If there is one similarity between the great Italian teams of old and the one currently stomping its way through the Euros group stage, it’s the stout defending. In a nod to its roots, the current version of the Azzurri has now gone unbeaten in 29 games, an impressive stat that becomes even more so when you realize that the last 10 of those games have been clean sheet victories. That stat by itself might seem to imply that the Italians are the same rigid and disciplined side as always, which in reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.
This Italy isn’t one that grinds out wins. It is, rather, a team that prioritizes attack and possession and all the things that make modern soccer a joy to watch. The new-look Italian team has plenty of names that casual fans might not know intimately, but after two dominant and exhilarating 3–0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland, those names won’t fly under the radar for much longer. During Wednesday’s demolition of Switzerland, no player served as a better example of Italy’s evolution than Sassuolo’s do-it-all midfielder Manuel Locatelli.
There’s a precedent for the unrelenting barrage of hype Locatelli is about to receive, since plenty of players have secured massive moves after a star turn at an international tournament. Locatelli will deserve his, and not just because he scored two gorgeous goals against Switzerland. The 23-year-old has everything a coach could want from a central midfield player: He can pass, he can run, he can defend, and, yes, he can score. His second goal against Switzerland was a perfect distillation of how he can break open defenses with his powerful left foot: finding himself with the ball at the top of the box, he didn’t hesitate before ripping a bomb that took a bit of a deflection into the side netting. It’s hard to knock him for getting a bit of defender assistance when the shot came out with such confidence.
While that goal was mostly down to Locatelli’s individual brilliance plus a little bit of luck, his first goal of the match was more symbolic of the new Italian style. If his name is the easy one to put in the headlines following his brace, his club teammate Domenico Berardi should be the heart of the story beneath it. Through two games, Berardi has elevated his already excellent form for Sassuolo. Though he has not scored, the 26-year-old winger has been instrumental in breaking longer-than-expected deadlocks in both of Italy’s games so far. Against Turkey, a nifty run and cut in on the right side led to an own goal, as his cross was diverted by Merih Demiral into Turkey’s net. A similar move against Switzerland led to another goal: Berardi received the ball far from goal, dribbled directly towards the touchline, then fired a perfect low cross to a marauding Locatelli for a tap in.
So many of Italy’s current players look to do similar things when they have the ball. Inter’s Nicolò Barella was one of Serie A’s best players last season, and he’s continuing his excellence in linking defense and attack for Italy; short king Lorenzo Insigne has been dancing around right-sided defenders with ease; even Jorginho has been great, and I say that as a Jorginho skeptic. Roberto Mancini, the team’s impeccably dressed manager, deserves a lot of credit for the team’s free-flowing style, as he’s given his players the freedom to bomb forward, with the knowledge that they will be covered as needed. This extends to the fullbacks, who are allowed to do practically whatever they want—especially Roma’s Leonardo Spinazzola, who has been a revelation.
There are, of course, caveats, lest you think that Italy will walk this tournament. The center of the defense is old and slow, and starter Giorgio Chiellini had to be substituted due to injury against Switzerland. The team is also missing probably its best player, Marco Verratti, who is still recovering from an injury of his own. And then there’s Ciro Immobile, who has scored two goals so far and yet somehow still feels like he’s underperforming. His finishing has not been sterling so far, but it hasn’t mattered because Italy create so many chances with their forward momentum. It might matter against teams of higher quality than Turkey or Switzerland, though, and Locatelli likely won’t be there every time to knock in the the goals the strikers aren’t providing.
One thing is clear after these two games, though: Italy is appointment viewing for the rest of the tournament. Aside from perhaps Belgium, no team has played such strong, positive soccer in the Euros, and for neutral fans, the results are barely the point. Even Immobile’s misses are entertaining. There are still remnants of the old Italian sides here, but the new generation of players are more versatile and attacking, and under Mancini, they have the perfect system for success. Through two games in this tournament, there’s been nothing better than the rumble of noise as Italy gets the ball and turns to burn through defenses and the country’s own past.