Serie A is in a state of demise. Italian football has always been renowned for it’s defensive approach, since the 1960’s when Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan were well known for their style of play, which was referred to as ‘Catenaccio’ (door-bolt) and which resulted in many 1-0 victories for a side that won the European Cup in 1964 and 1965. Jose Mourinho also used an effective combination of a defensive style of play and counter-attacking football to win the Champions League for Internazionale again 35 years later.
However, on Sunday 16th October, five of the seven Serie A league fixtures that day ended in 0-0 draws, taking the defensive nature of Italian club teams a step too far. A league that once attracted the best talent the world had to offer is becoming stagnant. It was less than 10 years ago that Ronaldo won the world player of the year award for a second time in five years whilst playing in Italy. Nowadays, gifted young players like Mario Balotelli and Kaka are being drawn away to England and Spain respectively and the big Italian clubs are failing to revamp their sides as the average age of their squads continue to rise.
AC Milan are the league’s top scorers, hitting the back of the net at an average of 2.5 goals a game. In sharp contrast, Manchester City and Real Madrid, who are top scorers in their respective leagues are both scoring just over 3.5 goals a game. This can either indicate the lack of ambition going forward and in the final third that Italian clubs seem to have, or alternatively it could show that as the majority of the league’s players grow older, their sharpness in front of goal is diminishing.
With the exception of Milan forward Alexandre Pato at 21, the majority of the big name forwards in Italy are at least in their late twenties. It is a question of the chicken and the egg when considering that the league is played at a slower pace than it is in England and whether this has allowed an older breed of players to continue to play in the top division, or whether the older players themselves have caused the game to slow down.
On the other hand, maybe experience isn’t a bad thing. Inter Milan fielded the oldest side in Champions League history in their last group game. The veterans, with an average age of 31 years and 317 days, were 2-1 victors, but they will have to face more challenging opponents than Lille if they want to bring the trophy they won two years ago back to Italy.
However, it’s not just in Italy’s premier domestic division that this defensive mindset seems to be drilled into the psyche of the players. After 16 games in Serie B, Torino are top of the league despite barely scoring more than a goal a game – 19 so far. The top scorers in the division, Pescara, are the only side to be averaging more than two goals a game and 1-0 is a regular final scoreline.
The Italian national team are also experiencing problems with their forwards. Antonio Cassano, who recently suffered a stroke which saw him undergo heart surgery, has yet to have a time scale placed on his recovery. This freak ‘injury’ combined with Giuseppe Rossi’s six month wait on the sidelines with torn ligaments in his knee, means that Italy could be struggling for strikers when they travel to Poland and Ukraine next June. The majority of their remaining household name forwards, the likes of Del Piero, Totti and Inzaghi, have now retired from international duty.
It could be the time for Mario Balotelli to reproduce some of his club performances on the international stage. The 21-year-old has hit top form for Manchester City this season, yet the controversial goal machine has only made five appearances for the national side. If he is to be Italy’s first choice striker at Euro 2012 it would be a lot of pressure on his young shoulders.
In England, people want to watch the league matches of Real Madrid and Barcelona as their teams of superstars play attractive football that entices neutrals as well as their supporters. If Italian teams played more attractive and fluid football, they may bring in more money from TV rights, allowing them to compete with the wage bills of other top European clubs. However, it could be a hard mould to break, with fans of Italian clubs growing accustomed to a certain style of play over the years. Some may rather see a 1-0 victory for their side, as opposed to a 4-3 win due to the stress and importance placed on defending and keeping it tight at the back.
The country already produces some of the most technically gifted players in the world. What the league needs though, is a fresh influx of young players that have been coached from a young age with the mentality to get forward and attack with fluidity as often as possible. After all, it’s goals that win you games.