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Giorgio Chiellini (left) and Mattia De Sciglio (No. 5) will be cornerstones of Italy's defensive line in the next cycle.
The Italian defense is in a strange generational shift.
The last of the old guard on the flanks had their last hurrah in 2010 (Gianluca Zambrotta) and at last year's Confederations Cup (Christian Maggio). It seems that the next generation has firmly taken their places for the next four years.
On the right, Matteo Darmian was the revelation of the tournament for Italy. He is likely to be courted by some of Italy's biggest clubs when the transfer window opens and will be the favorite to start at right-back during the Euro qualifiers. He needs a bit of polish going forward, but his combination with Antoino Candreva against England was the most dynamic Italy looked all tournament. Both of the goals Italy scored in the group originated on that side.
On the other side Mattia De Sciglio made the other full-back spot his. De Sciglio is naturally a right-sided player but like Darmian can play on either flank with equal skill. He only played one game in this tournament due to injury and his absence was keenly felt. It forced Cesare Prandelli to tinker with his setup, with mixed results.
Giorgio Chiellini played as an emergency left-back against England, a position he shouldn't play with regularity. Against Costa Rica Prandelli avoided this by installing Ignazio Abate on the right and moving Darmian to the left, which had the unwanted side effect of separating Darmian and Candreva—a potentially fatal blow to the Italian attack.
De Sciglio on the left and Darmian on the right will likely be the best pair of full-backs going forward. In this case, the next generation has already taken command.
In the center things are less certain.
Giorgio Chiellini is one of the five best center backs in the world and will almost definitely anchor the line through Russia. Who will partner him is not as clear. Andrea Barzagli, the last of the defenders who won the 2006 World Cup, is almost certainly too old at 33 to take part in another major tournament.
This is where things become atypical, at least in Italy. The next generation of Italian center backs have yet to come into their own at the top-flight level. Players like Daniele Rugani and Alberto Masi (both Juventus properties) and Edoardo Goldaniga (co-owned by Juventus and Palermo) have yet to play a top-flight season. Luca Antei (Sassuolo) and Federico Ceccherini (Livorno) have only one under their belts.
To partner Chiellini, Italy will likely have to rely on the current generation. Leonardo Bonucci becomes the odds-on favorite being familiar with him as his club teammate. Bonucci is still prone to the occasional mental lapse but his defending has quietly improved, especially this season. He also has a claim to the title of best ball-playing center back in the game. It's interesting to speculate what his passing abilities from the back may have been able to do in a game like the Costa Rica match.
He has developed something of a reputation as a three-man-line specialist since Antonio Conte installed the 3-5-2 at Juventus, but that label could disappear. If Juve moves in the direction most people expect them to, he will likely be playing in a 4-3-3 at least some of the time this year.
Behind him, Italy has some talented players, like Davide Astori or Angelo Ogbonna, but they are inexperienced with seven and nine caps, respectively. If one of them grabs the Serie A by the scruff of the neck in the next few years we may see them nose their way in, but right now they, and the rest of the current generation of center backs, are the main options until the younger men start to make an impression.