Euro 2020: Italy's lack of a Mancini-esque playmaker makes their revival more remarkable

Euro 2020
(Image credit: PA Images)

Roberto Mancini has many a claim to fame. One may forever remain unique. He could be the only man involved in two major tournaments Italy have hosted or co-hosted without playing a minute in either. A non-playing member of the squad in the 1990 World Cup can at least exert an influence in other ways when Italy kick off Euro 2020 against Turkey on Friday.

EURO 2020 Everything you need to know about Italy manager Roberto Mancini

But it forms part of the paradox of Mancini. He was the underachiever as an Italy player who, so far, has overachieved as Italy manager. He quit international football early, before his 30th birthday, but may have committed the rest of his coaching career to his country by signing a new five-year contract to keep him in charge until 2026. 

Mancini was a wonderful leader on the field for Sampdoria and Lazio but walked out on Italy when he was not guaranteed a place in the team for the 1994 World Cup. He was a great club player but an undistinguished international footballer: he scored in the Euro 1988 opener against West Germany but mustered a mere four goals in 36 caps. He did not play in 1990, Italy did not qualify for Euro ’92 and was gone in a huff before 1994.

There is another contradiction. There is a type of player Mancini’s Italy lack and it is Mancini himself. Their revival has been stunning; especially given the context. He inherited a side that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and oversaw one of only two 100 percent records in reaching Euro 2020. He has masterminded a 27-game unbeaten run. He has done so without a trequartista or a fantasista; without the classic Italian attacker. 

They long had a central part in the Italian identity. They were part of its complex character; a nation with an obsession with defence could also have the most stylish attackers. They often had too many men with designs on the most prestigious role. In the 1970 World Cup, Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola had their famous job share, the staffeta.

By 1994, Mancini did not want to understudy Roberto Baggio; he was not even the only candidate for the job, with Gianfranco Zola another creative, classy No.10. Had he prolonged his international career, he would have come into competition with the younger duo of Alessandro del Piero and Francesco Totti as well. Has any country been fortunate enough to have five No. 10s as good as Baggio, Mancini, Zola, Del Piero and Totti at the same time?

The flood gave way to a drought. Since Del Piero played in Euro 2008, they have not had a world-class No. 10. The famous shirt has been worn in major tournaments either by midfielders, in Daniele de Rossi and Thiago Motta, or a striker, in Antonio Cassano. Mancini has given it to Lorenzo Insigne, who will play on the left. The Mancini renaissance has come with a 4-3-3 formation; give him Mancini the player and there would be a temptation to switch to 4-2-3-1 and build a team around him. The absence of a world-class inventor makes Italy’s results and goalscoring return all the more admirable.

But amid the incongruities, there is something Mancini-esque about this revival. He has spent decades galvanising the up-and-coming. He inspired Sampdoria to their first Scudetto and their only European Cup final, helped Lazio win Serie A for the first time in 26 years and managed Inter to their first in 16. Manchester City had not won a trophy for 35 years until the 2011 FA Cup or the league for 44 until Mancini captured the Premier League.

He took over Italy in their wilderness years; arguably at their lowest ever ebb. There can be anomalies in his record but there is a constant. Mancini can be the king of the outsiders, the driving force to the new challengers to the more established order. In one respect, at least, the man who has transformed Italy has not changed.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.