The Italian National Team: Devastating Mediocrity, Defined

Ventura’s tenure with the national team is underwhelming without being an absolute failure, so why is he being tolerated?

For the first time since the 1998-99 season, no manager in Serie A has been fired after seven matches. All twenty teams have decided to stick with their coach, even the terrible ones. It’s a quirk of fate, remarkable only because of the trigger-happy tendencies of Serie A owners past. But there’s one Italian manager who should almost definitely be fired. Unfortunately, he’s the coach of the national team.

Last night, Italy huffed and puffed and labored and struggled to a one-nil victory over Albania. It cemented their spot in the UEFA playoff positions for the 2018 World Cup. With Spain in the same group, this was always the likely route for Italy. But – dear god – it’s been a chore.

This Italy team are not fun to watch. The players do not perform well. They achieve the bare minimum, results-wise. On paper, you might say that they’re doing alright. A typical C student. Could be doing better. But the core of the problem is this: Gian Piero Ventura is a terrible coach and should not be in charge of the national team. It’s really that simple and it will not change any time soon.

Let’s start with Ventura’s stupid, stupid tactics. For a while now, he’s been fixated on playing with a 4-2-4 formation. If you had to pick the one formation which would get the absolute worst out of Italy’s best players, then it’s the 4-2-4 formation. The full backs are stymied, the midfield is overrun, the wingers are isolated and the strikers are running over each other’s toes. It’s utterly asinine.

Ventura has tried this formation a few times. It’s been woeful. He switched to a 3-4-3 against Macedonia and somehow managed to get that wrong as well. So, he reverted to the 4-2-4 against Albania and all the same problems were evident once again.

Imagine watching a car crash that you can do nothing about. It’s terrible. Horrific. But you can’t tear your eyes away. The crushing of metal, the shattering of glass, the screech of braking tires. You’re watching all the horrors unfold in slow motion. And then the driver gets out, reverses, adjusts his mirrors and proceeds to do exactly the same all over again. This is Ventura’s tactical set-up.

Gian Piero Ventura Italy World Cup

Gian Piero Ventura threatens Italy's World Cup campaign. Photo: @azzurri | Twitter 

Part of the problem is the way he is deploying the players. There are few more coveted midfielders in the world than Marco Verratti, but Verratti has his limitations. He is small and needs strong runners around him. At PSG, he has Thiago Motta and Adrien Rabiot, who do a great deal of work on his behalf.

In Ventura’s 4-2-4, he’s played next to Daniele De Rossi, well past his prime, knees creaking every time he steps on to the pitch. As a result, Verratti can do nothing. He’s neutered by his own manager, who chooses to emphasize all Verratti’s weaknesses and hides all his strengths.

In the two recent qualifiers, Verratti was injured, the lucky boy. But rather than calling up the best Italian midfielder right now, Jorginho, Ventura turned instead to Marco Parolo and Roberto Gagliardini, two fairly average players. Not that it mattered, betrayed as they were by the tactics which offered them no chance of imposing themselves on the game.

It’s a similar story with Lorenzo Insigne, one of the best players in Serie A. Rather than trying to replicate the Napoli set-up which suits the diminutive forward so well, Ventura isolates him out on the wing and tells him to stay wide.

He’s even managed to mess up the most settled, familiar defense in world football. If you have a combination of Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, there should be no way in which you field a bad defense. But Ventura has managed it. In his system, the players seem clueless. They’re exposed by their midfield, restricted from moving forwards.

In situations such as this, conceding an equalizer against Macedonia should be expected. In the past, such a defense would be intolerable in Italy. Now, it is ignored.

Italy World Cup Gianluigi Buffon

Gianluigi Buffon has been exposed in Italy's goal. Photo: @azzurri | Twitter

Perhaps this might be forgivable if there was some greater plan, some overarching philosophy which plotted a course for the future of Italian football. But Ventura, in his entire career, has been absolutely bang average. His best job, a stint at Torino after which he joined the national team, ended in an amicable divorce. Torino have since become much better; the Italian national team have become much worse. Ventura is the common factor. Emphasis on the common.

He has no history of winning trophies. He has no history of tactical ingenuity. He has no real history of coaching young players and seems uninterested in doing so while managing the national team. He has done nothing of note throughout his entirely underwhelming career. Why bother waiting around to find out whether finally, aged 64, Ventura might discover some hidden genius? If anything, he seems to be finding new ways in which to demonstrate his own limitations.

Ventura’s continued employment is now made all the more ridiculous by the options which are becoming available. Carlo Ancelotti, recently let go from Bayern Munich, is everything that Ventura is not. He’s actually achieved things in the game. Though he’s distanced himself from the job, Ancelotti might be convinced once he discovers how much time is available in which he can eat ham and smoke.

But Ancelotti is just one of many, many Italian managers. There are coaches up and down the Italian leagues (and abroad) who would jump at the chance to take charge of the national side. There is not a paucity of options, not when Ventura is currently steering a rudderless ship across the sea of mediocrity. There must be someone better. Anyone.

Instead of critically evaluating Ventura’s position and determining whether he’s offering anything to the national team, the Italian football federation have done the exact opposite. They’ve extended Ventura’s contract. Even before he’s qualified for the World Cup. It’s a nonsensical move by a nonsensical organization, but what else is to be expected from a group run by noted racist and general bigot Carlo Tavecchio? It’s idiots all the way down. A culture of devastating dullness, of uninspired, listless ennui.

Ventura and his Italy team will rumble on. They’ll probably qualify for the World Cup. They might even reach the knock-out stages. But, unlike the tenure of Antonio Conte, they will not do so as a result of good coaching. It will be luck or simply the quality of the available players. Ventura offers nothing to the team.

But he won’t be sacked. Nothing will change. This crisis of the prosaic, of being simply average and nothing more, will continue unabated. Welcome to Ventura’s Italy, where everything is crushingly pedestrian and nothing ever changes. We’ll be here for a while.

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