As strange as it sounds, we should be thankful to Brazil. A result such as the one on Sunday night has been needed for a long time, needed to jolt Marcello Lippi into action, into change. He claimed pre-match that whatever happened, he would not deviate from his plan. Surely now he must start to show more pro-activity in introducing new players. The 3-0 scoreline is a true reflection of the gap between the Azzurri and a team who are not even the best international side around at the moment. The poor performances simply cannot continue if Italy is to have any genuine ambition of making a fist of the 2010 World Cup.
The funniest aspect of how Sunday unfolded was that Italy could have progressed even with such a heavy defeat. All that was required was a goal, and their inability to find one when it was truly needed epitomises this team. Even in the second half, when the players were more than aware a goal was needed, the urgency was sorely lacking from the attacking members on the pitch.
In any case, Italy did not deserve to progress. If anything, it is one of those rare occasions where the table does lie – Italy were the worst team in the group, not third-best as the table suggests. Only in the last 20 minutes against the United States, who were unjustly down to 10-men thanks to a first-half sending-off, did we see a performance of any quality. Egypt was more than good value for their victory. The Azzurri put the Pharaoh’s under a lot of pressure towards the end of the game, but clear-cut chances were limited to Riccardo Montolivo and Vincenzo Iaquinta, who both squandered efforts which should have been buried. The Brazil game was the nadir, the peak of incompetence.
Every flaw imaginable was highlighted and on show for the rest of the world to see – a weak defensive display, no control over ball possession (except for five minutes in the first-half), and a laboured and slow transition of the ball from defence into attack. You would have thought, knowing that only one goal was needed, that the players would have been sprinting forward at every opportunity as the game neared its conclusion. Instead, it was left to Giuseppe Rossi, who again performed reasonably well, to pick up the ball and attempt to unsettle the Brazilian defence. Simone Pepe, introduced at half-time for Montolivo as Lippi switched from the 4-3-3 (yes, he did start with this again) that conceded three goals to 4-2-3-1, also showed tireless running down the right-flank. However, as against the Egyptians, his end product was woeful. There were a number of good crossing positions the Udinese winger managed to get into with the ball at his feet, but each time those who managed to find their way into Brazil’s penalty area were let down by the delivery. Mauro Camoranesi, playing on the left in the second-half, disappeared completely the more the game wore on.
Daniele De Rossi, in central midfield was tireless in his running. He attempted to cover every blade of grass possible in an effort to make up for the inadequacies of his teammates, but there is only so much one player can do when you have the likes of Robinho, Luís Fabiano, Kaká, Ramires and Maicon in and around your area every time you do not have the ball. Italy were simply overrun by their opponents, especially in the first 45 minutes when the Seleção could have scored plenty more. Despite starting with three central midfielders, bolstered further by Camoranesi and Iaquinta on the flanks, the Brazilians found an incredible amount of space, just as the Dutch did in their 3-0 defeat of Italy at Euro 2008. It seems any attacking team with an ounce of quality will easily expose the Italian back line.
Speaking of the defence, Fabio Cannavaro will come in for a barrage of criticism. He was poorly positioned for the first goal, playing Luís Fabiano onside. Yet, he will receive blame for the second too, despite the fact that it was not really his fault. There are plenty who claim Italy’s joint record cap holder should retire. It would be interesting to hear these individuals’ ideas for a replacement. Nicola Legrottaglie? Alessandro Gamberini? Both played in the side that conceded three against New Zealand in a friendly, and both appear not good enough to replace the captain. The fact remains, Cannavaro is still one of the two best Italian centre-backs available for the national team, something that perhaps says more about the state of young Italian central defenders at the moment than it does about Cannavaro’s ability.
After heavy defeats, it is all too easy to pinpoint the defence and claim they were responsible. True, the defending was not the greatest, but they were not helped (as has been the case for all of the games in this Confederations Cup) by the tactical set-up. Defending is not simply throwing together four good defenders and letting them get on with it. Barcelona only realised that last season. A back-line of Gianluca Zambrotta, Carles Puyol, Gabriel Milito and Eric Abidal is, defensively, one of the best around. That is what the Catalan club worked with in the 2007/08 season, as well as Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta et al in the attacking areas. Yet they won absolutely nothing because they believed it was a case of acquiring better individual defenders, rather than an issue with their set-up or style of play. This season, under Pep Guardiola, they do not have the same level of ability with regard to defensive qualities (as Chelsea highlighted in the first leg of their Champions League tie). Milito was injured all season, Zambrotta had departed and Puyol was frequently benched. Yet they conceded fewer goals (43 in 2007/08, compared to 35 in 2008/09) because their style of play was better suited to defending as well as attacking. When you keep the ball 65% of the time over a period of 90 minutes, as Barça frequently did last season in a huge number of their matches, the opposition will always have fewer chances to attack you.
