Italy are slow starters, it is always good to start slowly and save your best form until later in the competition, it is important not to lose your opening match – all clichés that are bandied around at a World Cup. No doubt we will hear all of these over the next few days as those in football attempt to suck the positives out of an opening game draw. But make no mistake – Italy wanted to win this match. The urgency the team showed towards the end of the game – playing as if it was a knockout round – and the look on Marcello Lippi’s face as the final whistle went, suggests a draw is not what they wanted, and with good reason too.
Italy should still qualify from this group. What they do not want is to qualify second, and leave a last-16 match with Holland (who will undoubtedly finish top of Group E). Top spot in Group F now essentially comes down to a race – whoever can hammer New Zealand by the biggest margin will finish top. An Italy win against Paraguay would have taken this whole scenario out of the equation, and they would have been able progress serenely from the group.
Unfortunately, pressure is now on to beat New Zealand handsomely – not desirable for a team who are struggling to score goals. The Paraguay game panned out exactly like the other games where Italy play 4-2-3-1 – they play badly and fail to create any genuine chance of scoring a goal, Lippi changes to a formation that everybody knows works (one with two strikers, in this case 4-4-2), Italy equalise and play some half-decent football. The man is not a stupid Coach – he can see, just like the rest of us, that his attempts to force 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 on the team do not work. His concern is the midfield, more specifically maintaining control of this area.
For the length of time that Italy played 4-2-3-1, they controlled the midfield. They had the majority of possession, and were rarely troubled by the Paraguayans – exactly as Lippi envisages his system working. The problem is that there are no players in the team to make the possession count offensively, and if ever there was a perfect demonstration of pointless possession football, the first 60 minutes of this match is it. Andrea Pirlo is the only player who can turn keeping the ball into chances, and he plays too far away from goal anyway. So we are left with Monday’s performances over and over – control of the midfield, but going nowhere fast. The old adage about possession does not always ring true in football.
It does for Spain, because they have players all over the pitch to make it count. But even they have changed since winning Euro 2008 with a 4-4-2 – 4-3-3 is the order of the day now for the Spanish. Germany have changed their midfield to 4-2-3-1 since Joachim Löw took charge, Argentina played a version of 4-2-3-1 against Nigeria, and France and Brazil use formations that are more or less the same as this (all in addition to the teams who have played with similar formations for years, like Holland and Portugal). The wave of change across international football has not gone unnoticed by the Tuscan Coach, and he clearly believes that Italy will not beat these teams if they do not adapt.
It is a balancing act, however, between adapting to beat the others, and playing a style that brings out the best in the team, and Lippi is far too concerned with adapting the midfield – so much so he even dabbled with 3-5-2. He is not too far off getting it right, but it is a situation where one miscalculation seems to count double. In fairness to the World Cup winner, his worries about the midfield are understandable to a degree. When Italy changed to 4-4-2 for the last 30 minutes, they were a far greater threat offensively, but the game became more open – a natural consequence when you take a man out of midfield. There was a lot more space, and a more adventurous team who were actually interested in winning the game would have taken advantage and punished Italy. Had Paraguay wanted to, they could well have scored a winning goal, such was the space that opened up for them. Yet their mentality meant that we only saw glimpses of what an opposition team could do to the Azzurri when they relinquish a man from the centre of the pitch. And this was with two of the youngest central midfielders in the squad on the field.
Lippi, therefore, is likely to stick with his methods for the next game. A weak New Zealand team will probably make it all appear as if the system works, whilst the next decent side (probably the last-16 opponents) will painfully highlight the balancing act Lippi has miscalculated.