Date: 10th October 2018 at 2:45pm
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Italian players no longer feature as prominently in Serie A. While that is an obvious statement at the top of the table, it is also worryingly true when you dig deeper and look at the other sides making up the top tier of Italian football.

In an attempt to gauge how many Italians start regularly in comparison to previous great Azzurri sides, we have taken a look at the number from recent seasons and compared them to those of the season leading up to Italy’s last great success – the 2006 World Cup win in Germany.

In a press conference in the week leading up to Italy’s last UEFA Nations League matches against Poland and Portugal, Roberto Mancini spoke about how Italian players are progressively getting less playing time in Serie A, which is a factor that has expedited the failure of the Italian national team in recent years.

Mancini implied that coaches in Serie A should be giving more opportunities to Italian players in order for him to have a larger pool to choose from. The information we collected shows that the already worrying numbers from last season have gotten considerably worse in the current one.

Out of the 220 starting positions available in Serie A, only 105 of them were regularly occupied by Italian players in the 2017/18 season, which is less than 48 per cent of the total. That figure has dropped even further after the summer transfer window, with only 87 Italian players being considered as first-choice starters so far, amounting to a measly 39.55 per cent.

That statistic is even more concerning if we look at last season’s top four teams in Serie A, therefore the first sides Mancini will turn to when building his squad. The number of Italian starters in those teams has dropped from 12 to nine this season, meaning that they make up 20 per cent of the 44 possible starting roles in Serie A’s Champions League-bound teams. The number of Italian starters in those teams is very likely to drop to as little as six or seven over the course of the season, once overseas signings settle into their new squads.

The departure of Jorginho has left Napoli with only Lorenzo Insigne for Mancini to consider, while at Inter the arrivals of Sime Vrsaljko, Radja Nainggolan, Lautaro Martinez, and Keita Balde has already started to limit the amount of time Danilo D’Ambrosio, Roberto Gagliardini, and Antonio Candreva get on the pitch.

Lazio, Torino, and Udinese are the only teams in the league to have increased their number of Italian starters since last season. The Biancocelesti replaced the departing Stefan De Vrij with Francesco Acerbi, the Granata let Nicolas Burdisso’s contract expire and replaced him with Armando Izzo, while the Zebrette brought in Rolando Mandragora to replace Jakub Jankto and have put faith in Simone Scuffet so far after the departure of Albano Bizzarri.

Atalanta are renowned for giving opportunities to young Italian players, often serving as the last stepping stone before a move to one of the top Serie A clubs. Players such as Mattia Caldara, Andrea Conti, Bryan Cristante, and Gagliardini all signed with bigger clubs after successful stints with La Dea.

This year, Atalanta have replaced the departing Andrea Petagna, Caldara, and Cristante with three foreign signings: Berat Djimsiti, Mario Pasalic, and Duvan Zapata. These moves have left a lot of people shocked to find out that Andrea Masiello and Pierluigi Gollini are now the only Italian players in a full-strength Atalanta line-up.  

Sassuolo are another club that could usually be counted on to have a largely Italian squad, but this year they too could see the presence of Italian players in their line-up reduce considerably. Paolo Cannavaro, Simone Missiroli, Matteo Politano, Diego Falcinelli, and Acerbi have certainly been replaced more than adequately under a technical standpoint, with Sassuolo enjoying a brilliant start to the campaign before starting to slow down.

However, the return to the Serie A of Kevin-Prince Boateng and the introduction into the line-up of players like Rogerio and Khouma Babacar make Sassuolo a lot more diverse than we had been used to in previous seasons.

The decline in use of Italian players has affected the entire league, from top to bottom. Genoa saw four Italian starters leave in the summer for no monetary compensation whatsoever, and decided to replace them with some cheap, young, foreign signings like Krzysztof Piatek and Christian Kouame, who have greatly impressed so far.

Fiorentina dealt with the tragic loss of Davide Astori by moving the Brazilian Vitor Hugo into the starting line-up and signed the talented 19-year-old French goalkeeper Alban Lafont to replace Marco Sportiello.

The surviving teams from last season’s relegation battle all decided to invest in more foreign players to bolster their squads. Bologna went for the Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski in exchange for Antonio Mirante, as well as selecting Mitchell Dijks to replace the Watford-bound Adam Masina.

