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Too late, Azzurri realising what they had in Pirlo, Gattuso, and de Rossi

Saturday 5th May 2018

In the not-too-distant past, Italian midfielders were noted for their dexterity, physical prowess, astounding technique, and superior ability to read the game. Serie A was regarded as the best league in the world. One didn’t look much further for Champions League contenders. On the international front, four FIFA World Cups for the Azzurri tell the tale. Sadly, that band of terrific and incredibly gifted Italian midfielders has disappeared.

Francesco Totti. Andrea Pirlo. Gennaro Gattuso. Simone Perrotta. Claudio Marchisio. Thiago Motta. Emanuele Giaccherini. Daniele De Rossi. All were terrifying central midfielders who brought veneration to the Italian national team in the last three completed World Cup cycles. I say were and include the last four because you saw this year's qualification process. They are the remnants of a generation that is fast fading from memory. 

Marchisio, Motta, and Giaccherini still make themselves available but they’re well past their prime. Men of steel Totti, Pirlo, and Gattuso have all retired. De Rossi still plays for his club but has bowed out of the national team.  

The problem is not that they have aged before their time. Quite the opposite. It's that Pirlo et al hung around too long because they were and are no young stars pushing them out. The effect has been telling. Italy is not going to a World Cup for the first time in six decades. 

The warning signs came earlier. A shambolic World Cup performance in South Africa meant the world champions couldn't escape the group phase. They reached Euro 2012 but turned in an embarrassing final against Spain. Another midfield magician worked his magic from the dugout in 2016. Antonio Conte employed his back-three  for an inspiring run in the 2016 Euros. He lost to Germany on penalties.

With no young Azzurri ready to replace the old guard in the middle of the pitch and Conte gone, it all came apart in the 2018 UEFA qualifying tournament. Nor is it just the midfield. There is no emerging generation in any department save between the sticks. Invariably, though, the heart of Italy’s struggles lies in their middle.

A team with superiority in midfield usually wins. The drought is setting Italy back. Their recent travails lay it bare.

Time for Azzurri to turn to youth

There’s never been a time when the Italian national team needed its young players to rise to the occasion so much as now. But for Marco Verratti, Italy lack the midfield marshals that used to intimidate the world. Men like Gattuso, Pirlo, and De Rossi, who could enforce their presence in matches and swing games in their favour do not don the national kit anymore. The incoming Italy manager has little choice but to rely on youth players. 

Young midfielders such as Napoli’s Jorginho, Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini, Inter Milan’s Roberto Gagliardini, and Nicolo Barella, who plays for Cagliari, can forge a future for the Italians alongside the hyper-active Verratti. 

The days when Italy's midfield was essentially a David Bowie album, scary monsters and super freaks, are long gone. Their absence has impacted terribly on the European giants. There is no getting them back. A new future can only be forged by the younger generation. 

Kingsley Ukpai

Kingsley is a football aficionado who craves to read, watch, play and write about the greatest team sport ever known to man. If you're talking football he'll be keen to listen to what you have to say. Loves to play Fantasy Football too.

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