The floods of tears visibly streaming from Gianluigi Buffon after Italy’s goalless draw with Sweden were not the tears to herald the closing of a momentous career with his national team.
They were a demonstration of the sheer desolation and grief that will haunt his nation after a 1-0 aggregate play-off loss to Sweden confirmed Italy’s first World Cup qualification failure since 1958; resulting in the swift, anticipated sacking of manager Gian Piero Ventura.
All that remains for the proud nation, who were crowned the World Champions barely eleven years ago, is to stew over where it all went wrong and to contemplate a fresh era under a new manager.
Many of the issues on the pitch prevalent throughout the qualifying campaign were encapsulated in last Monday’s final encounter against a tough disciplined Sweden at the San Siro.
They had dominated their Scandinavian opponents for the majority of the high-stakes tie, but simply lacked the quality and subtlety in the final third; an outgoing problem for Gian Piero Ventura’s side who had scored just three goals in their last six competitive fixtures. Endless crosses into a packed penalty area, despite a clear height inferiority to Sweden, was symbolic of the lack of a coherent plan to gain the crucial leveller needed.
Equally concerning scenes were playing out midway through the second half on the bench where the polarisation between coaching staff and players was exposed. Daniele De Rossi was reacting angrily to being asked to warm up by one of Ventura’s coaches, gesticulating towards Lorenzo Insigne in the process, appearing to reply, “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win”. Insigne, who was sitting two places along from De Rossi, looking perplexed at the situation, is currently one of the most sought after wide forwards in Europe, having scored 18 league goals for Napoli last season.
Not only did this incident encapsulate the unhealthy dressing room atmosphere, but it was emblematic of rigid tactics and a lack of flexibility. Italy playing in a 3-5-2 formation, meant there was simply no space for a wide forward.
The 3-5-2 formation was a familiar line-up for the majority of these players, having been used to great effect by Antonio Conte throughout Euro 2016. But this is a side who are bereft of their confidence and identity that they possessed in abundance from two summers ago. They have been drained of the dynamism and shape-shifting synergy they oozed under the now Chelsea manager. Ventura’s Italy lost their fluidity with a desperate disconnect between defence, midfield and attack.
The 69-year old tried to accommodate other formations but all decisions proved poor errors of judgement. 4-2-4 was used away to Spain, but was made to look decidedly naïve by an
imperious Spanish side who thrashed Italy 3-0 in Madrid. Even a 3-4-3 line-up could only yield a 1-1 draw in a frustrating encounter with Macedonia in Turin.
What many sectors of Italian media find unforgiveable, is that Ventura had more to work with than Antonio Conte before him.
Despite strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti being in scintillating form for their respective clubs in the Serie A over the last 18 months; the pair have been stale and have appeared lost under Ventura. Jorginho, one of the primary key assets to current Serie A-leading Napoli, was only handed his competitive international debut on Monday night.
Questions will go back to the integrity and sense behind Ventura’s appointment in the first place.
Despite his age, Ventura held a fairly modest CV. Arguably, the biggest club he has ever coached was Torino, who he took to the last round of 16 in the Europa League in 2016. Appointed on a substantially lower salary than managerial predecessors, this is also a disastrous qualification failure that will be subject to much criticism labelled towards the Italian F.A.
A new manager will be at the helm for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign, and their first major task will be to accommodate a new era for Italian international football; to identify the long-term replacements for the seasoned 2006 World Cup medallists who will no longer be donning the Azzurri shirt. However, this is undoubtedly a national failure of seismic proportions that will painfully linger long in the memory and will not dissipate swiftly with time.