It was one of those games where Italy had nothing to gain, and everything to lose. Estonia, in their role as a team at international level who everybody expects to beat (comfortably, if you are a successful nation), took full advantage of a traditionally dire September performance from the Azzurri.
To use the time of season is a bit of an excuse, and there were other factors that did not facilitate the display, but with the Serie A campaign in the neonate stage (as it usually is at this point in the international calendar), the players are going to be slightly undercooked. That can only be used to a certain degree, especially when the opposition is Estonia, because with the midfield Cesare Prandelli deployed and the overall gulf between the two teams, better would be expected regardless of when the game is played.
The Coach took the decision rather early on in the week to use the 4-3-3, a system that was so spectacularly unsuccessful when Marcello Lippi was in charge that you have to wonder what else Prandelli can do with it that the World Cup winner could not. With three players all adept at playing the ball in the middle of the pitch, Italy should have dominated this game. They did not, and although possession stats suggest otherwise, it was a very disjointed affair. Antonio Cassano, albeit with license to cut in, is wasted on the left-hand side, just like Mario Balotelli was in the friendly against Ivory Coast. Unlike that friendly, there was nobody permanently filling the central gap between Giampaolo Pazzini and the midfield. Riccardo Montolivo was the midfielder breaking forward in support, but not for the first time for his country, his affect on the game was minimal. The team was missing a body in this gap, somebody who could permanently take up space between the lines, as opposed to break into it late on (or beyond it, as the case was on many occasions).
It meant scoring from open play was difficult – just as it was under Lippi – and it will continue to be difficult with this system unless Italy start producing wingers with quality, or midfielders that can break effectively (in Daniele de Rossi, they already have the latter, but unfortunately every one of his Coaches prefers to make use of his defensive talents instead). A role in the team for Simone Pepe is, just about justifiable with Balotelli and Cassano in the same team. When one is missing, however, his hard work and endless running is not necessary. In fact, his lack of quality hurts the team in this situation, as evidenced by the overall attacking display. Instead of having a second reference in attack, another player for Andrea Pirlo and De Rossi to pass to, the team had what was essentially a role player on the right-hand side. He covered well and tracked back on that flank, but it was needless because there was not an extra attacking player who needed that cover, who required somebody else to do an extra bit of running for him. It is one of the main issues with the 4-3-3, and with Pepe as a player. While he can do the running for two, the team requires another individual to make up for his lack of top-class talent. But in a 4-3-3, that extra attacking player is not present unless Italy played somebody like Juan Román Riquelme in the midfield (and if this type of player was available, he would not be playing in that position anyway).
With Faroe Islands up next, Italy will get away with playing this system again. They could play any system and still win the match. The better teams (Serbia, for one) will not be bowled over as easily, and something more substantial will be needed to score goals. The noises coming out of the camp suggest that Prandelli believes this set-up only needs practice for everything to click – even though they had plenty of time to work on it under Lippi. Maybe all it needs is Mario Balotelli.