ROME – It’s been five years since Italy played at a major tournament, so it’s come as a surprise to many to see the Azzurri completely transformed into an attack-minded juggernaut resembling the elite of modern soccer.
Where did the old “catenaccio” system of lockdown defense and occasional counterattacks go?
Well, it turns out that the genesis of Roberto Mancini’s new-look squad at the European Championship came right in Italy’s backyard.
Teams like Atalanta, Sassuolo and even Napoli have adopted the more offensive styles seen around Europe in recent seasons.
Atalanta and Sassuolo also excel at promoting young Italian players — in a league where the tradition for decades was to make local teenagers wait their turns behind more experienced veterans, even if budding talents from South America were given time to shine immediately.
So, really, it’s no wonder why the Sassuolo tandem of Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi plus Atalanta midfielder Matteo Pessina have been the breakout stars of Italy’s perfect run through the group phase at Euro 2020.
Once a club that bounced back and forth between the top two divisions, Atalanta will soon play in its third consecutive season in the Champions League. The scoring machine created by coach Gian Piero Gasperini reached the quarterfinals of Europe's top club competition last year and led Serie A with 98 and 90 goals scored over the last two seasons, respectively.
Likewise, recently departed Sassuolo coach Roberto De Zerbi was praised for his forward-looking approach with homegrown players like Berardi and forward Giacomo Raspadori, who was called up to Italy’s Euro 2020 squad despite never having been with the national team before.
“Our players are used to playing like this because we’ve been trying to push this type of play since the first day and little by little we’ve gotten there,” Mancini said. “Plus, there are other squads that do it so they don’t have any problems carrying it out when they come in here.”
Pessina was a last-minute addition to Italy’s squad following an injury to Stefano Sensi — another Sassuolo product.
“There’s a lot of (Gasperini) in this,” Pessina said after scoring in Italy’s 1-0 win over Wales on Sunday. “I can see some similarities between the way Atalanta play and what Italy is doing now — the high press and runs from midfield — so I settled right in.”
The 23-year-old Locatelli, who scored twice in Italy’s 3-0 win over Switzerland in its second match, and the 24-year-old Pessina have similar characteristics in that they like to insert themselves into the attack and are both accomplished at scoring from beyond the area.
“It’s definitely a different approach,” Pessina said. “We’re aggressive, we want to hold the ball, we want to play in attack all the time, even if that means risking losing the ball in the last meters. Once you have possession in their half in the last 30 meters you’ve got to try to attack the goal."
The Atalanta-like approach has also been evident on other teams at Euro 2020, namely by Germany wing back Robin Gosens, who also plays for the Bergamo club.
“That’s European soccer now and what the big teams do," Pessina said. "And that’s what (Mancini) is trying to bring in here. … The results are evident so far.”
For a team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy’s results are remarkable.
The Azzurri are unbeaten in 30 games to match a team record set nearly a century ago and have won 11 straight — all clean sheets.
More than 1,000 minutes have been played since Italy last conceded a goal — to the Netherlands’ Donny van de Beek in a 1-1 draw in the Nations League in October.
Mancini made eight changes to his starting lineup for the Wales match, putting out a starting 11 with an average age of 27 for the youngest Italy squad at a major tournament since a Roberto Baggio-led team beat Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup.
Up next is a round-of-16 match against Austria at Wembley Stadium in London on Saturday.
“Mancini never fires us up too much,” said 22-year-old center back Alessandro Bastoni, another Atalanta product who was a fixture in the Inter Milan squad that won the Serie A title last month. “He just tells us to enjoy our soccer and keep doing what we’re doing.”
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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf