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.