How can Italy, a team mostly composed of unexceptional footballers, play such exceptional football?
The Azzurri are unbeaten in 31 games, an Italian record. If there is a secret, it is their two midfield playmakers. Jorginho is the “invisible man” and Marco Verratti “the too visible man”, according to the Italian football writer Tommaso Pellizzari.
Watch the game and you might miss Jorginho, but watch Jorginho and you see the whole game: always available for his defenders, he then moves the ball inexorably forward. Italians call his position “regista”, a word that also means film director.
Verratti, in front of him, is the flamboyant star of the movie. He considers giving a safe unimaginative pass a personal humiliation, so no matter how many opponents press him, he will dribble and twist until he sees an interesting pass. Thanks largely to this duo, Italy start Friday’s quarter final against Belgium as favourites.
The team’s story begins with another creative midfielder, Roberto Mancini. When he became Italy manager in 2018, the Azzurri had just failed to qualify for the World Cup: a shock that prompted a proud football culture to reinvent itself.
Mancini also brought a personal frustration to the job: Italian football of his day had such little use for a midfield playmaker that he was sometimes played out of position as striker. As manager, he wanted to create the kind of attacking, possession-based Italian side he himself would have loved to play in.
But in 2018, no big Italian club played that way. Italy is a seniority-based football culture. Younger players (and in the Italian game, 25 is still considered young) must defer to gnarled campioni in the dressing-room, and are discouraged from taking on-field risks.
Look at how Milan banished the imaginative young passer Manuel Locatelli to tiny Sassuolo. In Italy’s first two Euro 2020 games, Locatelli deputised brilliantly for the injured Verratti.
Mancini has brushed aside old Italian ways. Remembering his own debut for Bologna aged 16, he placed faith in gifted youngsters from smaller clubs, some of which were attempting similar reinventions. He promised that at Euro 2020 his team would “step on to the pitch with the same carefree attitude you have when you’re a kid starting to play football”.
Jorginho and Verratti are emblematic of his team in that neither has played a minute for a giant Italian club. Jorginho was raised in Brazil and returned to the homeland of his distant ancestors aged 15. Later he left Napoli for Chelsea.
Verratti emerged at Pescara, where he won the second-tier Serie B championship in 2012 alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile, now his teammates at Euro 2020.
A big Italian club might have tried to crush his spirit. Instead, he joined Paris Saint-Germain, where older players fetched balls for the kid who could drop passes 40 yards on to the toes of his forwards.
“He arrived here with lots of confidence,” chuckled Carlo Ancelotti, his first coach in Paris. “Sometimes too much confidence.” Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, once observed that “he can overdo it a little”, but added: “He’s a combination of arrogance, technical quality, short and long vision. I don’t see any weakness in his game.”
Playing two ballplayers in central midfield without a defensive “breaker” seems risky, but isn’t. Because both men naturally play behind the ball, they double as defensive midfielders. Every attack in football is a house of cards about to collapse, and Jorginho, who can intuit the probabilities of where the cards will fall, hoovers up loose balls.
In the group stage he led Italy for tackles, interceptions and passes; he had topped those combined categories for Chelsea in their victorious Champions League campaign.
Mostly, Italy defend through possession. Opponents cannot stifle their passing simply by marking a lone creator. There is only one ball, and if Italy have it, the other team cannot score. The Azzurri set a new world record by going 19 hours and 28 minutes without conceding until Austria netted late in Italy’s 2-1 win in the second round.
Opponents grow tired and despondent chasing passes, which is why Italy often score late goals: seven of their nine have come from the 52nd minute onwards.
None of this is to call the Azzurri a two-man team. Like several other wingbacks this tournament, Leonardo Spinazzola exploits the space left on the flanks by modern football’s over-concentration on the centre.
Nicolò Barella and Insigne do the passing and pressing work at the front of midfield, while Immobile chases and scores. Italy’s defenders, taught since childhood to retreat when their team lose the ball, have had the tactical sophistication to learn to step forward instead. But everything starts with that ball-playing trio: Jorginho, Verratti and Mancini.