Italy: 5 Midfielders Who Could Break into the Azzurri Setup Before Euro 2016
The Italian national team is in the middle of one of those sticky generational shifts where the best youngsters aren't quite ready and the best of the veterans aren't quite done.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the midfield. The likes of Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo are in the last phases of their international careers but younger players like Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are only just fully coming into their own.
Beyond those names, there are other midfielders that can, between now and the European Championships in France, worm their way into the national team setup. Much will be dependent on who the new coach turns out to be and what his tactics are, but Italy's pipeline has some players who will be able to contribute.
Before we begin, note that a prerequisite of being on this list was being absent from the 23-man roster for the World Cup in Brazil.
That being said, let's take a look at five men who could make an impact for the Azzurri between now and France.
Club: AC Milan
Caps: 4 (1 goal)
Andrea Poli had a decent beginning to the 2013-14 season. He scored twice in the first month of the year and was generally one of the best performers on an otherwise calamitous opening phase of the season.
His performance was enough to get called up for Italy's November friendly against Nigeria. He was very much in the running for a spot in Brazil.
Milan's downward spiral didn't help his case but what really torpedoed it was his lack of playing time under Clarence Seedorf.
In fact, Poli directly blamed the Dutchman for removing him from the picture. "At the start of the season, I was the Milan player who had played the most minutes," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport (via ESPN FC) last month. "Then Seedorf arrived, and I started playing less and less. In the last month-and-a-half, I hardly ever played, and for a player who has his sights set on playing for his national team, that wasn't a great help."
Poli definitely has the ability to be a regular element in the national team setup. He's not a major goalscorer, but he can play a holding role that may especially important considering the fact that Italy's defense—usually so formidable—is in a transitory period.
With Riccardo Montolivo out to start the season, Poli looks set to get a lot of early-season playing time. If he can make an impression, it's likely he'll play a role in the early qualifiers for Euro 2016 as well. At that point, it would be up to him to take the opportunity and run with it.
Club: Hellas Verona
An Italian citizen by ancestry, the Brazilian-born Romulo was one of the best midfielders in the Serie A last season. WhoScored.com clocked him at six goals and eight assists in 32 total appearances, 29 of them starts. He also completed 85.3 percent of his passes and averaged nearly two key passes per match.
Those are large numbers, especially when you consider that he had a huge hand in hauling the newly-promoted Mastiffs to a top-half finish. Indeed, Verona were only three points off of the final Europa League spot at season's end and were in the top five as late as round 22.
At the World Cup the Italians paid for not having a creative spark further up the midfield. It was a shame that Romulo wasn't there to help. Cesare Prandelli had intended to include him on the final roster, but the player removed himself from consideration at the 11th hour, citing a muscle injury that had been nagging him for the last month of the season.
Italy's exit from the World Cup has prompted widespread calls from some quarters to eliminate naturalized foreign-born players from consideration for the Azzurri. The fact of the matter is that "oriundi" like Luis Monti and Mauro Camoranesi have made significant contributions to World Cup-winning sides in the past. This reflexive and frankly counterproductive attitude would deprive the national team of some incredibly talented players.
Romulo is a talented passer and scorer and could play a big role in helping to finish what regista like Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti start from deeper in midfield. At the time of writing he remains with Verona, but his move to Juventus is all but assured, per Calcio News (h/t Football Italia). A drop in playing time behind a deep Bianconeri midfield may hurt his chances, but if he plays well he could force his way into the side—where he would be a welcome addition.
A promising young central midfielder, Sturaro impressed enough to see Juventus snap him up from Genoa this summer.
He only played 16 games last year, which made it hard to get into a rhythm. But in those 16 games he averaged 1.2 key passes per match—a good number considering Genoa's anemic attack—and notched two assists to go with his lone goal.
Sturaro is likely to get a much larger role with the Grifone this year. If he can show consistent improvement in that playing time, he can keep Genoa above the drop zone and make himself a serious candidate to contribute to a youth injection into the Italian side.
He's got a long way to go, but Juve don't buy players for the heck of it. This is a guy that should be in line for playing time with the Azzurri as time goes on. Look for him to find at least one call-up in the next two years, and potentially be a regular contributor by the time the 2018 World Cup comes around.
Another foreign-born player with oodles of talent, Jorginho was a revelation with Hellas Verona last year. In 18 matches, according to WhoScored.com, he scored seven times and added three assists while completing 86.1 percent of his passes.
The impressive performance helped propel Verona to a top six position by the winter break and garnered the interest of an array of big clubs. In the end, Napoli won the race for his signature and pulled him in on January 18.
In hindsight, it may have been in Verona's best interests to keep him until the end of the season. With him, who knows whether they would have been able to hang on to their Europa League position and score a potential payday that, for a team just a year removed from the second tier, would have been substantial.
They ended up going for guaranteed money from Aurelio De Laurentiis's pocketbook. Jorginho continued to flourish. His scoring touch dried up as he moved to a slightly deeper role, but his pass completion rose to an astonishing 89.6. He grabbed his lone assist in a Napoli shirt against AC Milan in February, but his biggest moment came four days later against Roma.
With his team facing a 3-2 first-leg deficit in the Coppa Italia semi-final, Jorginho registered a goal and an assist to spur the Partenopei to a 3-0 win and a place in the final. Three months later he played all 90 minutes as Napoli beat Fiorentina 3-1 to win their second Coppa in three years.
Jorginho's skills in the midfield are evident to everyone. If the new manager deems an injection of youth necessary for his midfield, he is an ideal candidate.
Caps: 4 (1 goal)
Alessandro Florenzi is the latest in a long line of Roman boys to don the Giallorossi. He has a lot to live up to, as players like Alberto Aquiliani, Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti have come before him in the line.
This season was a breakout one for the young midfielder. Playing mostly on the right wing, Florenzi scored four times in his first seven games and continued his strong play for the remainder of the season.
Florenzi came up as a central midfielder, but the wing will likely be his home when Rudi Garcia puts out his top XI. De Rossi, Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan will likely occupy his midfield. But Roma will be forced to rotate their squad for Champions League play, and his versatility will be a vital asset.
Florenzi was finally handed his first caps at the end of 2013, finding playing time in the last two World Cup qualifiers and both November friendlies. That included his first international goal against Armenia.
Florenzi is one of Italy's most promising young players and he's about to get his first taste of top-level club competition when Roma plays its first Champions League campaign since 2010-11. Whether on the wings or in the midfield, he's going to be a key component of future Italy squads.