Electric Italy invigorate Euro 2020 to become team of the tournament so far

Italy’s games in Rome have been cultural events, their emotive rendition of the national anthem worth tuning in for alone (Getty)

When the Italian players got into the dressing room after another breathless performance, Roberto Mancini remained as animated as ever, but more positive than many had ever seen him.

The long-time friends that make up his staff, such as Gianluca Vialli, have even commented on it.

Here, Mancini said the performance against Wales “couldn’t have been better”. It was certainly close to perfect in the manner they completely cut out Robert Page’s side while repeatedly cutting them open.

Wales – like Switzerland and Turkey – could barely live with the level of it, and were lucky not to lose by much more.

Italy’s numbers are still as impressive as their play. They finish the Euro 2020 group stage with a 100 per cent record, in terms of points, and defence. They still haven’t conceded a goal.

The growing question now is whether this level, that Mancini was so effusive about, is higher than anyone else in the tournament.

One thing is certain. Italy are undoubtedly the team of the tournament. That is for more reasons than just quality. It is that they have been so captivating, both on the pitch and off it.

Their games in Rome have been cultural events, the rendition of the anthem as worth tuning in for as some of the attacking moves. There is an electricity around the team, that could be felt all around the Stadio Olimpico.

It all stems from the way they play, and the enthusiasm they have created. Italy have invigorated these Euros more than any other side.

In that, they follow a lineage that includes France 1984, Netherlands 1988, Croatia 1996, Portugal 2000, Czech Republic 2004, Netherlands 2008 and Italy 2016.

Roberto Mancini looks on as Matteo Pessina celebrates after scoring (Getty)

It should be noted that only a few of them won the Euros. The team of the tournament don’t necessarily become the winners of the tournament.

Some of them, such as Netherlands 2008, were as sensational as this Italy only to suddenly go out. There is then the lesson of Italy 2016, who seized the tournament in a similar way and still only went as far as quarter-finals.

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But there is something different about this side.

While that 2016 team were very much a product of Antonio Conte’s alchemy, this all feels more collective, with more substance.

That isn’t to put down Mancini in contrast to his predecessor. It’s probably true, though, that he has much more to work with.

That can be sensed in how he speaks. While Conte radiated an area of defiance, that Italy were performing well above themselves, Mancini talks as if this is their level.

It can be seen as well as heard. They impose their game on opponents, and at a frenetic speed.

It isn’t football made to fit a more limited team, as Conte’s was. It is all football on the front foot, and about getting in as much talent as possible.

This is what makes them stand out all the more. It is what is so exhilarating. It is such a difference from the miserly football of the reigning world and European champions, France and Portugal.

They have so consciously played a constrained game that is supposed to suit this era of international football better, and that Gareth Southgate has sought to emulate. It means most of the teams at Euro 2020 have a structure imposed on them. Italy do not. They have an approach that brings more out of them.

Italy have rebuilt their style under Mancini after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup (AP)

Mancini has no time for that conservatism. He is showing something else is possible, with a highly coached and co-ordinated attack that can take the breath away. It certainly leaves the opposition exhausted. It is perhaps what England could be – but won’t be.

Some of this is obviously down to the type of personality Mancini is. He doesn’t just wear the expectation of victory well.

He has a clout unusual for international football now. Outside Luis Enrique, he is the coach at these Euros with by far the best club record. Mancini consequently has the self-assurance to do something different. He will back himself.

Read more: Ball magnet Marco Verratti’s majestic return boosts Italy chances ahead of Euro 2020 knock-out stages

But he will also fully back his players, because some of it is also down to their quality, and background.

This is mostly a young squad, and all of them have come through a progressive coaching background that is so different to much of Italy’s history.

They have been nurtured in the modern game, and have played this style since under-15s. Italy has undergone a coaching revolution of its own.

That is on top of the extra tactical education that Italian players receive, that struck Serie A imports like Belgium’s Dries Mertens. It may make the implementation of such approaches easier, even if Mancini’s harder edge also helps. Many around the squad speak of the “aura” he has.

It further knits the side together that players like Matteo Pessina, Alessandro Bastoni, Rafael Toloi, Domenico Berardi and Giacomo Raspadori were inculcated in such intensive attacking approaches at clubs like Atalanta and Sassuolo. They were even more ready for this way of playing.

There is then the encouragement of Mancini, his willingness for players to express themselves.

This is what really stands out for those who have worked with the manager for so long. There is none of his usual abrasiveness. He is far more paternal, and positive.

Italy’s club game, particularly at Atalanta and Sassuolo, and Mancini’s coaching has given the national team a foundation of intense attacking football (Getty)

It is as if this is the job that maybe fits him best.

Much has been made of how he feels this is his “second chance” with the national team, after a playing career with Italy that never got to the heights it should have.

The result is a number of current players going to new heights, from Manuel Locatelli to Nicola Barella.

It fosters this sense of togetherness, that the crowd has bought into. The players are feeling that, too, as Marco Verratti made clear after the Wales game.

“When we say that this team is for everyone, we’re not just saying that. There are 26 of us and we’re all proud to represent our country and ready to give our best.”

The sole lingering question is whether their best is enough against the very best sides. The feeling remains that they haven’t been tested yet. That will start to change from now, as will their environment. This was their last game in Rome, and had the feel of a send-off.

There is still the possibility that this campaign could end as abruptly as it did for the Netherlands in 2008, or Croatia in the same tournament.

If such precedents should bring an element of caution, though, Mancini is insistent that there is no caution in Italy’s play.

That already marks them out as so different, and so captivating.

Read More

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