Is there any excuse for negativity at home? It is difficult to envisage any situation where Italy, a country who are still a major power in international football, should set out negatively in their own backyard against any team. Yet they did just that on Saturday evening in their 0-0 draw against Holland. We have all seen the 4-3-3 fail miserably with this squad before – but at least it was a genuine 4-3-3 with three players up-front, no matter how far away they were from the midfield, or how far the two wide players were from the striker. If you now imagine these two wide players, and move them deeper in your mind so that they are in a nice line with the three midfielders, you have the horrific 4-5-1 the poor natives of Pescara had to watch for 55 minutes of this game.
There is a recurring theme appearing in Azzurri games where Coach Marcello Lippi starts with the 4-5-1/4-3-3 atrocity – Italy are always much better when he changes it, which is inevitable considering they play poorly every time in this system. For the last 35 minutes of the game, and thus the majority of the second half, Italy was the better team. It was a contrast from the first period, where Holland had more control of the game, even if they did not create many chances. Indeed, chances were few and far between for both sides. It was a poor game in truth, not helped by the two teams attempting to spoil it – Lippi with his containment approach to tactics for 55 minutes, and Holland with their efforts to kick the world champions off the pitch.
As ever with friendlies, it is about learning and discovery. So what did we learn from Saturday? It was not a great game, which perhaps helped debutant Antonio Candreva, who stood out with his performance. He provided an aspect to the midfield that is normally missing with the usual starters – pace and a willing runner from midfield. Alberto Gilardino was a solitary figure leading the attack, but the Livorno youngster worked incredibly hard to get forward. For a team that was so deep in the first 45 minutes, his pace on the break was invaluable to at least give the impression that Italy could threaten going forward. With experience and more games, he will learn to take up goalscoring positions, as well as those that support a striker. It was not always easy for him, because with only Gilardino in attack, he was running into Dutch defenders with nobody to mark.
He was moved to the left hand side when Giuseppe Rossi was introduced as part of Lippi’s change to 4-4-2, yet this did not change his impressive contribution from the midfield. Rossi’s presence ensured Candreva had fewer defenders, and more space, to run into. With the competition for central midfield spots incredibly fierce – it is by far the strongest area of the squad – a role out wide could be his best chance of obtaining a ticket on the plane to South Africa. Lippi has already admitted that his best position is in the centre, and he plays as a trequartista for Livorno, but he has prior experience of the wide positions from his time in the U-21 squad. He was certainly more impressive there than Raffaele Palladino, who, like Candreva, offered pace and a willingness to run in support during offensive phases of play, but was not as effective.
Defensively, the team looked very solid. Although the Dutch were missing Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, while Robin van Persie departed early on through injury, there was still enough attacking talent on the pitch to cause problems. You would expect nothing less from the Azzurri, with the negative tactics that were employed, but the change in formation and the increase in adventurous play that followed did not make what was a relatively comfortable night for Fabio Cannavaro and colleagues any more difficult. It only reinforces the importance of the fitness of the first choice back four, and how vital a 36-year-old Cannavaro is to the team.
Yet, for all the positives about the defence, we are still left with question marks over the attack. It was a dull game, with little quality in forward play and few chances – exactly the type of game you can encounter when you play a top team in a World Cup knockout match. Both sides will be cagey, ensuring first that they do not lose. They are exactly the sort of games that potential world champions win. Past Italy teams would have come out of this type of match with victory – nobody plays a dull affair like the Azzurri. But they appear to be losing their ability to come out of matches like this with victories. The friendly with Switzerland earlier in the season (which also ended 0-0) had a similar feel to it, but we can excuse that as it was before the season had started. Bulgaria bored everybody to death in Sofia last year – it was a game Italy dominated, but did not win. Having been so reliable before, it seems these matches now prove problematic for la Nazionale.
The offence lacks imagination. Everything is very predictable. One of the few players in the squad at the moment who can provide something that is unpredictable – Villarreal’s Rossi – happens to suffer from his greatest strength currently acting as a huge weakness. He gets very excited when the ball is at his feet 40 yards from goal, too excited in fact, and unfortunately fails to utilise the great positions he finds himself in to the maximum benefit of the team. His teammates do not appear to know what he is going to do, and a lot of the time it looks like that he does not know what he is going to do either. Andrea Pirlo, probably the only other player with imagination in the squad, is suffering from Lippi’s indecision over whether to move him further forward, or keep him in is normal position closer to the defence. In all likelihood, he will probably stay in his deeper role.
The Coach, therefore, has two options – accept Rossi’s inconsistency and play him (or better yet, attempt to harness his talent so he benefits his teammates more), or call up more players with imagination. There is an obvious choice, but ‘he who shall not be named’ is not going to receive a call-up while Lippi is in charge – it is best we accept it (begrudgingly) and plan without him. There are three players which standout as alternatives. Sebastian Giovinco is profiting hugely from Juventus Coach Ciro Ferrara’s change in formation and playing regularly, but now he must start playing well if he is to become a serious consideration. Alberto Aquilani, when he eventually gets fit, has the potential to make waves in 2010, but it is difficult to envisage Lippi trusting him with a place in the starting XI. The final choice is a certain Francesco Totti, another Roman with monstrous fitness issues, but who is still one of the best Italian players around. It would be a temporary solution option, bridging the gap between the maturation of the potentially exciting attacking young players, but what a stop-gap he would be. With continual question marks over his ability to perform on the big stage, South Africa 2010 could provide a perfect opportunity to lance the doubters.