Keeping this in mind, we must look at the bigger picture for Italy when it comes to defending. Issues with conceding goals from set-pieces (highlighted in the last
Azzurri Analysis ) are clearly a problem with individuals. Conceding three from open play, with ease, are issues which prove the fundamental problem sits far deeper than with the four defenders. We have spoken about tactics endlessly, both in this column, and in other pieces on the site. Unfortunately, it is the fundamental problem when it comes to the Azzurri’s defensive performance. Unless Italy enters a game in an unbelievably negative state of mind (see the Italy-Spain clash in Euro 2008 for a perfect example), clean sheets will be hard to come by with the 4-3-3 system. Since Lippi’s return to lead the Azzurri for a second time, only four clean sheets have been kept. These were against the footballing might offered by Georgia, Bulgaria (who were incredibly negative), Montenegro and a Northern Ireland reserve team. This is not to take away all responsibility from the players – they have played their part in the drivel we have had to watch – but a good tactical set-up can make up for deficiencies in quality.
Lippi is lucky that Italy have one of the best Under-21 sides around. Many of the players in Pierluigi Casiraghi’s squad for the current European U-21 Championships in Sweden are coming to the end of this particular cycle. This site will look in further detail at some of the – in some cases, outstanding – prospects available to the senior side, but some of these youngsters need to be introduced into the squad very quickly indeed. Salvatore Bocchetti, Marco Andreolli, Domenico Criscito, Sebastian Giovinco and Mario Balotelli are the five stand-out choices. The first two in particular, are having very good tournaments thus far.
The Coach claimed after the defeat, that it takes “personality, experience, a certain habit in certain matches” to win games such as the one against Brazil, but the young players will not develop any of these characteristics unless they are played in these matches. Gigi Buffon believed it was better that Italy are out of the competition, as they are “at a delicate moment and not competitive.” Interestingly, he was asked about the introduction of young players, to which he responded:
“We wish and hope that our young players make the jump in quality to give us a hand, but you must understand that playing with Italy in these games is not like playing in the championship. It is not easy, it takes experience and personality. And I do not see many young players who can change us, perhaps because our league in recent years has become more modest and less competitive.”
More likely, Buffon does not believe the current crop can have an impact because they have not had a chance to showcase their talents, whether it is for their club or country. Giovinco, for example, is not a regular at Juventus, and is unlikely to be next season, whereas someone like Criscito plays for their club, but has not been given an opportunity for the senior team. It is about encouragement for these players and safeguarding the future of the national team. Of the five players mentioned above, the Genoa duo of Bocchetti and Criscito have had marvellous seasons, yet only Bocchetti’s impressive form was acknowledged with a token call-up to the senior squad in a game where he did not have a chance to make his debut. These players must be given the minutes that give credit to their performances. Giovinco is happily coasting at Juventus because he has not been given the slightest hint that Lippi is paying attention to his performances. A call-up to the squad could easily do the trick, and whilst we are not advocating players demanding transfers to other clubs, it may cause the youngster to think twice about rejecting a move to a lesser club that offers regular football. Lippi may have more power than he believes in shaping the future of the Azzurri. It is about time he started using it.
Italy 0-3 Brazil – Luis Fabiano 37, 43, Dossena 45 (og)
Italy (4-3-3): Buffon – Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Dossena – Camoranesi, Montolivo (Pepe 47), De Rossi, Pirlo – Iaquinta (Rossi 38), Toni (Gilardino 57)
Brazil (4-2-2-2): Julio Cesar – Maicon, Lucio, Juan (Luisao 24), Andre Santos – Gilberto Silva (Kleberson 84) Felipe Melo – Ramires, Kaka – Robinho, Luis Fabiano
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
Fixtures & Results
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 3-1 USA – Rossi 58, 93, De Rossi 72; Donovan 41
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy 0-1 Egypt – Homos 40
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 0-3 Brazil – Luis Fabiano 37, 43, Dossena 45 (og)
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg