So this is what it feels like to miss out on a World Cup. I’ve been asked enough times since the final whistle in Milan that I figure I might as well come up with an answer.
Truth be told, it hurts less — a lot less — than losing a World Cup semifinal on penalties or a European Championship final on a Golden Goal. At least right now. Maybe it will feel different in the summer, or even just next month at the draw, when the excitement builds and you realize that you are not a part of the biggest spectacle in sports.
For now, there’s just a numbness. An awareness that something bad has happened, but that it hasn’t fully hit. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe we’ll just get caught back up in the weekly grind of club football and, because the game is perpetually renewing itself, get excited again.
You get a bloody nose, you get a spot of humiliation, you move on. Brazil had the 1-7 and, for old-timers, the Maracanazo. Germany won zero games at Euro 2000 and Euro 2004. (OK, they reached a World Cup final in between, but still… it’s Germany!). France had Raymond Domenech.
In most cases you bounce back… eventually. But your chances of doing so are vastly increased if you take stock and learn lessons. In these situations, managers become scapegoats, sometimes unfairly so in the sense that blame ought to be shared around, but not in this case. Gian Piero Ventura was the wrong appointment on so many levels that it boggles the mind.
Ventura got the job largely because after two years of Antonio Conte, the Italian FA wanted someone mellower (and cheaper: he was paid one-third as much as the current Chelsea boss) in charge. He was 68 years old and presented as some sort of supreme man-manager, a sort of off-brand Carlo Ancelotti. He turned out to be nothing of the sort, particularly when it came to handling big players.
That should not have been surprising. In a 36-year coaching career, the biggest club he had ever managed was Napoli, except that was during their brief stint in the third division and he lasted all of 19 games before getting sacked. The second biggest were Torino, whom he took to seventh place in Serie A four years ago. With that resume he was expected to handle the transition between Italy’s up-and-coming stars (and they do have plenty) and the veterans, including the three world champions, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and, of course, Gigi Buffon.
Needless to say, he sputtered.
When you coach one of the big national teams, broadly speaking you have one of two options. You either go down the Conte route with a strong identity and a fiercely loyal group. Or you manage situations, continually shape-shifting but knowing that you can pick the right guys on form at the right time because you’re charismatic enough to get buy-in from whoever walks through the door and prepared enough to fit the pieces together.
Ventura did neither. He called up no fewer than 55 players in his 16 games in charge and lined them up in a whole range of formations. He avoided the 4-3-3 (probably the most logical choice given the players at his disposal) because, according to him, he didn’t have time to work on it. So instead he served up schemes like the 4-2-4 horror show we saw in Madrid.
The more gifted players, those ones he was supposed to build the side around not just for the present but the future too, simply didn’t perform under him either because they were too often ignored (Lorenzo Insigne) or used incorrectly (Marco Verratti). It got so bad that he ended up needing to consult the veterans — Leo Bonucci, Buffon and De Rossi — at every turn. By the end, every lineup and tactical plan was the result of a papal conclave, not the decisive choices of a manager who knew what he was doing.
Rock bottom in that department came in the return leg against Sweden when, with the game deadlocked he tried to get De Rossi to warm up and he dismissed him and appeared to say: “What the f— are you sending me on for? We need to win, not draw!”
Maybe Ventura thought that by sending on another veteran, he’d be spared criticism later. Or maybe he mistook De Rossi — who is 6-foot-1 blonde and bearded — with Insigne, who is 5-foot-5 dark-haired and clean-shaven. After all it’s an easy mistake to make.
So on the manager front, the lesson is you either get a big personality with actual experience, preferably at international level (Ventura’s amounted to 14 games in the Europa League) or you get a single-minded “system” coach with a strong identity who hopefully picks the right scheme. If you’re really lucky, you get a guy who can do both.
In a perfect world, people would step down at the Italian FA too, starting with the man who appointed Ventura, Carlo Tavecchio (though I wouldn’t hold my breath). For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that a 74-year-old guy who spent most of his life in amateur football (let alone one who has been accused of making discriminatory remarks) ought to be in charge of such matters, but that’s another issue. (Tavecchio is also the guy who, back in September, described not qualifying as “the apocalypse.” Well, Carlo, Armageddon is here.)
At the very least, what Tavecchio should do is address Italy’s perennial FIFA ranking problem. Not by, as he said he did, calling up Gianni Infantino to complain because Italy “won four World Cups” but by hiring someone who understands how the rankings work. It’s a mathematical formula after all, you can get an edge by playing — and winning — the right friendlies at the right time. I wrote about it on Monday. (Scroll down to the second item.)
Beyond that, you hope not to see the kind of knee-jerk system overhauls some will no doubt advocate. This isn’t Germany at the turn of the Millennium described in Raphael Honigstein’s “Das Reboot.”
There is a genuinely gifted generation of Italian footballers coming through. The fact that Buffon, De Rossi, Barzagli and (probably) Giorgio Chiellini appear to be making way for them should be treated as an opportunity to get them experience. From Roberto Gagliardini to Andrea Conti, Mattia Caldara to Alessio Romagnoli, Gianluigi Donnarumma to Federico Chiesa… there are plenty of reasons to be excited. And that’s without counting the core who are already there and already productive like Verratti, Jorginho, Federico Bernardeschi, Leonardo Spinazzola and Andrea Belotti, all of whom are 25 or younger. Best of all, perhaps, is that most of these kids don’t have the hangups of past generations. They don’t live in fear of making mistakes.
There’s no need for limits on non-EU foreigners or root-and-branch reviews or any of that other nonsense. After some lean years, the production line is flowing again.
What they do need is a real manager, not what they had in this past cycle and above him, the sort of leadership that learns from past mistakes. It may not seem like that right now, but there’s a foundation on which to build, possibly a very strong one.
Qualifying for Euro 2020 begins in less than 500 days. I might as well start getting excited for that.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.