Over a thousand matches on touchlines as a senior coach ought to arm a manager for most things, but this weekend, in Skopje, North Macedonia, Luciano Spalletti is wary of the unexpected, of an ambush. It is his debut in charge of Italy’s national team, a treacherous qualifier for the finals of a competition where the Azzurri are, so far, unconvincing defending champions.
North Macedonia, away, is no easy introduction. First, it is a fixture with eerie phantoms from the recent past. Eighteen months ago, with Roberto Mancini at the helm, Italy faced the same opposition in Palermo. The assignment was a comfortable looking one-off playoff semi-final for a place at the World Cup.
But an impotent Italy struggled to break the underdogs down. In stoppage time, North Macedonia scored a breakaway goal, their 1-0 win putting the ticket to Qatar out of reach of Italy. It was the second successive World Cup finals the Italians had failed to reach.
This is the enigmatic institution Spalletti takes over: champions of Europe but World Cup no-shows. A national team that has lost three of its last five matches but with an immense longer history, a strong sense of its identity, a huge pride in its tactical sophistication and ample evidence that few sporting cultures produce such shrewd thinkers about the game than Italian football does.
For that, its coaches are in such global demand. Carlo Ancelotti, record-setting club manager, is wanted by Brazil; Roberto de Zerbi, of Brighton and Hove Albion, is hailed as the great innovator of the English Premier League; Antonio Conte is high on every troubled superclub’s wish-list of firefighters.
To that catalogue of admired Italian coaches, add Mancini, headhunted last month by ambitious Saudi Arabia for its national team, a transfer swoop as significant as most of those carried out this summer by the leading clubs of the Saudi Pro League. In Newcastle, 24 hours before Spalletti makes his bow in Skopje on Saturday, Mancini takes command of the Green Falcons for the first time, in a friendly against Costa Rica.
Italians will be monitoring the outcome with interest. Mancini has been sharply criticised in Italy for his abrupt departure from the Azzurri job, which he had kept despite the World Cup play-off shock, which he left with less than a year to go before Italy’s defence of the Euros - assuming they qualify - begins in Germany next June.
Suggestions that the happy chemistry that led Italy to triumph at Euro 2020 - staged in 2021 - had faded have also been aired since Mancini quit. “Something broke,” said the Juventus midfielder, Manuel Locatelli, one of the heroes of the last Euros, “and he and I had different ideas.”
Locatelli had drifted away from the core of players preferred by Mancini. Form also slipped. Since the seismic defeat to North Macedonia, Italy have lost by three-goal margins in competitive matches to Argentina - in the Finalissimo, the one-off fixture between the champions of Europe and South America - and to Germany.
A home loss to England, for the first time in over 60 years, set back the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign that is now under new management.
Spalletti, who guided a free-scoring, fluent Napoli to the top of last season’s Serie A, ending a 33-year title drought for the club, has not been critical of his predecessor, and though he hints at a fresh tactical approach, he introduced himself to his first job as national manager with self-deprecation. “I may not be the best possible coach for Italy, but I will be the best possible Spalletti,” he smiled.
The best of Spalletti, who began his senior coaching career in 1994, was the version that galvanised Napoli over the last 12 months: it was his first scudetto - Italian league title - after no fewer than four runners-up medals while managing Roma, and fourth-placed finishes at Inter (twice) and Udinese (once).
Italy’s luck was that, in June, Spalletti had asked to step down at Napoli, seeking a rest. Napoli said a reluctant yes. Having taken up the vacancy left by Mancini, Napoli are now seeking compensation from the national federation because Spalletti had a year left on his Napoli contract.
He has six group qualifying matches to make up the three-point gap between Italy’s third spot and Ukraine, in second place, including the home game against Ukraine on Tuesday. But he is without several leaders from the Euro 2020 campaign, including Leo Bonucci and Marco Verratti, both of whom spent the summer at odds with their clubs - Bonucci has now left Juventus and joined Union Berlin; Verratti is negotiating his exit from Paris Saint-Germain.
Like Mancini, Spalletti wonders who Italy’s best centre-forward might be, a choice between the veteran Ciro Immobile; the younger Mateo Retegui, born and raised in Argentina and called on, earlier this year, to take advantage of a grandparent’s Italian heritage by Mancini; or Giacomo Raspadori, who came to Napoli on Spalletti’s watch but was mostly used from the bench, an understudy to Victor Osimhen.
Italy have no Osimhen, nor a Kylian Mbappe, an Erling Haaland or a Harry Kane. Their new head coach, like his predecessor, will have to work on that deficit.