It was a useful exercise, albeit difficult to gauge the impact the new additions have made to the quality of the team, as it was essentially a pre-season match for the entire Italian squad. While seven of the 14 players used by Ivory Coast on Tuesday night had already started their domestic season (with another four starting this weekend), all bar Cristian Molinaro commence their campaigns in over two weeks.
2 Motta – 19 Bonucci – 4 Chiellini – 3 Molinaro
17 Palombo – 5 De Rossi
7 Pepe – 10 Cassano – 9 Balotelli
The difference in physical preparation showed. Pressing was non-existent from the Italians, and it meant that getting possession of the ball was incredibly difficult. Keeping the ball was therefore paramount, but when you have not played football for three weeks, rustiness in the form of sloppy passing is bound to be a factor. A lot of the build-up to the match focused on a ‘new era’, ‘change under Prandelli’ and various other sound bites to the same effect. The system, however, remains very much the same as under Marcello Lippi. A straightforward 4-2-3-1, just the way it looked under the World Cup winner. The personnel of course are different, particularly in the forward areas, and this should make a big difference to the Azzurri when everyone is back into their stride.
There is at last some invention, creativity, and ideas when the ball reaches the final third. Chances were at a premium for Italy, but only because of the aforementioned differences in preparation. Mario Balotelli on the left hand side is an interesting tactical decision, because it is clear that the boy’s talent is wasted on the periphery of the pitch. In his days at Inter’s Allievi Nazionali and Primavera teams, Balotelli was the central striker, the position taken up by Amauri in this particular friendly, and his record of 27 goals in 31 games (for both teams) highlights just how devastating he was. He is the complete striker, and while he can perform reasonably effectively on the left, right or behind another forward, Italy (or his club, whoever that may be after the transfer window) will not see the best of him until he is made the spearhead of the attack. For now, he is quite clearly the best option for one of the flanks, primarily due to the distinct lack of quality competition for this sort of role.
And that brings to the fore one of the (many) issues with this system – Italy do not have enough quality to fill the wide attacking berths. If Balotelli is injured, Coach Cesare Prandelli is left with a string of alternatives which patently are not good enough at international level. When Giuseppe Rossi was introduced for Antonio Cassano, it was a like-for-like change. Rossi was given time in the centre, and he showed glimpses of the real talent everybody knows he possesses, just like he did against the USA in last year’s Confederations Cup when he came on as a substitute and played in the very same position. He nearly created an equaliser with one surging forward drive, only to see the ball nicked away at the last moment. He is not a wide player, and his performance level decreases by close to 40% if he is deployed there, but he is the only attacking option with the necessary quality to play wide should Balotelli be missing.
The other flank is a different matter. A system like this requires balance. If you play with three players like Cassano or Balotelli behind the striker, what is left is a team that is essentially split – with six defensive players and four attacking – because nobody from that trio would participate in the defensive work. Balotelli can do it – he ran all the way back to his own goal line to prevent an Emmanuel Eboué cross in the first-half, but that was the only time any real effort was made on his part defensively. Simone Pepe may have precious little attacking talent necessary for this level, but his work rate and defensive ability balance out the natural instincts of his two, more attacking, colleagues. Prandelli gave recognition to the importance of his role when he substituted him. Instead of bringing on the more attack-minded Andrea Lazzari, Juventus’ Claudio Marchisio came on to continue Pepe’s hard work.
Defensively, this set-up should suffice with two players like Daniele de Rossi and Angelo Palombo in the middle, but issues will arise when Andrea Pirlo returns to the team, because there will be one less ball-winner in the middle of the pitch. It leaves potential for the team to be exposed defensively, as was so frequently the case at Fiorentina, when Prandelli used Riccardo Montolivo alongside a defensive midfielder. There, he compensated with two players on the flanks who were more likely to defend in Juan Manuel Vargas and Marco Marchionni. To do this with Italy would mean dropping Balotelli (which would leave the actual line-up in a not too dissimilar situation to the one under Lippi), or asking him to perform a role that is not only unnatural to him, but negates his abilities even more than his positioning on the left hand side. The new Mister has his first problem to solve.