He is a strange chap is Marcello Lippi. Just when it looks like he is learning, and accepting, that some of his ideas do not work, he returns to them the very next game. It is why we cannot gauge anything from his decision to switch the 4-3-3 after 20 minutes of the 1-0 win against Sweden on Wednesday evening. For a Coach to make such a drastic move after a short space of time is usually indicative of a state of dissatisfaction at what he is witnessing – yet with Lippi we just cannot tell. For what it is worth, he changed to 4-4-2 – unsurprisingly the Azzurri started playing as they are capable of doing, as slowly the players on the pitch started to be used in a module that allows them to be effective.
The match threw up an interesting conundrum for the Tactician – one other than that of the formation, which is not really a conundrum as we all know how that is solved. The injection of pace into the side really did work wonders, and not just in an attacking sense. Italy pressed the Swedes throughout the game all over the pitch, giving them no space or time in possession. It played a large role in Sweden’s inability to create a chance of any note. The desire to win the ball back quickly, and as high up the pitch as possible, was pleasing to see, and it worked. Once the ball was back at Italy’s feet, the offence was swift and incisive. The midfield broke to support Giampaolo Pazzini (and subsequently Antonio Di Natale, who joined him up-front after 20 minutes), overwhelming the Swedish defensive unit. Indeed, the midfield display as a whole was terrific – Italy have not kept the ball so well for a long time. Riccardo Montolivo in particular, was incredibly imaginative in his distribution, showing glimpses of his potential at the highest level that everybody has been talking about for the past few years.
Yet this performance comes at a cost on an individual level – that of quality. Giorgio Chiellini aside, none of the players that started on Wednesday will start the Azzurri’s first match of the World Cup – unless injuries strike. Some will not even be in the squad, but these same players played their part in transforming the performance. Davide Biondini, Marco Marchionni, Christian Maggio and Antonio Candreva are unlikely to win a place in the 23-man squad (Candreva has a very slim chance if he can improve his performances at Livorno), whilst Di Natale faces a fight to hang onto his. As well as they performed against a Swedish side taking the first steps to rebuilding their side, these players are not good enough for the top level that is a World Cup – only the Livorno youngster has any semblance of the class required. Therefore, we cannot realistically expect to see this type of Italian performance come June 2010 – the personnel will be different, offering other characteristics that unfortunately do not include pace or a high pressing game, but bringing to the table greater individual quality. It is a tricky one for Lippi – does he stick by the starting XI who we suspect are his strongest side, or does he add a couple of players who can fulfil the aspects of the friendly performance that improved Italy’s overall game?
Given his unwillingness to change, it is likely to be the former. In which case, those who impressed are fighting for one of the few places (six, if La Gazzetta dello Sport are to be believed) left for the squad to South Africa. Lippi loves versatility – average players like Vincenzo Iaquinta and Fabio Quagliarella only feature with alarming regularity because of their ability to play in several positions – namely out wide. Therefore, we are looking at exactly this type of player to fill some of these places. Candreva has played himself into the reckoning, but the Azzurri Coach’s admiration for his tactical flexibility is certainly helping. He was surprisingly substituted at half-time, having put in another creative shift on the left hand side. Salvatore Bocchetti came on for his teammate at club level Domenico Criscito and slotted in at left-back – he is primarily a centre-back, but can fill in at full-back if required. Having not put a foot wrong in his few appearances for the national team so far, he will almost certainly go providing he is fit.
Whenever a squad for an international tournament is discussed, the issue of including versatile players rears its head. While they are important to any squad, they generally do not win you these tournaments. The specialists win the trophies – those who are masters of their position. Lippi seems to be focusing on those players who can “complete” his squad – eight of the 17 players (most of whom were experimental in this Italy side) who stepped onto the pitch are what he would consider ‘tactically flexible’ – but at the same time losing sight of those who are primarily responsible for victory. It would be a shame to see a talent such as Alberto Aquilani miss out, for reasons other than fitness, to somebody with less ability but more versatility. It might even be the difference between a successful defence of the Jules Rimet Trophy, and a quarter-final exit.