Monday, 27 June 2016. Stade de France, Saint-Denis, France. The 2 giants of European football were about to play in a Round-of-16 match to decide who goes through to play the World Champions Germany in the Quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championship. Former champions Italy had exceeded all expectations so far with their industrious yet effective style of football in the group stages. Reigning European champions Spain, on the other hand, came into the tournament with more of an intent to reaffirm themselves as the game's most dominant force once again and to recover their lost pride.
Both teams came into the game having lost their last group match. While Ireland stunned an Italian side fielding most of their second choice players, Croatia came from behind to hand a star-studded La Roja side their first defeat of the tournament in 12 years. On the eve of the Round-of-16 clash, there was indeed a feeling, a strong belief amongst many in the footballing sphere that the Azzurri were to finally free the Henri Delaunay trophy off the Spanish clutches come Monday evening. And at the end of the headline clash of the round, it was Italy indeed who came through as the victorious side. The Azzurri's finally avenged their humiliation in the Euro 2012 final by knocking out the holders Spain.
Ultimately, both the Spanish and the Italians had to encounter the same ignominy of elimination at the end, with Italy getting knocked out by Germany on penalties in the very next round. And the 2 men who marshalled their respective sides from the touchline on the evening of 27th June were to encounter the same fate as well.
While Antonio Conte's exit and his successor were announced even before a ball was kicked at the Euros, Vicente Del Bosque's 8-year successful stint was brought to an end exactly a week later after the loss to Italy. Replacing them, were two relatively unknowns of the game: 68-year-old Giampiero Ventura and 50-year-old Julen Lopetegui. Unlike their predecessors, neither of the two gentlemen had enjoyed the stardom either as a player or as a manager in their careers. Nor had they won any major trophy to justify their credentials.
So what made them the ideal successors in the eyes of the Italian and Spanish Football administrators? To find out the reason, Follow Your Sport analyses the playing and the managerial careers of the new men at the helm of Italy and Spain.
The Genoa native was deployed as a central midfielder during his playing days. Ventura was a product of the Sampdoria youth academy. But he had to leave the club as he found it hard to break into the first team. He featured exclusively in Serie D in all but one of his 10 seasons as a player. At the age of 30, Ventura hung up his boots and began pursuing his career in management.
Giampiero Ventura has a vast 40 years of experience in management, having managed clubs in the top 4 pyramids of Italian football. Ventura, has in fact, spent more than half of his career managing teams in the lower divisions of Italy. His youth team Sampdoria gave him the first chance to learn the tricks and trades of management in 1976, at a time when Ventura approached the dawn of his playing career. Ventura's first experience as a head coach came with Ruentes Rapallo in 1981, an amateur team in Italy. He won promotion to Serie C2 (now a part of Lega Pro along with Serie C1) with amateur teams Entella in 1985 and Pistolese in 1991. In between these 2 promotions, he endured disappointing spells at Spezia and Centese. He joined Serie C1 side Lecce in 1995 and led them to 2 consecutive promotions to the Serie A. But he made a shocking decision to drop down a division to join Cagliari in 1997. However, he also led them to promotion in Serie A and at last, made his Serie A debut in the 1998/99 season, leading them to a 12th place finish. A disappointing return to Sampdoria and struggles at Udinese, Cagliari, Napoli, Messina and Verona over the next 8 years followed for the Genoa native.
Ventura had a moderately successful spell at Serie B team Pisa between 2007 and 2009, where he lead them to an unexpected promotion playoff appearance in his first season. But the career-turning moment finally came in 2009 when Ventura, ironically replaced Antonio Conte at Bari. He led the Pugliese to a record 10th placed finish in his first season in charge but was sacked in the second half of next season as Bari sat last in the table, with only 1 win in 4 months and 9 points from safety. In June 2011, he joined Serie B side Torino, his last stop before becoming the Italy manager. He led the Granata to Serie A in his first season and has made them a permanent fixture in the league ever since. Perhaps his greatest achievement at the club was to make Torino the first Italian side to defeat Spanish side Athletic Bilbao at San Mames as he led the club to the brink of the Europa League Quarter-finals in 2015. He also helped Torino grab their first derby win over Juventus in 20 years in April 2015.
Giampiero Ventura has a similar mindset to his predecessor Antonio Conte. Both are tactically flexible and can shape the team according to the personnel available. Ventura presently prefers a 3-5-2 system, in which he encourages an effective ball circulation in the build-up between the 3 defenders and 1 defensive midfielder, while the outer central midfielders push up to support attacks as well as to apply pressure on the opposition full-backs. Throughout his career, he has demonstrated a technical know-how of employing more than one formation. His Torino moved up into Serie A playing a very offensive 4-4-2, but it soon switched to a 3-5-2 formation. At Pisa, he astonished fans with the 4-2-4 (2007/08). In his first Serie A campaign with Cagliari (1998/99), he was one of the first to implement a 3 man defence in Italy.
