Italy’s New ‘Golden Generation’ Remain On Track

Italy’s U21s may have just come up short in Poland, but Adam Summerton believes their European Championship experience will pay future dividends

I liked Luigi Di Biagio’s pre-tournament assertion that Italy’s U21s were the country’s best group at that level for 20 years, despite critics later suggesting he’d set himself up for a fall. It was clever and showed a clear understanding of both his own development role and the potential importance of this group to the senior set-up – in the very near future in some cases.

He may well truly believe what he said, but I also think Di Biagio knows that as an Italian, above all else, he needs to prepare players who are able to handle the expectation that goes with wearing the Azzurri senior shirt – players who are mentally tough and tournament savvy. Increasing the expectation on their shoulders was shrewd in my opinion – it provided an even sterner examination at a crucial stage of their development.

I say this because while Italy won’t win this summer’s U21 European Championship, I believe they have a great chance of being the most successful of any of the nations involved in terms of integrating players from the U21s in to next summer’s senior squad for the World Cup. I’d say at least nine of those players, possibly more, should feel they have a good chance of earning a place on the plane to Russia – namely Donnarumma, Rugani, Caldara, Conti, Pellegrini, Gagliardini, Chiesa, Berardi and Bernardeschi. Add in other names like Romagnoli (22) Belotti (23), Verratti (24), El Shaarawy (24), De Sciglio (24) and Spinazzola (24), and it’s abundantly clear that there are exciting times ahead for the Italian national side.

Compare that assertion to the widely held view of only a year or so ago that Italy were struggling to produce young players and needed a big rethink on how to best achieve that. I recall a mood of frustration and even mild embarrassment before Euro 2016, when it was suggested in many quarters that this was the poorest Italian side to contest a major tournament in several generations. Antonio Conte’s squad last summer had an average age of 28.43, with nine players aged 30 or over. Even a year in advance I think we can say with some certainty that Ventura’s squad for Russia will be significantly younger and far better balanced in terms of age. The old cliché ‘a great blend of youth and experience’ would be entirely appropriate when you consider elder statesmen like Buffon, Barzagli and De Rossi are also likely to be present – three previous Euro U21 winners – while Chiellini made the U21 Team of the Tournament in 2007.

All four players learnt a lot from playing in exactly the sort of environment that Italy’s current crop of youngsters have just experienced. Indeed, Italy already have a head-start in that respect on a nation like England, who didn’t include eligible players like Sterling, Rashford, Alli, Stones and Dier. So while Luigi Di Biagio might not have been able to overhaul a very good and technically gifted Spain side in the semi-finals, let’s not lose sight of the real end game, and what youth tournaments are all about – the true benefits of his work may still be to come, and for an U21s coach that’s how it should be.

Mo Salah Is Much More Than A ‘Chelsea Reject’

With Liverpool said to be on the verge of signing Roma forward Mohamed Salah, Adam Summerton hails his improvement during two-and-a-half seasons in Serie A 

When Roma acquired the services of renowned recruiter Monchi, attention inevitably turned to which gems he would identify to improve the Giallorossi – what didn’t get mentioned quite so much was the difficulties he’d have in keeping and/or replacing last season’s key players. Mohamed Salah’s imminent departure to Liverpool, while not unexpected, leaves a big hole that will be hard to fill – a player who directly contributed to 26 goals in 31 Serie A appearances last season (15 goals, 11 assists).

Still lazily labelled a ‘Chelsea reject’ by those who’ve probably not bothered to watch him a great deal in recent years – the truth is that Liverpool are getting a much more mature and well-rounded footballer than the one who endured a difficult first-spell in English football – not that he was given much of a chance at Stamford Bridge. It would have been hard enough as a young player to make the considerable step up from the Swiss Super League to the Premier League, but almost impossible when given just six league starts in twelve months.

The best thing Chelsea did for Salah was to let him go out on-loan to Serie A. It was in the beautiful surroundings of Florence that the Egyptian international began to repair damaged confidence, scoring six goals and providing three assists in the second half of the 2014/15 league season. His brief spell at the Artemio Franchi is perhaps best remembered for a fantastic performance away against Juventus in the Coppa Italia, where he scored both goals in a 1-2 win for La Viola – at the time it was Juve’s first home defeat in just under two years, for Salah it was a sign of things to come.

Having worked under Vincenzo Montella at Fiorentina, Salah then joined Roma in the summer of 2015, scoring 14 goals and providing 6 assists in his first Serie A season at the Olimpico, firstly coached by Rudi Garcia and then his eventual replacement Luciano Spalletti. The latter’s tactical acumen is often referenced by his many advocates and this is a key area in which playing in Italy has helped mould the Salah of today.

