Leonardo Spinazzola: the great Italian traveler on the left flank | Euro 2020

Leonardo Spinazzola is probably not the fastest in Euro 2020. And yet, no one ran faster during the tournament. The Italian left-back was timed by UEFA to a top speed of 21 mph: faster than Kingsley Coman, Raheem Sterling and Kylian Mbappé.

“If I wasn’t quick enough I wouldn’t be playing,” Spinazzola said this week, but that explanation was backwards. It’s his pace that allows Italy to play the way they do: using a 4-3-3 which becomes a 3-3-4 in possession, Spinazzola rushes to join the attack.

He helped Federico Chiesa break the deadlock in Saturday’s game against Austria. Even in the 95th minute of a grueling round of 16 game, Spinazzola had the energy to get to the edge of the opposing penalty area, selecting his teammate with a compound cross pass.

Spinazzola’s first football idol was Ronaldo and he devoured the VHS tapes his father brought home from the Brazilian striker playing for Internazionale. Later, he discovers Gabriel Batistuta, whose machine-gun party he imitates as he leads his first youth team, Virtus Foligno.

The shift to defense was gradual and reluctant. Spinazzola was 16 when a Siena academy coach told him his only hope of going far would be as a full-back. “I didn’t agree at first,” he said after joining Roma in 2019. “But slowly, slowly, I backed off.”

A step back, to find the space to move forward. He made a few. He traded Siena to Juventus in 2012, but spent six seasons on loan with six teams before getting a chance to play for them.

When the old lady finally gave him a chance, Spinazzola impressed, putting in an outstanding performance in his Champions League debut, a 3-0 victory over Atlético Madrid in March 2019. Nonetheless, he was sold to the end of the campaign.

Juventus coaches were not doubting his talent so much as his durability. He had torn a cruciate ligament towards the end of his last loan at Atalanta. They weren’t the last to have such concerns.

Leonardo Spinazzola passed the ball under pressure from Austria’s Florian Grillitsch in Italy’s victory in the round of 16. Photograph: Claudio Villa / Getty Images

A move from Roma to Inter collapsed after his medical examination in early 2020. Journalist Gianluca Di Marzio said the Nerazzurri had discovered that one of Spinazzola’s legs was slightly shorter than the other.

It was one of the lowest moments Spinazzola has seen since his ankle injury during his freshman year at the academy in Siena. He had wanted to stop but his mother dissuaded him. “She told me to bite the bullet and keep trying,” he said. “And she was right.”

That same attitude was needed to get back on track after the transfer to Inter collapsed. He has talked about changing his diet in Rome and doing more work in the gym, but thinks what really made the difference was getting it right in his head. He had always pushed himself hard, but now he worked so smart, not just a “mad horse” trying to go everywhere at top speed.

Roberto Mancini noticed. He had called Spinazzola in 2019, giving him three caps that year, but it’s only in the past 12 months that the full-back has started steadily for the national team.

His pace gave Italy a flexibility that it didn’t have. Mancini said: “He’s so strong and explosive that he can play [as a wing-back] in a back five or [as a full-back] in a four ”. Taking the second option allows the manager to keep an additional attacker on the pitch without sacrificing width.

The assist over Austria was Spinazzola’s first of the tournament, but his marauding runs and frictionless overlap with Lorenzo Insigne on the left was a vital part of the 3-0 victories over Turkey and Switzerland. Both players are straight-footed with a preference for cutting inside, but instead of stepping on each other’s toes, this shared skill set has given defenders a headache – not knowing who will take the inside lane when of a given attack.

Equally important is Spinazzola’s defensive contribution. Only Jorginho, who played one more game, picked up the ball more often for Italy in the tournament.

The left-back position has often been important for Italy, occupied by Paolo Maldini, Gianluca Zambrotta and Giacinto Facchetti. Fabio Grosso was the unlikely hero of the 2006 World Cup, scoring the goal that broke the deadlock in their semi-final against Germany, as well as the decisive penalty kick in the final shootout against France.

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Spinazzola has hijacked the comparisons. In the same breath, however, he also expressed his ambition to win Euro 2020. “When I was a child, I was glued to the television while I watched the matches of the national team,” he said. he said in 2019. “To play it now, knowing that I’m on the other side of the screen and all Italians are watching me, it’s really beautiful.

Already, he has given his country something to celebrate. But Italy is still in the race to win Euro 2020 and Spinazzola is not yet finished racing.

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