Leonardo Spinazzola is probably not the fastest at Euro 2020. And yet, nobody has run faster during the tournament. The Italy left-back was clocked by Uefa at a top speed of 33.8km/h (21mph): quicker than Kingsley Coman, Raheem Sterling and Kylian Mbappé.
“If I wasn’t fast enough, I wouldn’t be playing,” Spinazzola said this week, but that explanation was back-to-front. It is his pace that allows Italy to play the way they do: using a 4-3-3 that becomes a 3-3-4 in possession, with Spinazzola racing forward to join the attack.
He provided the assist for Federico Chiesa to break the deadlock in Saturday's game against Austria. Even in the 95th minute of a gruelling last-16 tie, Spinazzola had the energy to arrive on the edge of the opposition's penalty area, picking out his team-mate with a composed cross-field pass.
Spinazzola's first footballing idol was Ronaldo and he would devour the VHS tapes his father brought home of the Brazil striker playing for Internazionale. Later, he discovered Gabriel Batistuta, whose machine-gun celebration he imitated while playing up front for his first youth team, Virtus Foligno.
The switch to defence was gradual and reluctant. Spinazzola was 16 when an academy coach at Siena told him his only hope of going far would be as a full-back. "I did not agree at first," he said after he joined Roma in 2019. "But slowly, slowly I moved backwards."
A step back, to find the space to move forward. He has made a few of those. He swapped Siena for Juventus in 2012 but spent six seasons on loan at six teams before he had the chance to play for them.
When the Old Lady finally gave him an opportunity, Spinazzola impressed, producing a standout performance in his Champions League debut, a 3-0 win over Atlético Madrid in March 2019. Nevertheless, he was sold at the end of the campaign.
Coaches at Juventus did not doubt his talent so much as his durability. He had torn a cruciate ligament toward the end of his final loan spell, at Atalanta. They were not the last ones to have such concerns.
A move from Roma to Inter collapsed after his medical at the start of 2020. The journalist Gianluca Di Marzio said the Nerazzurri had discovered one of Spinazzola's legs to be slightly shorter than the other.
It was one of the lowest moments Spinazzola had known since injuring an ankle during his first year in the Siena academy. He had wanted to quit but was talked out of it by his mother. “She told me to grit my teeth and keep on trying,” he said. “And she was right.”
That same attitude was required to get back on track after the move to Inter collapsed. He has spoken about changing his diet in Rome and doing more work in the gym, but feels what really made the difference was getting things right in his head. He had always pushed himself hard but now he was working clever as well, no longer just a “crazy horse” trying to go everywhere at top speed.
Roberto Mancini noticed. He had called up Spinazzola in 2019, giving him three caps that year, but only in the past 12 months has the full-back started regularly for the national team.
His pace has lent Italy a flexibility they did not 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 extra forward on the pitch without sacrificing width.
The assist against Austria was Spinazzola's first of the tournament, but his marauding runs and frictionless overlapping with Lorenzo Insigne on the left were an essential element of the 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland. Both players are right-footers with a preference for cutting inside, but instead of treading on each other's toes, that shared skillset has given defenders a headache – not knowing which will take the inside lane on any given attack.
Spinazzola’s defensive contribution is just as important. Only Jorginho, who has played a game more, has recovered possession more often for Italy at the tournament.
The left-back position has often been an important one for Italy, filled 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 deciding penalty in the final shootout against France.
Spinazzola has deflected comparisons. In the same breath, though, he has also voiced his ambition to win Euro 2020. “When I was a kid I would be glued to the TV as I watched the national team’s games,” he said in 2019. “To play in them now, knowing that I am on the other side of the screen and that all Italians are watching me, is really beautiful.”
Already, he has given his country something to cheer. But Italy are still in the race to win Euro 2020 and Spinazzola is not done running just yet.