The Italian national team is in complete disarray. A play-off defeat at the hands of Sweden meant they failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, ending a run of 14 consecutive trips to the game's biggest tournament.
Finding this wholly unacceptable, the Italian Football Federation—known as the FIGC—sacked coach Gian Piero Ventura, while president Carlo Tavecchio eventually resigned. That leaves the Azzurri without a manager or even somebody to appoint a new one, yet there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
As four-time winners of the World Cup, there is little doubt Italy will bounce back strongly. The peninsula has a long and proud history of producing talented players and, while the current side floundered, there is a younger generation pushing to replace them for the 2022 edition of the tournament.
Their under-21 side reached the semi-finals of the 2017 UEFA Under-21 Championship, while the under-20s finished third at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in June. The first of those two teams is full of players already featuring in prominent roles for major Serie A sides, providing evidence that football in Italy is finally beginning to put trust in these youngsters.
That makes the task of predicting how the Azzurri squad might look at the 2022 World Cup something of a challenge but one worth undertaking if only to prove just how promising they could be.
It must also be noted those aforementioned youth teams have largely utilised a 4-3-3 formation, a system that not only gets the most from their abilities but also would have helped the senior team give a much better account of themselves recently.
As a result, our squad has been tailored towards that framework, meaning the 23-man group is comprised of three goalkeepers, four central defenders, four full-backs, five central midfielders, four wingers and three central strikers.
Italy have said goodbye to Gianluigi Buffon, leaving the path clear for Gianluigi Donnarumma to take over as the nation's undisputed No. 1. The AC Milan star is fast-approaching his 100th club appearance despite being just 18 years old. He is also displaying the same prodigious talent evident in the Juventus skipper at a similar age.
By the time the next World Cup gets under way, Genoa's Mattia Perin—already part of the Azzurri setup and a superb goalkeeper in his own right—will be almost 30. He will bring a veteran presence to the squad that could prove invaluable while providing excellent cover for Donnarumma.
The third choice is much tougher, with Udinese-owned duo Alex Meret and Simone Scuffet in contention alongside Juve-owned Emil Audero, who is impressing with Venezia, and Fiorentina's Marco Sportiello.
However, the outside choice might be a second Milan youth product, with the Rossoneri having another potential star on their hands if Alessandro Plizzari continues to develop as he has over the past 12 months.
While their free-spending in the summer might not be working out for Milan at the moment, they will undoubtedly be well-represented in the national team in the coming years. Not only have they delivered a stellar class of homegrown players, but the club has also invested heavily in Italian talent, including right-back Andrea Conti.
Formerly of Atalanta, the 23-year-old looks like he will make the role his own with the Azzurri for some time. Conti is able to press forward and contribute to the attack while remaining an excellent defender.
One of his former team-mates in Bergamo, Juventus-owned Leonardo Spinazzola, can do the same on the left flank, while naturalised Brazilian Emerson Palmieri of AS Roma provides cover.
The fourth member of this group is likely to be fellow Giallorossi star Alessandro Florenzi, the Rome native shining at right-back after starting his career further forward.
Long a position of strength for Italy, the middle of defence remains as powerful as ever despite both Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli announcing their international retirements.
Leonardo Bonucci will be 35 when the next World Cup begins, but he would be a veteran presence in this squad, with Milan team-mate Alessio Romagnoli and former Juve partner Daniele Rugani coming in alongside him.
Mattia Caldara, who is on loan at Atalanta where he is experiencing Europa League football for the first time, rounds out the group. He joined Juventus in January and could be the best of the trio of Azzurri defenders poised to replace the vaunted "BBC" back line over the next few seasons.
Setting aside Lorenzo Insigne's marginalisation, the most infuriating aspect of Italy's recent demise has been in central midfield. The likes of Marco Parolo and an ageing Daniele De Rossi featured in the first leg against Sweden, leaving Napoli's Jorginho watching from the sidelines.
In the return fixture, the Brazil-born midfielder made his debut and showed his ability with a string of incisive passes, making him a certainty for this squad alongside Marco Verratti.
Elsewhere, more talent will need to be drafted in as Ventura persevered too long with the likes of Riccardo Montolivo rather than using much more promising players.
Inter's Roberto Gagliardini, Lorenzo Pellegrini of Roma and Cagliari's Nicolo Barella are the best of those awaiting their chance, while Manuel Locatelli and Rolando Mandragora will be close behind.
Ah, wingers. Able to bring pace, trickery and vision to a game, they possess all the skills so sadly lacking in Ventura's Italy.
The coach opted to field Insigne—perhaps his generation's most talented star and a player who lit up a Champions League game at the Santiago Bernabeu—for just 15 minutes against Sweden...in central midfield.
Quite what he expected the lightweight 5'4" speedster to do from there is anyone's guess, but he will feature out wide for the foreseeable future.
Joining him should be Juventus' Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa of Fiorentina, the latter being a simply irrepressible force blossoming into a genuine star with La Viola. Riccardo Orsolini could join him, but the competition is likely to come too late for Stephan El Shaarawy to make an impact.
With Ciro Immobile also likely to be too old to maintain his current form, Torino's Andrea Belotti is arguably the most lethal striker at Italy's disposal.
The €100 million buyout clause in his contract will perhaps look good value if he continues scoring at this current rate, bringing with him a combination of accurate finishing, aerial prowess and speed across the ground.
Backing him up will be another Milan prospect, with Patrick Cutrone already showing a keen eye for goal. The story of the 19-year-old marksman was told in detail here, but he has found the back of the net three times in limited minutes this term, showcasing talent reminiscent of a young Filippo Inzaghi (only without the constant offside flag).
Searching for more headline-grabbing strikers is tough. Atalanta's Andrea Petagna is a solid option, but the potential of Juve's Moise Kean, Simone Lo Faso of Fiorentina and Genoa teenager Pietro Pellegri cannot be ignored.
Pellegri, 16, was discussed in this previous post and will be a player to watch over the next few years, providing more hope than many others mentioned.
Goalkeepers: Donnarumma, Perin, Plizzari.
Defenders: Bonucci, Caldara, Conti, Emerson, Florenzi, Romagnoli, Rugani, Spinazzola.
Midfielders: Barella, Bernardeschi, Chiesa, Gagliardini, Insigne, Jorginho, Orsolini, Pellegrini, Verratti.
Forwards: Belotti, Cutrone, Pellegri.