Playing under an innovative coach whose approach demands tactical flexibility, invention and experimentation – Salah has clearly learnt and improved. He still has the tremendous pace, directness and trickery that first caught people’s attention at Basel, but the Egyptian international is now smarter, cleverer and more aware of others on the pitch. Probably the best example I can give of this is the excellent relationship he developed with Edin Dzeko last season. The campaign prior had been a very difficult one for the former Manchester City striker, and I often thought part of his problem was actually a lack of understanding with Salah. It’s a credit to both of them and indeed Luciano Spalletti that what had previously been a weakness developed in to a key strength for the Giallorossi – Dzeko ended the season as Serie A’s top-scorer with a very impressive 29 goals, seven of them created by Salah, the league’s most effective partnership in that respect.

Striking up new understandings at Anfield is now the challenge for a player who leaves Italy in far better shape than when he arrived. Salah deserves great credit not just for bouncing back from his Chelsea experience, but also for returning to the scene of his career’s biggest disappointment in England. Those who’ve watched him develop over the last two years won’t be surprised by that strength of character though. Indeed it will be more useful than ever to him in the coming weeks and months as he handles the considerable pressure and expectation that comes with being Liverpool Football Club’s record signing. I’m sure Monchi will enjoy spending the cash.

Opportunity Knocks For Di Francesco

As a new-era begins at AS Roma, Adam Summerton suggests new head-coach Eusebio Di Francesco has been dealt a very good hand

It was one of the worst kept secrets in Italian football, but when Eusebio Di Francesco’s appointment as Roma head coach was finally confirmed, my first thought was ‘what a great opportunity’. He inherits a talented and reasonably well-balanced squad that, under Luciano Spalletti, has just set a club-record Serie A points tally and achieved automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League. He joins a club with a very ambitious owner who continues to pursue, with great vigour, a new stadium project that could make a huge difference to Roma’s chances of long-term success. I’d also highlight the presence of Monchi as someone many in football would be keen to work with.

Yes, there’s much work to do to close the gap on Juventus, but Roma appear in safe hands and with much to be excited and optimistic about in what will be viewed by many as the ‘post-Totti’ era. It’s also arguable that Il Capitano’s recent departure provides an opportunity in itself. A truly magnificent footballer who has deserved all the plaudits he’s received, but while, simply because of age, his on-pitch significance has decreased significantly over the last few seasons, the political challenges brought by his presence only seemed to increase.

A player so revered and iconic – managing the winding down of his career must’ve been very difficult for all concerned – and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that it was a continual distraction and frustration for Luciano Spalletti in particular. You only had to look at how weary he became of questions on Totti’s playing time and future in press conferences. Some will say Spalletti could’ve managed the situation better, or more sensitively, others will feel he was put in a no-win situation, but whatever your view is, it is surely hard to argue that the whole situation wasn’t, at best, a distraction, and, at worst, de-stabilising. Many in Di Francesco’s position, while rightly respectful of the immeasurable contribution made by Totti to the club’s history, would surely feel an understandable sense of relief that what had become such a thorny political issue was concluded ahead of their arrival.

So significant was Totti’s presence that his departure also adds to the sense of a new era at Roma, something that Di Francesco will hope promotes patience. Ironically though it is a significant link to the past that will perhaps endear Di Francesco most to followers of the Giallorossi. A Scudetto winner alongside Totti in the 2000/01 season, it remains the club’s most-recent league title. A side that played some great football under Fabio Capello, who skilfully crafted a system and style of play that cleverly maximised the best talents of those available to him.

The same challenge is now laid down to Di Francesco, who must surely be enthused and invigorated by the opportunity to recreate that sort of success at his old club. What’s also significant is that he is able to do this with the knowledge that the style of play he implemented so adeptly and successfully at Sassuolo has been described as the “right fit for Roma” by Club President James Pallotta. Also endorsed and personally singled out by Monchi, Di Francesco begins life at the Olimpico in a very strong position and with the knowledge that he was Roma’s first-pick to take the club forward – we’d be hard-pressed to say the same about his predecessors’ position at Inter. Spalletti has left Roma in good shape though, indeed I think history could actually end up judging his second spell far more favourably than the present does, particularly if Di Francesco is able build on some very solid foundations and take the opportunity he has undoubtedly earned.

