Spiky Luciano Spalletti still fighting his corner as Italy face Swiss mission

To watch Luciano Spalletti speak at the end of Italy’s draw against Croatia felt like being pitched into an alternate timeline. Outside, on the pitch at Leipzig Stadium, there had been joy and relief for the Azzurri after Mattia Zaccagni’s 98th-minute equaliser secured progress to Euro 2024’s knockout phase. Inside, at the press conference, there was the sort of prickly postmortem you might expect after early elimination.

In a series of monologues, Spalletti railed against perceived critics. When one journalist, Dario Ricci, asked whether the decision to change formation to a 3-5-2 had been influenced by a “pact” with players, the manager accused him of sharing leaked information from the changing room.

Spalletti asked Ricci how old he was and, upon receiving the answer, told him he still had “15 years of pippe before you get to my age”. Translating informal language can lose nuance, but farsi una pippa is common slang for masturbation.

The manager phoned Ricci in the small hours of the morning to apologise, a gesture the journalist insisted “was accepted but not at all necessary”. He put Spalletti’s response down to crossed wires, writing in an article for the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore that he had heard no dressing room leak and intended his question in a positive tone.

A storm in a teacup. Yet Spalletti’s nervous energy did not come out of nowhere. Perhaps it was simply indicative of how long Italy had stood on the brink of defeat, a tension that had not yet left the system. Or maybe there was more to it.

Spalletti has always been a colourful communicator. Francesco Totti, with whom he developed a complicated, and by the end quite bitter, relationship over two stints at Roma, described him in a 2018 autobiography as “maybe the best manager I ever had”. The longtime club captain said Spalletti during his first tenure was “the manager you could go to dinner and talk freely with” without needing to self-censor.

Totti described his former boss as “mad and funny. Mad because every morning he would place a Swiss army knife on his desk and the skill he wielded it with was impressive. Funny because every now and then he would create these absurd scenes, like running naked through the corridors in the changing rooms.”

Perhaps that unconventional nature led to his being underestimated. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Spalletti did exceptional work at Empoli, leading them from the third tier to the first; Udinese, who he steered a to fourth-place finish, and then Roma, with whom he finished second three seasons in a row and lifted the Coppa Italia twice.

Italy players arrive in Berlin before their last-16 tie against Switzerland on Saturday. Photograph: Claudio Villa/Getty Images/FIGC

From there he moved on to Zenit Saint Petersburg, winning the Russian Premier League two years running. Still his name never got equal weighting in Italy with managers who had won Serie A. He spoke at times like someone who did not believe himself that he belonged in those discussions: all at once proud of his achievements but fighting some internal impostor syndrome.

“I was a mediocre player and a mediocre manager,” said Spalletti shortly after he joined Napoli in 2021. “But I worked like crazy from morning to night. And working like crazy I managed to beat stronger teams and stronger managers. Me, a person who had no great quality.”

Within 20 months, he had led Napoli to their third Scudetto, a success that reshaped perceptions of his work and positioned him as the top candidate for the Italy job when Roberto Mancini resigned unexpectedly last year. That was an opportunity Spalletti described as “a dream” but also a responsibility he feels deeply.

“We are protagonists in the dream of every Italian who used to run out from school to go play football in the afternoon,” he said at the outset of this tournament. “I told the lads we are heroes and giants to our compatriots. We cannot give less than everything we’ve got.”

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Was there an element of this tension, too, after Croatia, an anxiety not to let everyone down? Spalletti’s own bar of expectation may be higher than that of many supporters. Although Italy arrived for this tournament as defending champions, they failed to qualify for World Cups either side. It was no foregone conclusion that they would even make it to Euro 2024 after Mancini resigned.

Yet here they are, survivors of a “Group of Death” and now positioned on what has been billed as the weaker side of the knockout draw. Spalletti has questions to answer going into Saturday’s last-16 game against Switzerland: should he stick with the 3-5-2 used against Croatia or return to the 4-3-3 which yielded mixed results in the first two games, a comeback win over Albania and a one-sided defeat by Spain?

Mattia Zaccagni

Will Gianluca Scamacca and Federico Chiesa return to the attack, or do Mateo Retegui and Giacomo Raspadori keep their places after starting the final game of the group? Who plays at centre-back with Riccardo Calafiori suspended?

Spalletti’s decision to start the Bologna defender, who won his first cap only this month, in all three games had been a reminder of the manager’s skill for recognising and nurturing talent. Despite an unfortunate own goal against Spain, Calafiori has been one of Italy’s best players, an exceptional distributor and the man who set up Zaccagni’s equaliser against Croatia.

We may see another fresh face in his place against Switzerland. Alessandro Buongiorno, who has four caps, was put forward for Italy’s media availability on Thursday.

Asked what has struck him about working under Spalletti, the Torino defender replied: “He is so attentive in every situation. To how we are training, but also what we do while training: the specific passes we would use in a game … This is the thing that has struck me: he makes you grow as a player, as well as a group.”

The Guardian