Italy’s 2-0 loss to Republic of Ireland on Tuesday night was a disappointing and somewhat unexpected result considering both the relative strength of the opposition, and the success with which the Italians had managed to impose their new style of play against Estonia only four days earlier. But if analysed correctly by the coaching staff, the defeat can become incredibly educational with regards to alternative methodologies.
16 Cassani – 5 Gamberini – 3 Chiellini – 4 Criscito
8 Marchisio – 21 Pirlo – 23 Nocerino
22 Rossi – 7 Pazzini
The shape was no surprise – the standard 4-3-1-2 we have now come to expect – and nor was the midfield. The quartet that started this game was the same four that played most of the match against Estonia after Alberto Aquilani’s substitution through injury after 24 minutes. The only difference in the attacking positions was Giampaolo Pazzini for Antonio Cassano, and therein lays the first area of interest.
Coach Cesare Prandelli made a point of naming Pazzini when thinking aloud pre-match as to whether his team can continue their performance against Estonia, and with good reason. Considering how prolific he has been in Serie A, his efforts for Italy have not come close. Another goalless appearance on Tuesday took his international record to 18 caps and two goals.
More important than his personal record is the effect on the rest of the team. He is a very particular type of striker, preferring crosses into the box, something he admitted while going through a barren spell with Inter. Unfortunately, the style Italy are attempting to employ does not lend itself to cross after cross being launched into the penalty area, but more of a patient build-up reliant on passes through the middle to create chances.
Attempts to employ the patient style disintegrate if, as was the case on Tuesday, there are not enough passers in midfield or movement off the ball is limited, the latter of which both Riccardo Montolivo and Prandelli cited this as a factor in the failure to create anything resembling a clear chance against the Irish. With Pazzini leading the line it is becoming increasingly debatable with each passing performance whether he is the ‘right’ striker, in terms of his movement, for the direction Prandelli wants to take. The Azzurri struggled against Slovenia in similar circumstances – dogged and organised opposition, with Italy dominating possession but not creating a great deal with it – a game which had Pazzini as prima punta.
Of course the onus is on each player equally to find space, and here Pazzini was not helped by his lethargic teammates, but if there is one static individual in the centre, it makes the game plan much easier to defend against.
The increased quality of opposition needs to be accounted for – Ireland are a considerably better side than Estonia, but it was by no means a full-strength Irish team (which means the result bodes well for them) and if the limit of that Italian midfield’s capabilities is Estonia, then Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi and Aquilani need to return quickly.
Thankfully we know that is not the case, but it is slowly becoming apparent that if you take Antonio Nocerino and Claudio Marchisio away from opponents like Estonia they struggle to fulfil Prandelli’s ideal of football. That should not be surprising as they have different characteristics to the ones needed for a possession-based game, but as we cautioned a need for a workable defensive alternative in midfield in the absence of De Rossi after the game against Estonia, this particular match has brought to the fore the need for an attacking plan B when the midfield is not filled with ball-players (or when the match is against half-decent opposition).
That plan B may not include Nocerino, who right now appears to be lacking for international football, but it can certainly make better use of Marchisio’s talents. They are currently being wasted because he is getting lost in a method of playing that is not totally at one with his game, but there is no excuse when the midfield does not have the players to continue that method, or when the opposition is several steps up from a minnow, both of which applied on Tuesday evening.
He has the potential to be the box-to-box role player in midfield that so often provides balance, but crucially from an attacking point of view offers a driving thrust from the middle. He is direct, makes intelligent runs off the ball into the penalty area, and can chip in with goals. It is therefore a shame we only saw three glimpses of this from the Juventus man during the 90 minutes when the Azzurri struggled so much to find a cutting edge. He spent the remainder of his time floating around in the middle not doing a great deal – that needs to change and his role needs to be defined, because in amongst all the ball-players the 24-year-old is one of the most useful weapons Italy possess.