Roberto Mancini’s transformation of Italy has been remarkable, with Sunday’s Euro 2020 triumph a far cry from their World Cup qualification failure prior to his 2018 arrival.
While that has touched on all areas of the team, there are few players in the squad for whom the perception has changed more than Marco Verratti.
As Verratti sat out the second leg of Italy’s unsuccessful World Cup play-off against Sweden due to suspension, it’s fair to say there were plenty who doubted whether he was truly the man to build a team around.
After all, former Italy international Francesco Graziani was particularly damning of the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder after a 3-0 defeat to Spain in World Cup qualifying in September 2017, suggesting he wasn’t “even worth €50m” in reference to rumours linking him with a €100m switch to Barcelona.
But here we are, less than four years on and, while Gianluigi Donnarumma will hog the headlines for his penalty shoot-out heroics in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final, Verratti has been the man to light the way for the Azzurri on their path to glory.
Let’s not forget, Verratti actually missed the end of the season with knee ligament damage and didn’t feature at Euro 2020 until the final match of the group stage – his understudy, Manuel Locatelli, did pretty well in his stead as well, netting a brace on matchday two.
But Verratti came straight back into the team against Wales and quickly showed just why Mancini considered him essential, producing the kind of all-action display that few midfielders are capable of, as he set up Matteo Pessina’s winner with a clever free-kick delivery – one of five key passes – and mustered more successful passes (103) and tackles (four) than anyone on the pitch.
Although he was slightly less influential in the round of 16 against Austria, Verratti still racked up an unbeaten four chances created.
He was back to his best in the 2-1 defeat of Belgium and showed his greatest qualities in setting up Nicolo Barella’s opener, robbing the Red Devils of the ball high up the pitch before slotting an inch-perfect pass into the danger zone for his colleague to do the rest.
The toughest outing of Euro 2020 for Italy and Verratti was undoubtedly the semi-final against Spain, with Luis Enrique getting the better of his counterpart tactically.
Verratti was limited to just 43 touches, with Spain overrunning the midfield by deploying Dani Olmo as a false nine, although ultimately La Roja were let down by their finishing and penalties.
Yet with England unable to replicate the intensity shown by Spain, Verratti was once again able to weave his magic in the final, playing more passes (72) in the opposing half than anyone else as the Azzurri suffocated the Three Lions for much of the contest.
Mancini’s ability to get the best out of Verratti has been a key factor in their success, with his nine instances of winning possession in the final third (second to Georginio Wijnaldum, 11) perfectly matched up with Italy’s wider philosophy of pressing high, as demonstrated by their tournament-leading 13 shot-ending high turnovers.
A few critics will be eating their words now, with Verratti arguably the defining player in Mancini’s transformed Azzurri.