They took Italian football to another level. The Italians seized upon that – but in my opinion they never excelled in the way they should have because of the culture.

The players weren’t asked to break the lines and get forward. It was always counter attack – defence first, don’t concede and after that we score on the break. And they were brilliant at it.

It’s taken them over 30 years to get out of that way, that culture. We’ve had a culture in England playing a certain way – it’s only been over the last 10 years that it has really evolved.

Gareth Southgate has completed a similar cultural change to what Roberto Mancini has with Italy.

Leonardo Bonucci is one of Italy's fiersome defenders

He shores things up at the back with Giorgio Chiellini

The Azzurri boss has retained their stability with Leonardo Bonucci (L) and Giorgio Chiellini (R) two typically classic ruthless defenders

In three years Mancini has evolved that team more than anyone over the past 20 years. Gianlugi Donnarumma is only 22 but has played 250 games for AC Milan and over 30 times for his country.

Leonardo Bonnucci and Giorgio Chiellini are two typically classic ruthless Italian central defenders – they aren’t as quick as they were but they have brilliant positional sense and at that level positional sense is better than pace. Mancini has retained the defensive stability.

But they are so expansive and fluid in midfield when they would never have been before. The transformation has been unbelievable. He took over three years ago when Italian football was at its lowest ebb. They had been left behind.

They had so much talent but because of their cultural mindset in terms of defending they weren’t optimising that.

Under Mancini they have changed with the times. He was a great player for Italy, he had eyes at the back of his head.

He was one of the nearest I’ve seen to Kenny Dalglish. He wasn’t quick off the mark but he was three yards quicker in his speed of thought than any other player.

Mancini has built a team based on discipline and professionalism in his own identity

Mancini has built a team based on discipline and professionalism in his own identity 

But if you look at his own management career he managed in Italy, Russia, Turkey and England – he has evolved too.

He has seen that you have to bring that flexibility. Those experiences he embraced in club management he has put it altogether and created this model for Italian football. They wouldn’t be where they are now if he hadn’t.

I’ve got no doubt they will be a force at the World Cup in 18 months. I’m biased – I want England to win on Sunday.

But Mancini has built a team in his own identity of how he played the game and how wants the game to be played.

Discipline, professionalism, built on defence but he has let the hand break down – that has been the biggest single change.

So offensive such a joy to watch.