Atalanta and Sassuolo inspired Italy’s transformation

Jun 20, 2021, 4:51 PM | Updated: Jun 21, 2021, 12:17 pm

ROME (AP) — It’s been five years since Italy played at a major tournament, so it’s come as a surprise to many to see the Azzurri completely transformed into an attack-minded juggernaut resembling the elite of modern soccer.

Where did the old “catenaccio” system of lockdown defense and occasional counterattacks go?

Well, it turns out that the genesis of Roberto Mancini’s new-look squad at the European Championship came right in Italy’s backyard.

Teams like Atalanta, Sassuolo and even Napoli have adopted the more offensive styles seen around Europe in recent seasons.

Atalanta and Sassuolo also excel at promoting young Italian players — in a league where the tradition for decades was to make local teenagers wait their turns behind more experienced veterans, even if budding talents from South America were given time to shine immediately.

So, really, it’s no wonder why the Sassuolo tandem of Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi plus Atalanta midfielder Matteo Pessina have been the breakout stars of Italy’s perfect run through the group phase at Euro 2020.

Once a club that bounced back and forth between the top two divisions, Atalanta will soon play in its third consecutive season in the Champions League. The scoring machine created by coach Gian Piero Gasperini reached the quarterfinals of Europe’s top club competition last year and led Serie A with 98 and 90 goals scored over the last two seasons, respectively.

Likewise, recently departed Sassuolo coach Roberto De Zerbi was praised for his forward-looking approach with homegrown players like Berardi and forward Giacomo Raspadori, who was called up to Italy’s Euro 2020 squad despite never having been with the national team before.

“Our players are used to playing like this because we’ve been trying to push this type of play since the first day and little by little we’ve gotten there,” Mancini said. “Plus, there are other squads that do it so they don’t have any problems carrying it out when they come in here.”

Pessina was a last-minute addition to Italy’s squad following an injury to Stefano Sensi — another Sassuolo product.

“There’s a lot of (Gasperini) in this,” Pessina said after scoring in Italy’s 1-0 win over Wales on Sunday. “I can see some similarities between the way Atalanta play and what Italy is doing now — the high press and runs from midfield — so I settled right in.”

The 23-year-old Locatelli, who scored twice in Italy’s 3-0 win over Switzerland in its second match, and the 24-year-old Pessina have similar characteristics in that they like to insert themselves into the attack and are both accomplished at scoring from beyond the area.

“It’s definitely a different approach,” Pessina said. “We’re aggressive, we want to hold the ball, we want to play in attack all the time, even if that means risking losing the ball in the last meters. Once you have possession in their half in the last 30 meters you’ve got to try to attack the goal.”

The Atalanta-like approach has also been evident on other teams at Euro 2020, namely by Germany wing back Robin Gosens, who also plays for the Bergamo club.

“That’s European soccer now and what the big teams do,” Pessina said. “And that’s what (Mancini) is trying to bring in here. … The results are evident so far.”

For a team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy’s results are remarkable.

The Azzurri are unbeaten in 30 games to match a team record set nearly a century ago and have won 11 straight — all clean sheets.

More than 1,000 minutes have been played since Italy last conceded a goal — to the Netherlands’ Donny van de Beek in a 1-1 draw in the Nations League in October.

Mancini made eight changes to his starting lineup for the Wales match, putting out a starting 11 with an average age of 27 for the youngest Italy squad at a major tournament since a Roberto Baggio-led team beat Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup.

Up next is a round-of-16 match against Austria at Wembley Stadium in London on Saturday.

“Mancini never fires us up too much,” said 22-year-old center back Alessandro Bastoni, another Atalanta product who was a fixture in the Inter Milan squad that won the Serie A title last month. “He just tells us to enjoy our soccer and keep doing what we’re doing.”

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

___

Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

Osborne, No. 15 UCLA women beat UC Santa Barbara 68-57

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Charisma Osborne scored 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting, Kiki Rice added 14 points and eight rebounds and No. 15 UCLA overcame a cold-shooting start to beat UC Santa Barbara 68-57 Saturday night. Gabriela Jaquez made 5 of 7 from the field and scored 12 points for UCLA (8-1), which rebounded […]
22 hours ago
Florida Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe (23) skates from the goal after scoring his second goal of...
Associated Press

Panthers snap Kraken’s seven-game win streak with 5-1 win

SEATTLE (AP) — Carter Verhaeghe scored twice 26 seconds apart in the first period, Matthew Tkachuk scored his 12th goal and had an assist, and the Florida Panthers snapped Seattle’s seven-game win streak with a 5-1 win over the Kraken on Saturday night. The longest active win streak in the league came to an end […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

UNLV remains unbeaten with 95-78 romp over San Diego

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Luis Rodriguez finished with 19 points, EJ Harkless scored 17 and UNLV remained unbeaten with a 95-78 victory over San Diego on Saturday night. Rodriguez sank 7 of 9 shots with three 3-pointers for the Rebels (8-0). Harkless added five assists. Justin Webster made all four of his 3-point shots and […]
22 hours ago
Portland Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons (1) shoots as Utah Jazz forward Jarred Vanderbilt (8) ...
Associated Press

Simons’ career-best 45 points carries Portland past Utah

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Anfernee Simons scored a career-high 45 points and blocked a potential 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 116-111 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night. “I wanted to be aggressive and set the tone for my teammates,” Simons said. “Early on, let […]
22 hours ago
Associated Press

Shelton leads Loyola Marymount over Nevada 64-52

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Cam Shelton scored 24 points to lead Loyola Marymount to a 64-52 victory over Nevada on Saturday night. Shelton sank 9 of 17 shots with three 3-pointers for the Lions (6-3), adding seven rebounds. Keli Leaupepe pitched in with 10 points and eight boards. Jarod Lucas led the Wolf Pack (7-2) […]
22 hours ago
Michigan linebacker Kechaun Bennett kisses the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after defeati...
Associated Press

No. 2 Michigan beats Purdue 43-22 for Big Ten crown

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Donovan Edwards’ quick-hitting sprints changed everything for No. 2 Michigan. Again. Now they’re hoping it propels them toward another championship. Edwards ran for 185 yards and a touchdown, J.J. McCarthy threw for three scores and Michigan beat Purdue 43-22 on Saturday night in the Big Ten championship game for its second straight […]
22 hours ago
Atalanta and Sassuolo inspired Italy’s transformation