Responsibility for Italy Euro 2024 exit lies with Spalletti

BERLIN — They may have been the defending champions, but nobody thought Italy were particularly good heading into Euro 2024. Fewer still thought they could be this bad.

While the 2-0 round-of-16 loss at the hands of Switzerland on Saturday could be explained away by a generation of players in poor form at the back, tired in midfield and thoroughly mediocre up front, it’s hard not to point a finger at the coach, Luciano Spalletti. In typical Spalletti fashion, he took responsibility in his own way after the game, albeit after rattling off a whole bunch of reasons for the defeat.

“Conceding the second goal just after the restart was a blow to morale.” You don’t say.

“We played at a slower tempo than they did.” And you couldn’t tell them to speed things up?

“It’s been a long club season and it was very hot today.” Presumably the Swiss took that cool Alpine air with them on to the pitch.

“We don’t have many fast players.” It’s not the 4×100 relay.

“I haven’t had that much time to work with the players, the national team coaches before me all had more time in charge.” It’s international football, get used to it — nobody has time.

Only after all that did he concede: “Well, the responsibility always lies with the coach, I made the decisions out there.” Finally.

At least the players were a little more grounded in reality. They took it on the chin.

Bryan Cristante: “We deserve to go home, there isn’t much to salvage. Especially when you consider organization on the pitch, they were far superior.”

Matteo Darmian: “We need to apologize to everybody.”

Captain Gianluigi Donnarumma: “We need to own this, take responsibility and move on.”

This Italian side has a couple of players who are world class, a couple who were world class, a couple who might become world class, and the rest is mostly filler. That’s the nature of international football.

But then it’s the job of Spalletti, one of the two or three highest-paid managers at the Euros, to figure it out, to make them more than the sum of their parts. He certainly had the résumé.

He’s a three-time Serie A coach of the year. His tactical nous is spoken of in hushed tones amid tactics nerds. (He’s the guy who invented the “strikerless system” years ago.) Little more than a year ago he guided Napoli to their first Serie A title in 33 years, taking them to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League and playing sparkling attacking football.

Thing is, that’s club football. International football is a different beast. Spalletti was never going to get to display his tactical genius — real or imagined — with the Azzurri because he simply wasn’t going to get the time and endless repetitions on the training pitch to do it. He was going to have to keep things simple, read situations and people, and adjust on the fly.

And that’s where he flopped miserably. He went into the tournament talking about “identity” and preserving the press-and-possession attacking mindset that his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, had instilled. He said, This is who we are, this is my team, we’re going to grow together.

After it backfired badly against Spain in the second game, though, he did a 180-degree turn in both personnel and system, ditching his forwards (Federico Chiesa and Gianluca Scamacca) and switching from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 for the third game against Croatia. When that still didn’t work — it took a buzzer-beater in the eighth minute of injury time to stave off defeat — he switched it all up again for the Switzerland game. He dusted off Stephan El Shaarawy and chucked him into the mix, restored the Scamacca-Chiesa partnership, added a defensive midfielder (Cristante) and, rather than replacing the injured Federico Dimarco with an equally attacking option at left-back, he called upon Darmian, a 34-year-old central defender masquerading as a full-back.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be Mister Identity one game and Doctor Pragmatic the next. Especially if the more you tinker, the less things work.

Messaging matters, and it’s not just Spalletti’s decisions with the team that were uneven and inconsistent, it was his public demeanor as well. He became obsessed with the notion that there was a “mole” in the camp who leaked information to the media. He told one reporter, in a news conference, that “if you [masturbate] every day for another 14 years, maybe you’ll know as much as me.” There’s eccentric and then there’s plain weird, rude and paranoid.

Spalletti has always been spiky, acid-tongued and overly sensitive to slights, real or perceived. Heck, this is the guy who walked out on the Napoli job because, rather than getting a pat on the back and a fat pay rise after delivering the title, the club simply sent him an official email telling him they were picking up the one-year option on his contract.

Admittedly, that was somewhat gauche from Napoli, but to throw a tantrum and leave the way Spalletti did says a ton about him. He said he was taking a “sabbatical,” which ended up lasting little more than a month, until Mancini himself walked out on the Italy job to take a lucrative gig in Saudi Arabia and the Italian FA snapped Spalletti up.

That’s the thing with folks like Spalletti. The acid tongue, the eccentricities, the witty ripostes … it’s all charming when you’re doing well. When you hit bumps in the road, though, it gets tiresome very, very quickly.

Spalletti didn’t have a Ferrari or even a BMW at this Euro race. He had a bog-standard Toyota he was supposed to tinker with to make it go as fast and as far as it could. Except his messing under the hood only made things worse, and he drove it into every bump in the road possible, until the wheels came off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *