Ciro Immobile is Italy’s best striker. This is an opinion, but were you to water down the essential responsibility of a forward to scoring goals, it becomes a fact.
Finding the net is something the 28-year-old has done with stunning regularity since joining Lazio in the summer of 2016. In just over two years in Rome, he has notched 76 goals in 104 appearances, including a 41-goal haul last season that saw him crowned as joint-top scorer in both Serie A and the Europa League.
His incredible strike rate has shown no signs of slowing down this season, with Immobile having already scored eight league goals, one less than leading scorer Krzysztof Piatek and the same number as a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Italian’s phenomenal, not to mention consistent, marksmanship has earned him the nickname ‘King Ciro’ in the capital.
However, nationwide appreciation eludes him. Somehow, despite overwhelming evidence of his ability, many followers of the Italian national team continue to regard the Lazio man with contempt, needing little encouragement to criticise and lambast the striker.
Public faith in the national team hit rock bottom after the play-off defeat to Sweden this time last year and for some, Immobile’s failure to find the net over two legs of spearheading his country’s attack was enough for him to become a scapegoat of one of the Azzurri’s darkest days, albeit not to the extent of universally unpopular CT Gian Piero Ventura.
A year later, Immobile still suffers from the scars of that night. While he has continued to show scintillating form at club level, a stubborn section of the Italy support have by now written him off for good, while the new man in charge Roberto Mancini has shown little faith, handing him just one start in four games so far.
Understandably, Immobile responded to his Azzurri critics on social media during the last international break by posting an image that spelled out his phenomenal domestic hit-rate along with a ‘shushing’ emoji.
There are no players available to Mancini who even come close to matching Immobile’s form in front of goal, yet the week leading up to Saturday’s UEFA Nations League clash with Portugal has been filled with debate over who should be preferred in attack: Immobile or Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi. Yes, the same Berardi who scored two league goals last season.
The perception that Immobile can’t cut it for Italy is as misinformed as it is unfair.
The horrors of the Sweden defeat have understandably encouraged many Azzurri fans to erase the entire Russia 2018 qualifying campaign from memory, but were they to look back they would find that Immobile’s six goals made him not only his country’s top scorer, but the leading scorer in the entire qualifying group.
In fact, since Italy were knocked out of Euro 2016 on penalties by Germany, no player has scored more goals for ‘La Nazionale’ than the Lazio man.
There is no doubt that his international form has dipped over the last year, but Immobile remains Italy’s most potent attacking weapon and, at a time when the Azzurri are struggling for goals, Mancini should consider building his attack around the marksman.
Immobile’s success at Lazio has come in Simone Inzaghi’s 3-5-1-1 formation and he has very rarely been used as the focal point of a 4-3-3, like he’s been asked to with the national team.
At club level, the former Torino forward has flourished playing alongside a creative attacking partner, be it Luis Alberto, Felipe Anderson or more recently Joaquin Correa, while midfield runners Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Marco Parolo have also provided plenty of thrust in the final third to give Immobile a platform to work off.
Too often in a 4-3-3 he is left exposed. He is not a target man, nor is he a poacher. During the Nations League defeat to Portugal in September, Twitter was filled with cries of derision as the striker pulled out to the wide positions: ‘What’s he doing out there? Get in the box!’
Immobile isn’t a penalty box striker. He covers every blade of grass, running himself into the ground for the cause, dropping deep to hassle midfielders, drifting wide to pull lumbering centre-backs out of position, creating space for his attacking colleagues to thrive in.
This is what makes him a world-class striker; he scores enough goals to rival even the most selfish number nine, but also works hard for the team and contributes to the construction of attacks rather than simply waiting to finish them.
For example, during Lazio’s draw at Sassuolo last weekend, Immobile took up a position on the left wing. His movement had unsettled the home side’s defence and his pinpoint cross-field ball found Alberto free inside the area, whose shot was cleared off the line for Parolo to score from close range.
Statistics never tell the whole story and he won’t be awarded the assist, nor will his name appear on the scoresheet, but it was a classic example of Immobile putting in the hard yards for the greater good.
Mancini must find a system that plays to his strengths, rather than expecting the Lazio star to adapt his game entirely for the national team.
If the coach can restore Immobile’s confidence in a dark blue shirt, he will have added one of the most prolific strikers in European football to his armoury. Given that Mancini’s team have scored just three goals in four games so far, it might be worth considering.
Immobile’s extraordinary talent has earned him the eternal love of the Lazio support and it’s time for Italy to embrace, rather than attack, one of their biggest assets.
Long live the King.
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