Cautious Optimism Needed at Milan

Despite an impressive start to the summer transfer market, Adam Summerton argues AC Milan supporters can’t afford to get too carried away 

When it comes to football club ownership, as many supporters have found to their cost, actions most definitely speak louder than words. It’s why followers of AC Milan seem understandably optimistic after a very proactive summer so far by the club’s new owners.

The Rossoneri were always going to be in a greater rush than most, not least because their season begins in the 3rd qualifying round of the Europa League on the 27th of July. But the planning and spending we’ve seen so far is possibly about much more than just being ready for that tie, they seem really intent on sending out a message, on proving they mean business.

By the 8th of June, to have extended Montella’s contract until 2019 and signed Musacchio, Kessie and Rodriguez is, just in terms of organisation and administration, a pretty impressive feat. And we hear there is still much more to come, with exciting names like Conti, Keita, Biglia and Belotti being spoken of.

It must be hard for Milan supporters, so eager for a return to the good old days, not to start getting carried away, but that would be a mistake. Yes, there is much to be positive and optimistic about, but there is also an awful lot of rebuilding still to do, and it’s so important that this is recognised and remembered – for the foreseeable future feet need to stay firmly on the ground.

I say this because I’ve observed a club that has been held back for several years partly because of an inner unwillingness to fully accept and deal with its current status a way outside of both Italian and European elite. It’s a club that has fallen a long way, is crying out for stability, and one where there has been more pressure than patience – coaches and players haunted by and sometimes judged on former glories.

You can’t build lasting success overnight, and to go from being a decent side to world-beaters in one summer is a rare feat – there almost always has to be a process and players who begin that journey can play their part, without necessarily being there until the successful conclusion. Suso, for example, is unlikely to ever be as good a player as say, Roberto Donadoni, but right now he has a significant role to play in helping Milan towards a top-four finish. Would Suso then be good enough, as a first-pick, to help them go on and challenge for the Scudetto, or the Champions League? I’m not so sure. But given the chance, this is a squad that can and will naturally evolve – it is how this great club, one with such vast potential, can negotiate the steep climb back to the top.

Overseeing all that will be Vincenzo Montella, who handled himself very well last season – remaining professional and dignified during the sizeable challenges of a protracted takeover, and delivering both a trophy and a return to European competition in his first season. He undoubtedly has a platform for growth but will be mindful of the pressure and expectation that this financial outlay will bring. The troubles of city rivals Inter came after a summer of optimism, where they were only outspent by Juventus, yet ended up experiencing a campaign of off-field upheaval and a 7th place finish. Morale within the Nerazzurri squad seemed a big problem and that is something, particularly in the midst of an overhaul of the playing staff, which Montella will be keen to protect and promote at Milan. Throw in the potential for an extra 15 + games if things go well in the Europa League, and it’s clear that while the Rossoneri’s new era is off to a promising start there are many challenges ahead to overcome before Milan are truly back where they feel they belong.

Napoli – The Way Forward

For me, as a fan of football there are few things better than watching players who are, week-in-week-out, almost guaranteed to get you off your seat. What’s so special about this current Napoli side is that they have a whole team of those players. The great entertainers of Serie A, football with a heart-pounding intensity – in my opinion they and Monaco have been the most exciting teams to watch in Europe this season.

Unlike their French counter-parts though Napoli are, barring an astonishing turn of events, going to end the season trophy-less. So the pressing issue going forward is how can Maurizio Sarri turn plaudits in to prizes?

Balance

If Napoli are to win a Serie A title in the coming years, the strong likelihood is they’ll need to finish above Juventus, and what The Old Lady do better than any other side in Europe right now is get the balance right between attack and defence. It sometimes means they have to be pragmatic, and Max Allegri doesn’t mind sacrificing entertainment for success. After a 1-nil first-leg win over Monaco in the Champions League semi-finals, he said if you ‘if you want to have fun, you should go to the circus’. For Napoli to lose the high-intensity and expression in their play would be to kill their identity, the things that make them so great – but if they are to win trophies there has to be a better balance struck, they have to pick their moments better, particularly in the really big games. It’s seems strange to say this about a team that tends to dominate possession, but above all else Napoli need to play better when they don’t have the ball.

