Interim Italy coach Luigi Di Biagio has selected his squad for the up-and-coming friendlies against Argentina and England and his choices clearly illustrate that the Azzurri are in a transitional phase after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The Azzurri play the Albiceleste in Manchester, United Kingdom on Friday March 23 and then face the Three Lions at Wembley on Tuesday March 27, with a tribute for former Italy defender Davide Astori set for before the England game.
Di Biagio will be coaching against two strong opponents and he has selected some players that were responsible for the defeat to Sweden in the World Cup play-offs. Although some of those players are experienced, they are also past their prime and have shown signs of decline with the national team.
One of the big names in the squad is the iconic Gianluigi Buffon and Di Biagio has brought him out of retirement. If his performances in big games in the last 18 months or so are anything to go by, Buffon’s reflexes are not as quick as they once were and his experience would be the main asset for the youngsters. His selection represents an unofficial farewell tour for the 40-year-old, who is sadly not as reliable as he once was.
During the press conference the interim coach also underlined his philosophy for Italy, which involves implementing a proactive style and introducing some of the youngsters he has coached with the Under-21 squad.
“For me, playing well means having the courage to get into the other team’s half regardless of the quality of the team that you’re taking on,” he said.
“This is a cohesive group made up of players that I’ve seen develop. We need to start again with the right conviction straight away.
“With a bit of patience, we can rebuild an important team, there are lots of young players and they’re developing.”
In theory it sounds promising but some of his squad selections suggest that he is selecting players on the basis that they have some experience with the Azzurri.
The English-based players are questionable selections. Centre-back Angelo Ogbonna plays frequently for West Ham United but he turns 30 in May, has not been capped since September 2016, and he only came in as a replacement for the injured Giorgio Chiellini while Davide Zappacosta is not a frequent starter for Chelsea and Matteo Darmian has only played five English Premier League games this season.
There are other players that are not in form for their clubs or they have underperformed for the Azzurri in the past. Andrea Belotti has only scored four times in 13 internationals for Italy and he has struggled with injury in 2017-18, Antonio Candreva has not shown signs of slowing down but his crossing and shooting are woeful, and Marco Parolo offers little in the offensive phase.
Where there is hope is in the selections of young players. Fiorentina winger Federico Chiesa and AC Milan striker Patrick Cutrone were selected for the senior squad for the first time and they were richly deserved because of their current form and they are players that Italy can build their future around.
Midfielders Lorenzo Pellegrini and Bryan Cristante from Roma and Atalanta respectively have been called-up to the senior squad again and they are also future prospects for Italy. There are also players like Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Spinazzola, and Roberto Gagliardini that have lacked continuity but they are also players who have the potential to make a difference in the long term.
Once again, the enigmatic Mario Balotelli has been left out despite scoring 22 goals in 31 competitive matches for Nice and perhaps he should have earned his first call-up since 2014 due to his form as well as the underwhelming displays of the other strikers for Italy in recent years.
Although Di Biagio has suggested a change in Italy’s style, the latest hotchpotch of an Azzurri squad implies that the evolution of the Italian national team will be a slow one and the constant selection of underachieving players means that little progress can be made at this stage.
Friendlies are often seen as meaningless games but the presence of some emerging starlets might give Azzurri fans a glimmer of hope and something worth watching.