Another good thing about Ventura's management style is his penchant for bringing through young players, a trait he developed late into his managerial career. His first season at Bari saw Ventura develop defenders such as Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia, which earned them moves to Juventus and Inter Milan respectively the next season. At Torino, he was responsible for rejuvenating the careers of Matteo Darmian, Alessio Cerci and Ciro Immobile, all of whom went on to earn call-ups to the Italian National side and moves to Manchester United, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund respectively. The latest product of his expert talent management is Andrea Belotti of Torino, who seems to have benefitted under the tutelage of the Genoa native last season. Not only Italian players, Polish international Kamil Glik, now at AS Monaco has also excelled under his guidance. He is precisely what post-Conte Italy needs as the Azzurri enter into a transitional phase.
Lopetegui played as a goalkeeper. Born in the Basque Country, he started his youth career at Real Sociedad. He played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona but made only a combined 6 appearances for both sides (1 for Real Madrid and 5 for Barcelona). Lopetegui was the part of Spain's 1994 World Cup squad. His only cap for Spain come as a substitute for Andoni Zubizarreta in the final 30 minutes of a 0–2 friendly loss to Croatia. Lopetegui retired in 2002 after making 317 senior career appearances.
Lopetegui was one of the assistants to Spain coach Juan Santisteban at the UEFA European U17 Championship in 2003. His first managerial assignment came in the same year when Lopetegui was appointed as the manager of Rayo Vallecano, the team he played for 5 years before retiring. However, it turned out to be a forgetful experience as he was sacked after managing just 10 matches. After a gap of 5 years, he returned to management with Real Madrid Castilla, another team he played for, way back in 1985. An year long spell at Castilla paved the path for Lopetegui to join the Spanish youth set up in 2010 as he enjoyed 4 successful years managing the Spanish U19, U20 and U21 teams. Lopetegui won the 2012 European U19 Championship and the 2013 European U21 Championship. After his contract expired with the Spanish football federation on 30th April 2014, he joined the Portuguese giants FC Porto less than a week later, returning to club football after 11 years. Despite high expectations, Lopetegui failed to win any silverware at the Dragao and on January 8 this year, he was relieved of his managerial duties following a 3 match winless streak.
Like his Italian counterpart, Julen Lopetegui is considered as a coach with a flexible tactical approach and can tailor his team according to the players available. But Lopetegui, like any other Spanish manager, prefers an emphasis on keeping possession. During his time at Porto, he usually deployed a 4-3-3 formation. On occasions when his team will be playing the catch-up, he wasn't shy of deploying a far more offensive 4-2-4 formation. His first 2 matches with Spain saw him deploy 2 different formations. A 4-1-4-1 formation against Belgium and a 4-2-3-1 formation against Liechtenstein show Lopetegui's tactical adeptness. It will be an interesting watch whether he switches back to the preferred 4-3-3 formation or tries something else to accommodate Andres Iniesta when he returns to the squad.
Another striking similarity Lopetegui shares with Ventura is his love for promoting young players. He has worked with the Spanish youth teams and players like David De Gea, Thiago, Koke, Isco and Alvaro Morata were part of the Spain U21 squad that triumphed in the 2013 European Championship in Israel. During his time at Porto, Portuguese prodigy Ruben Neves became the youngest ever Porto player to start a league match. Loanees Oliver Torres of Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid's Casemiro excelled in their one season stay at the Dragao. His knowledge of the brightest Spanish talents around was one of the main reasons why Spanish football administrators chose him. And his recent squad selection clearly shows his affinity for younger players. Players like Saul Niguez, Lucas Vazquez, Sergi Roberto and Sergio Rico have been picked over the tried and tested old guard like Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Juanfran and Iker Casillas. Though Lopetegui believes an immediate overhaul of the squad isn't needed, he seems to have already started sowing the seeds of transition.
Despite the age and experience difference, the similar philosophy and ideas of the 2 managers show their vision and emphasis on youth. It's clear now as to why the Italian and Spanish football federations chose to hand over the job to these 2 gentlemen, despite the availability of more appealing candidates. Though I believe neither of the two managers will be in rush to make huge changes so early in their reign, it's Italy who definitely need to freshen up their roster. Players like Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini, Thiago Motta, Parolo, De Rossi and Pelle are well into their 30s. Blame for Italy's failure in the last 2 World Cups has been put solely on picking an over age squad. It's indeed the right time when Ventura starts playing Perin or Donnarumma, Romagnoli, Bernardeschi, Belotti, Sansone, Florenzi more often, something Conte was apprehensive to do.
As for Spain, they have already begun with the transition process going by the recent squad selections. But the advantage they hold over the Italians is that most of their young players are already established first team players with an exception of a few of them. However, the question remains whether they can match the legacy of their legendary predecessors.
One thing is for sure, the future looks good for both the teams given the new managers stick to their footballing principles for a long-term. And the Italian and Spanish football administrators must make it sure that they don't get their heads turned on in panic in case the results don't meet the expectations. They are the ones who need to ensure that they sail through the rough times of transition smoothly.
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