Five factors behind Italy’s record-breaking run

6 Sep 2021
  • Italy have now gone 36 games without defeat – a new international record

  • Roberto Mancini’s arrival at the helm, following Italy’s failure to reach Russia 2018, was crucial

  • He has transformed the style of the team, who now play a more attractive and exciting brand of football

Just six months elapsed between 13 November 2017 to 14 May 2018: half a year that marked the gap between one of Italy’s most disappointing setbacks and the arrival of an influential and inspirational figure who would completely change their style of play.

On that fateful day in November, Gli Azzurri were dealt a massive blow when they were knocked out of a play-off for the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018™ by Sweden. Consequently, the four-time world champions (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006) did not compete on football’s greatest stage for the first time since 1958.

In May of the following year, Italy appointed Roberto Mancini. At 53 years of age and with a wealth of European coaching experience and achievements under his belt, he made the decision to take the reins of a team desperately in need of new direction, hope and ambition. And that is exactly what he has given them.

The reigning European champions have now gone a remarkable 36 matches without suffering a defeat (27 wins, nine draws), surpassing the 35-game runs put together by two historically significant teams: Brazil (unbeaten between 1993 and 1996), who became world champions in 1994, and Spain (unbeaten between 2007 and 2009), a side that ended up with two UEFA European Championship trophies and a World Cup in their display cabinet.

To date, Mancini has overseen 41 Italy encounters, with the only two losses coming in his first five fixtures, in a friendly with France in June 2018 and in a UEFA Nations League game versus Portugal later that same year. No-one at that stage could have foreseen this ongoing 36-match unbeaten series, which has been built on a few key foundations.

Italy's Head coach Roberto Mancini (2nd R) oversees a training session of his players on the eve of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification football Lithuania v Italy in Vilnius on March 30, 2021. (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP) (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

1: Front and back

Italy has always had a reputation for Catenaccio-type defending, but Mancini had other plans for his charges. From the moment he took on his new role, he switched the team to a 4-3-3 formation and has not wavered since. The success of this philosophy is borne out by the statistics: in his 41 matches, Gli Azzurri have scored 93 goals, which equates to an average of over two goals per game.

In addition, after some adjustments to their defensive transition, Italy took many observers by surprise at EURO 2020 with the effective way in which they pressed and subdued their opponents. Mancini added attacking intensity and impetus to the team‘s traditional defensive solidity, which is still as impressive as ever, as was demonstrated when they went 1,168 minutes without conceding a goal, beating Dino Zoff’s previous record of 1,143.

2: A team of talents

As far as Mancini is concerned, ability outweighs everything else, and any Italian players who demonstrate sufficient levels of it are rewarded with a national call-up. He has included around 80 players in squads altogether, and a very high percentage of them have been allotted playing time.

The 56-year-old tactician has sent out a clear message to all Italian footballers with national-team aspirations: if they deserve a call-up, they will get an opportunity. With their team lacking the high-profile names of other nations, they are aware that a place in the team can always be earned, and that their collective strength is their greatest weapon.

Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci of Italy celebrate their team's victory in the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England

3: Family feel

One of the most difficult tasks that Mancini faced when he took charge of Italy was to find a way of motivating and inspiring a group of players still reeling from the shock of failing to qualify for Russia 2018.

The first part of his plan was to make them see that that their feelings of profound disappointment could be converted into a burning ambition to star at subsequent tournaments. Next, he called up a crop of young, promising players, who brought freshness, self-confidence, a touch of impulsiveness and, of course, the extra eagerness that the Italy of 2018 seemed to be lacking.

Fast-forward to today, and Italy have become a success because the players believe in Mancini’s plan and because at every national training camp they show that they all support one another.

As Giorgio Chiellini told the media in the run-up to Italy’s European Championship curtain-raiser: “We’ll never forget the defeat by Sweden, but in the past three years we’ve managed to turn that disappointment into enthusiasm.”

4: Change of mindset

In order to lift spirits after the infamous mishap versus Sweden in 2018, Mancini adopted an enthusiastic approach. His players immediately picked up on this, and were won over by the notion of playing in a fun and almost impudent manner.

The daring and attractive style of football instilled by the former Sampdoria forward generated excitement among the older heads, while simultaneously suiting the up-and-coming youngsters down to a tee. It was the perfect moment to give it a try, as he explained to FIFA.com prior to EURO 2020.

“In every team I coached before, I’ve always tried to bring a more attacking kind of approach,” he said. “Sometimes you succeed in that, sometimes you don’t. But in this case it was the right time to give our fans an attractive national team to watch and enjoy.” And he has been good to his word: in just three-and-a-half years, Mancini has comprehensively changed the look and mentality of the Italy team.

5: Tangible success

Mancini’s Italy have not only set new statistical benchmarks, of course. Just two months ago, they became European champions for the second time in the nation’s history, after overcoming England at Wembley Stadium.

Furthermore, La Nazionale sit comfortably on top of Group C in the European qualifying campaign for Qatar 2022, and if they continue to excel and seal their qualification, will likely arrive at the tournament as one of the favourites for the trophy.

Mancini, his players and the Italian public are acutely aware that the next World Cup may see yet more history being made.