A lot of soul searching is taking place in Italian football right now. Many Serie A clubs are looking to a brighter tomorrow, while the national viewpoint clearly requires revision.
You have all heard the criticisms, 'Milan are full of aging players' being the default favourite. The average age of the treble-winning Inter squad also received much comment (they really did have actual players, despite the general consensus it was Jose Mourinho alone who won the Champions League last season) when it comes to passing judgement on Serie A.
As much as defenders of Italian football will scoff at these suggestions there are of course some truths hidden here. Milan did persevere with a squad that took its revenge on Liverpool in 2007 and the Nerazzurri were certainly a veteran team, but there are many other sides in Serie A who are not filled with players over thirty, who do give youth space and time to flourish, and many of the bigger clubs have begun to take notice.
It is hard to overlook the accomplishments of a talent-laden Udinese this season as the performances of the Friuli side have been breathtaking at times. This is thanks largely to a group of talented players who will be on the shortlists of many Sporting Directors across Europe this summer and while Alexis Sanchez (22) steals much of the spotlight, fellow Chilian International Mauricio Isla (22) and Colombian Pablo Armero (24) have been a major factor in their success.
Despite their on and off the pitch turmoil this season there is also no doubting the class of the players currently part of the Palermo squad. Despite the Sicilian clubs woes this season Javier Pastore (21) and Josip Iličić (23) have been superb, catching the eye of many clubs. Behind them is a raft of young stars, including Salvatore Sirigu (24), Abel Hernández (20) and Afriyie Acquah (18), who are testament to both the stellar scouting network the Rosanero have developed and the coaching ability of Delio Rossi.
Fiorentina's struggles on the pitch have been well documented, but it is hard to argue that the real issue behind their decline was the pre-season injury suffered by last season’s main protagonist Stevan Jovetić (21). As well as the Montenegrin star the Viola regularly call upon Khouma Babacar (18), Adem Ljajić (19) and Michele Camporese (18). The central defender in particular has been impressive and coach Siniša Mihajlović deserves much credit for bringing him into the first team.
While clearly the exception, seeing a player like Juve's Frederik Sørensen (19) thrive in the first team despite having never made a professional appearance for previous club Lyngby proves the benefits of good scouting and intelligent player recruitment. It also reinforces Gigi Delneri's position as one of Serie A's few coaches willing to take a leap of faith when required. Much like with Andrea Poli (21) at Sampdoria last season he has embraced the talent and reaped great rewards from doing so.
The Bianconeri coach also back the slightly older Paolo De Ceglie (24) in the left-back role over more established players and the defender paid him back with some vastly improved performances before a fractured kneecap curtailed his progress. Mirroring that success has been the presence of Ignazio Abate (24) in the Milan back-line and he is perhaps now among the top three players in his position across the league.
But it is beyond this where Italy's problems with the treatment of young players truly begins, where the ingrained fear of turning to a player with very little experience still grips coaches on the peninsula. Trusting a player under 20 with not just an occasional appearance out of desperation in the midst of an injury crisis but actually believing in them as regulars rarely happens, and this is what must now change for a variety of reasons.
The saddest sight for many observers of Italian football is looking at the squads of a number of mid-table Serie A sides - such as Palermo, Genoa and Parma - and seeing a large number of players who are simply wasted talents. These three squads contain men entering their peak years who could still be serving their original club far better than their more experienced (and in many cases more expensive) replacement ever has.
Mattai Cassani and Federico Balzaretti are perhaps the biggest example of this, cast aside by Juventus for a string of fullbacks who are nowhere near the level of a duo now considered first choice for the Azzurri by Cesare Prandelli. The names of those brought to Turin since their departure - Jonathan Zebina, Zdenek Grygera, Marco Motta, Cristian Molinaro and Fabio Grosso - sends shivers down the spine of Bianconeri everywhere.
Comparing the permanently injured Jorge Martinez to Raffaele Palladino should undoubtedly have a similar effect by now too, even before the price of the Uruguayan is taken into consideration. Seeing Antonio Chimenti stumble flap his way through games against Sampdoria and Fulham while Antonio Mirante helped Parma finish just three points behind in 8th place is another dagger and that he did so while conceding nine less goals than the Turin club may be a statistic too many for some.
But it is not just Juve who are guilty of wasting players in this manner. Would Milanisti not be far more comfortable seeing Luca Antonelli line up at left-back rather than namesake Antonini or Daniele Bonera? With UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations curbing the free spending nature of clubs and a desire to reinvigorate the National team after last summer’s horror show in South Africa, many things need to change in order to alter the situation.
The talk of an Under-23 team in Serie B was widely opposed (particularly among teams currently in the Cadetti) there are far more important and influential changes that could and should be made. First among them is the upper age limit of Youth Sector football in Italy which, at its current level of 21 is simply far too high. Often this leads to not only a lack of ability against fully developed players but also hugely inflated reputations against defenders who can be as young as 15. This only leads to false hope and expectation, with so many examples of young 'stars' failing to deliver on what was often misguided promise.
Reducing that limit to 18 would alleviate many of these issues, but is only feasible with the introduction of a reserve team system, which could learn much from the organisation of a similar set-up in Spain. Entering these reserve teams into the league, starting at whatever level is the way forward, as seeing their players in a competitive environment among veterans and professionals while playing the same style of football as the first team has to be the right move.
Eventually achieving a position in the second division, much as we see in Spain, would prove even more beneficial and ultimately the clubs would reap the rewards. The change of age-limit should also change perceptions of players and move to a mindset where Sebastian Giovinco is not seen as a youngster when in truth he is anything but.
Any 'false promotion' of young players has to be opposed however. Bringing in quotas would help nobody as a player should feature if and when he is good enough, not because a league imposed rule forces his clubs hand. The positive result of such a rule would be minimal and it would be far better to naturally see playing time for these players than to alter the rules to artificially create space.
Roberto Baggio has already threatened to quit his position within the FIGC after his ideas were largely rejected, a loss that would help nobody on either side. They say progress is a slow process, but without significant alterations to the structure and set-up of Italian youth development in its final stages there will be little change at all.