Rotation

Again I will reference Juventus here because I think it’s entirely relevant. The Bianconeri, in chasing a treble, have had to rotate meticulously this season, and they have the squad to do it, but I feel this is an area where Napoli have to be cleverer. Last summer I thought Napoli re-invested the Higuain cash very wisely. Tiredness had been a factor at the end of the 15/16 season because the first-eleven barely changed – so this extra strength in depth provided an opportunity, particularly with a high-intensity style, to rest and rotate. But has Sarri really made the most of the extra depth? Does he really trust all those who were brought in last summer? Whilst injuries have been a factor with some of those recruited, it’s still surprising that we haven’t seen the likes of Maksimovic, Tonelli, Giaccherini, Rog, Diawara and Zielinski begin more league games – between them they’ve only made 39 starts in Serie A this season. At the time of writing, Napoli have seven outfield players who’ve started 25 league games or more, for Juventus the figure is four.

Tactical flexibility

It’s easy to forget that when Sarri came to Napoli he didn’t have the easiest of starts – taking two points from their first three league games in 15/16 playing a 4-3-1-2 formation. That early form led to quite a lot of criticism and scepticism, which melted away after Sarri switched to a 4-3-3 set-up for the visit of Club Brugge, thumped them 5-nil and went on a tremendous run thereafter. It’s my view that this formation still suits Napoli’s players best, but I believe it’s a squad with the capability to be much more tactically flexible than we’ve actually seen so far. You have to wonder how scarred Sarri is by the flack that came his way in the very early days, from Maradona amongst others. Perhaps that plays a part in his reluctance to change things too much, but while any change always brings an element of risk, that extra flexibility might, on occasion, be a necessity for Sarri to find ways of winning the tighter games and outwitting the best coaches – it may also aid the pragmatic approach referenced earlier.

Mentality

I read a lot of player interviews before commentating on games, and one with Jose Callejon, published on Football Italia back in March, I thought was particularly telling – it had originally been broadcast on Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli

“We feel as if we are an important team, but we need to know we are because at times I don’t think we have that mentality.

“Those on the bench and in the crowd also need to know we are a strong team, we can win something. On the pitch we need to enjoy ourselves, give enjoyment to the crowd and to our teammates.

Rightly or wrongly I read a lot in to that, particularly the first line. As wonderful as Napoli are, as close as they are to being a truly top side, do they collectively believe they are good enough to take those extra steps that are needed? Again, it’s a stand-out difference between Napoli and Juventus right now.

Stability

It’s important to finish on a positive, because there is so much to love about this Napoli team, and that’s perhaps why those involved seem keen to stay – Lorenzo Insigne has already committed to a new long-term deal and the word is that Dries Mertens will be next. It’s also been reported that Maurizio Sarri may be close to committing to a new four-year contract, and many Neapolitans will hope this turns out to be true. A man who was born in the city, and in the same year that the Stadio San Paolo was opened. He supported the club as a boy, even though he actually grew up in Tuscany. A forward thinking and innovative coach with an incredible drive and attention to detail – soon Sarri will be preparing for a third season in charge of Napoli at the same time that there’s instability and uncertainty in the coaching positions at the likes of Roma, Inter and Fiorentina. Whilst new coaches at those clubs may bring with them new ideas, squad overhauls and lots of change, Napoli fans know they are much further down the road of development – much of the hard work is now done, for Sarri it’s now just about tweaking and perfecting in his search for that winning formula.

The brilliance of Antonio Conte

As Antonio Conte celebrates his first Premier League title, Adam Summerton looks at what makes the Chelsea manager so special.

Whoever doubted that Antonio Conte had a plan for Michy Batshuayi……? The Chelsea coach can seemingly do no wrong and fully deserves all the praise coming his way after winning the Premier League title in his first season in English football. Though to many who’ve followed Conte’s career, this is no big surprise. He has been, in my opinion, the best in the world for several years now. Not only is he a top coach, he’s also an exceptionally good manager – in that respect Conte is close to the complete package.

To win four successive league titles in two different countries is special – indeed his league record in that time reads – P-150 W-111 D-27 L-12. Even if he had been appointed the head coach of a team of serial winners this record would be impressive, but at both Juventus and Chelsea, Conte walked in to testing situations.

Depending on which account you read, it ranged from stories of disharmony to all out civil war at Stamford Bridge last season – a campaign which saw an admittedly talented squad finish 10th, thirty-one points behind title-winners, Leicester City. Prior to Conte’s arrival at Juventus, the Bianconeri had finished the 2010/11 campaign in 7th place in Serie A, twenty-four points behind champions AC Milan.  His first season at Juventus also coincided with a move to a brand-new stadium, something we’re often told can be problematic. Yet Conte was like a breath of fresh-air – and, making the most of a season outside of Europe, (sound familiar?) led an unbeaten Juventus to their first Scudetto since the Calciopoli scandal.  He would go on to win three league titles in a row and firmly re-establish Juventus as the dominant force in Italian football. Absolutely key to this was his creation of a winning mentality and togetherness that still exists at Juventus, and has arguably been enhanced further still by Max Allegri.

