Is ‘defending’ being phased out in Italy?
Many football fans and journalists outside of Italy have commonly referred to Serie A as being a defensive league.
This notion seems justified with the likes of Paolo Maldini, Gaetano Scirea, and Alessandro Nesta being just a few of the big name defenders to be produced within the peninsula.
Those players went on to represent the Azzurri and won the last two World Cups for their country in 1982 and 2006, respectively.
However, heading into the 2014 edition, times are changing in calcio. Far more attackers are being developed within the various clubs’ academies and more attackers from abroad are being signed.
Suddenly, a national team who prided itself on winning with catenaccio tactics can no longer accomplish that. AC Milan’s Mattia De Sciglio is seen as the next great Italian defender, and he may very well be, but there aren’t many others that will be able to form a back line capable of winning World Cup and European Championships with the Azzurri.
Bari appeared to have the future centre-back partnership when they nurtured Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia.
The former has steadily improved since moving from Inter to Juventus, but has shown weaknesses when playing in a back four.
The latter, meanwhile, has struggled immensely since becoming a member of the Nerazzurri.
Inter have been praised for their academy, but have been heavily criticised for selling those stars of the future, sometimes for very small prices.
Italian U-21 international Giulio Donati was recently sold to Bayer Leverkusen for €3 million, which has attracted even more negative attention towards the Nerazzurri. He was a standout at the European Under-21 Championships in Israel, but only played a handful of matches.
Donati is also 23-years-old, meaning he was older than almost every other player at that tournament. He made 28 appearances for Grosseto, who were relegated to Lega Pro for next season, and didn’t exactly turn any heads.
Luca Caldirola is another member of the U-21 team that was produced by Inter’s academy, and he too was recently sold .
He’ll be at Werder Bremen in the German Bundesliga, but despite being tipped as another future Azzurri regular, he also hasn’t lived up to those expectations thus far. He could turn it around at Bremen and return to Italy, similar to Andrea Barzagli’s route.
Matteo Bianchetti is the other defender, besides Donati, who shined for the Under-21’s in Israel.
The 20-year-old centre-back made several crucial interceptions and commanded his position throughout the tournament.
He could very well be called up to the senior squad in a few years if he continues to progress.
He left for Hellas Verona in January and is set to stay in Verona for the club’s return to Serie A in August. That can only help his development and might even become a first team regular.
In terms of those already with the seniors, Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Davide Astori, Ignazio Abate, and Cristian Maggio are some of Cesare Prandelli’s regulars at the back.
The former has enjoyed a resurgence since joining Juventus from Wolfsburg, but hasn’t thrived in Prandelli’s four man defence. He’s also 32-years-old and will be reaching the twilight of his career before the 2018 World Cup.
Astori was another future talent, but he’s now 26 and still hasn’t lived up to that title. To make things worse, his Azzurri tenure hasn’t won over any doubters.
Maggio and Abate are essentially wingers, plus they’ve committed too many errors, two things that Italian internationals cannot do.
Of every defender, Chiellini may be the best, but even he has been out of his element at the Confederations Cup. Switching to a back three could fortify the defence, but when he retires along with Barzagli, there will be no one else capable of partnering with Bonucci (except Bianchetti, perhaps).
Defenders generally peak and enjoy their best years of football between the ages of 29 and 34, so any of Donati, Caldirola, or other young Italians could eventually star for the Azzurri.
However, with foreigners like Matija Nastasic leaving Serie A and without any decent domestic prospects, Italy could become a league built on an attacking mentality out of necessity due to no quality individual defenders.
That in turn may prevent the national team from succeeding. After all, a team that is difficult to break down can progress deep in cup competitions.