Cagliari strengthened their squad by adding experienced foreigners the likes of Darijo Srna, Ragnar Klavan, and Lucas Castro, while SPAL saw Mohamed Fares and Jasmin Kurtic replace young Italians Federico Mattiello and Alberto Grassi in the line-up in their quest for a more comfortable season.  

As expected, the newly-promoted teams have placed their trust in a lot more overseas players compared to their past season in Serie B, when 29 Italian players started for those teams in total, out of a possible 33. At the time, both Parma’s and Frosinone’s first-choice 11 were entirely made up of Italian players.

This season, Empoli, Parma, and Frosinone only have 20 Italian starters between them. Crotone, Verona, and Benevento, last season’s relegated sides, could count on a total of 24 Italian players in their first-choice line-ups in the 2017/18 campaign.

Things could not have been more different in 2006 when Serie A was considered the best league in the world, and the Italian national team was set to claim a fourth World Cup win in its glorious history.

In the 2005/06 season, 150 Italian players were starting in their respective Serie A clubs, out of a possible 220. That means that over 68 per cent of the players that were starting in the Italian top-flight were available for selection by the Italian national team boss, Marcello Lippi.

While it certainly isn’t the only reason for the dire state the Italian national team is currently in, a 28.64 per cent drop in 12 years cannot be taken lightly.

In the 2005/06 season, a total of 122 Italian players were starting in the clubs that placed outside of the top six in Serie A, out of a possible 154, equalling over 79% of the total. If we look at the Serie A clubs that finished outside of the top six in the 2017/18 campaign, we notice that only 71 Italian players currently find themselves in starting positions, making up only 46 per cent of the total. The fact that smaller clubs have started to rely so heavily on foreigners is a strong testament to the increasing globalization of football, as more clubs expand their scouting networks to previously unexplored territories, as well as the lack of production of quality players in the Italian peninsula.

Having said that, Mancini will be particularly interested in examining the best teams in the league, as they are the most likely to have players of the desired quality for the national team. Furthermore, the players in the top clubs will have experience in international competitions, which can be an invaluable asset when approaching an international tournament with the national colours.

In 2006, every member of the Italian national team at the World Cup plied their trade in Serie A, with 21 out of the 23 playing for a club that finished in the top eight in the 2005/06 season. At the time, 47 Italian players were starting for clubs in the top eight. Lippi had numerous great players to choose from and didn’t have to resort to scrapping the barrel to find anyone who could help his cause.

The only two players who played for a club outside of the top eight were third-choice goalkeeper Marco Amelia, who played for 9th placed Livorno and didn’t see any action at the World Cup, and impact-sub Vincenzo Iaquinta, who had registered an impressive 16 goals that season (including four in the Champions League, making him the highest scoring Italian in that edition of the competition).

Perhaps most significantly, the two best teams in Italy at the time, Juventus and AC Milan, each provided five players to the 2006 World Cup expedition, virtually ensuring that Lippi had a healthy pick of world-class players to choose from.  

If we look at the 23 players that Mancini had at his disposal for the defeat against Portugal on September 10, we notice how only 14 of them play for a Serie A club that finished in the top eight last season, with two players plying their trade outside of Italy. This is no coincidence, as only 22 Italian players start for clubs in last season’s top eight, which is less than half of what it was in the 2005/06 season.

Gone are the days when the national team manager could merely turn to the best few sides and immediately have a core of players for the squad. Juventus’ influence has decreased, while Napoli, Roma, Inter, and Lazio each only provided one player to Mancini’s last squad. Italian players are struggling to find a place amongst the top Serie A sides, a statement which is made even more worrying if we consider the decline of the standard in the Italian top-flight.

For the matches against Poland and Portugal, Mancini was forced to call upon several players who aren’t regular starters at their clubs, with Mattia Perin, Emerson Palmieri, Simone Zaza, Davide Zappacosta, Daniele Rugani, Mario Balotelli, Caldara, and Gagliardini all struggling for minutes so far this campaign.

If we look back at the 2006 World Cup squad, only Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi, and Marco Materazzi weren’t constant starters in their teams, and they were kept out of their respective line-ups by stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andriy Shevchenko, and Walter Samuel.

While Mancini’s attempt to urge Serie A managers to have more faith in Italian players is laughable to say the least, especially considering his inclination to play an all-foreigner XI in his time at Inter, he brought attention to an issue that should be cause for concern to anyone who has interest in the Italian national team’s success. While the best solution to the problem is up for debate, it’s unquestionable that significant action needs to be taken to halt the Azzurri’s decline.