What Conte does so well is give players confidence through certainty and a clear identity. They all know the system, and they are all left in no doubt as to their roles within that framework. You don’t need to be a fly on the wall at Cobham to see this, it’s clearly evident just from watching any of his teams play – they are very well-coached and well-prepared. I can offer no better recent example of the effect all this can have on an individual than David Luiz. Under Antonio Conte, he has gone from a figure of fun to a very serious defender, one of the best around, and that’s no coincidence.

Conte’s coaching ability was clearly evident long before he arrived in West London, but perhaps less spoken about was his qualities as a manager of people, something he’s also proved very adept at. I thought he handled the Diego Costa China situation very well, not allowing it to destabilise the side mid-season – he’s also reinvigorated and united a dressing room without making anything like wholesale changes. Even his man-management of John Terry has proved beneficial – Conte was clever enough to spot the importance of having someone of such authority and experience about the place. Even though Terry’s playing time has been very limited, I’ve always got the feeling he feels involved and valued by Conte, as Friday night’s celebrations showed.

Conte’s man-management hasn’t just been restricted to the playing staff though – and he knows the little touches can make all difference. A couple of days before Christmas, everyone at Cobham, from canteen workers to administrative staff, was given a present by Conte, all with a personalised note. At the end of each note, he had jotted down a quote from the military commander Hannibal, famous for leading his elephants over The Alps. ‘We will either find a way,’ the line read, ‘or we will make one.’

Having carved out a path to the Premier League title so soon, Conte’s next big frontier is the Champions League. It remains, for me, the big question mark over his potential greatness as a coach. Eliminated at the group stage in his final season with Juventus, he’d managed a quarter-final appearance the year before. Had he stayed with the Bianconeri I happen to think he’d have gone on to lead them much further in that competition, but now it’s with Chelsea that he will meet this challenge with the same unmistakable verve and enthusiasm that has captured hearts and minds so quickly at Stamford Bridge.

Inter’s search for Mr. Right

Inter 2

As Inter continue to look for a new head-coach, Adam Summerton assesses the qualities required of Stefano Pioli’s eventual successor

A unifier, a diplomat, a leader – some might even say a magician. The next head coach of one of European football’s biggest names will need the first three of those assets at a bare minimum. He’ll be tough to find, and it may be equally as difficult to persuade that person that they should take on what is one of the toughest jobs in football right now.

In all likelihood getting the ‘right’ man is going to cost Suning, the club’s owners, an absolute fortune in wages because they’re border-line desperate and aren’t in a position to take a chance on anything but the tried and tested – the candidates know that and they may also see it as ‘danger money’. Many managerial reputations have taken a dent at San Siro since Jose Mourinho delivered the last of the club’s Serie A and Champions League titles in 2010.

Just in the last nine months we’ve seen Mancini, De Boer and Pioli in charge. All of them, even De Boer (remember Juventus?), had moments of hope and positivity. Inter were top of the table at Christmas 2015 under Mancini – the initial turnaround under Pioli was impressive, soon after his appointment they went on a nine-game winning streak. Nothing lasts for long though – as good as things might look in any given moment, the belief of supporters remains fragile because they know a relapse is never far away.

I think it’s pretty clear, even to the most casual observers, that the coaches who’ve been and gone haven’t necessarily been the main problem, yet the ‘right’ one could be the solution. It needs someone who is not just a top-coach but also a great manager to bring together a club that appears, from the outside, disjointed and dis-unified. He has to be the most important person and the best paid person at the club. No member of staff, particularly at a club trying to get out of the situation Inter find themselves in, can be more important or more powerful than the head coach, and the players need to know that.

Improving the mentality of the squad will be extremely difficult, a big job that may require some incisive surgery, but if progress can be made in this respect I have no doubt that good things can happen. The owners are strong willed, determined and well financed, and the existing squad, purely on paper, is hugely under-achieving. If Inter fail to qualify for Europe it won’t be because of a lack of quality. Handanovic is one of the world’s best goalkeepers, Icardi one of the world’s top centre-forwards – Gagliardini is seen as one of Italy’s most promising midfielders, Perisic is admired by other big clubs across Europe – the likes of Kondogbia and Joao Mario have so much more to give.  Far lesser squads have achieved much more, and in the right hands the Nerazzurri can once again start punching their sizeable weight.