Devis Mangia guided Malta to its first Nations League point after the 1-1 draw against Latvia at the National Stadium, on Sunday.
It was a much-needed point after the heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Faroe Islands in the opening tie of this competition.
Moreover, it strengthened the football ideology that the Italian tactician is trying to implement in this national team. An idea that sees the Maltese players forge a playing identity of their own on the playing field, unlike in the past.
Exporting players, defensive tacticism and lack of discipline on the field are among the criticism that this team gets slammed with every after outing. Revamping the whole movement is obviously far from a walk in the park, but there is always a point that has to be a stepping stone for the bigger picture.
Coach Mangia has chosen the playing identity as the starting point for his Malta project. Despite the pre-Nations League friendlies were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mangia’s ideas were very clear in the first two outings.
The former Italy U-21 coach wanted a team that has proactive approach, builds up from the back, applies high pressing, and be schemeful on set-pieces. This enabled Malta to find the net three times in two games while creating other goal-scoring opportunities, something that the team lacked in the past years.
“I have only good words for my team,” Mangia told a news conference after the Latvia game.
“The players put everything on the field throughout the whole training camp and I am very pleased with the feedback I got after these two outings.”
In both Faroes and Latvia game, Mangia deployed his team in a 3-4-2-1 formation with the idea of hurting the opponents mainly from the flanks through the pace of Ryan Camenzuli and Joseph Mbong, and exploiting the creativity of Luke Gambin and Jurgen Degabriele behind target man Kyrian Nwoko.
“Against Latvia, we opened the first 25 minutes on a very bright note, creating also a wonderful goal,” Mangia explained.
In fact, it was a splendid combination between Mbong and Nwoko that helped Malta forge ahead.
However, as the game wore on Latvia started to peg the Maltese back even though their equaliser came through an unfortunate own goal by Matthew Guillaumier.
It was clear the Maltese team was still not in the best physical shape possible. Understandable, given that the only local sides who played since March were Floriana, Valletta, Hibernians and Sirens in the UEFA club competitions. Latvia, on their part, had majority of their players featuring in their domestic league with 17 fixtures already played.
“Unfortunately we started to drop back after we scored but at the same time, we faced a team who was in an advanced stage of physical preparation and had played a lot of league games as well,” Mangia said.
“Obviously, we need to improve and we can become a better team from this point of view.”
For the Latvia game, Mangia handed a debut to Italy-born Enrico Pepe, but who has obtained Maltese citizenship, at the back who replaced captain Andrei Agius.
Asked about this change, Mangia pointed out that those who started, including the other newcomer Teddy Theuma, and the ones who were deployed later all came in with a positive attitude.
Meanwhile, defender Zach Muscat, who has just swapped SC Olhanense for Casa Pia, is pleased with the fact that under coach Mangia the team is becoming more dynamic and meticulous .
“At the back, we need to be more cautious of course but at the same time we are also starting to build up from the back, working on different movements upfront, we are creating structured goals and this reflects our hard work on the training grounds.”
Heading towards the games against Latvia and Andorra, the Malta national team should be optimistic about his abilities to register a historic Nations League win.
At the end of the day, winning will be a consequence of the playing identity imposed by the Maltese players.