For the players who had to sit and watch the disappointment that was the 2-1 defeat to Mexico, this was a perfect opportunity to show that they could do better. It was a genuine chance too – there are a couple of players who are in danger of losing the fight for a place in the starting XI after their display against the Mexicans, primarily those occupying the wide positions. Andrea Pirlo’s calf injury, which appears likely to keep him out of Italy’s opening game of the World Cup (at least), has opened the door too. Does Marcello Lippi replace him with someone similar like Riccardo Montolivo? Or does he increase defensive solidity by adding another defensive midfielder?
Against Switzerland, he attempted to do both. There was a slight system change from the Mexico game – 4-2-3-1 became 4-3-3. It seems pointless to mention and it is true that they are very similar. But anyone wanting a demonstration of the subtle difference the positioning of that one midfielder can make only needs to watch the Real Madrid-Milan match that took place at the Bernabéu earlier in the season, paying particular attention to the contrasting Milan performance between the first and second half. The 4-3-3 line-up is useful if you have a goalscoring central midfielder, but less effective when you are asking a creative midfielder to move up and down the pitch, because there will be moments when he is not in ideal position to allow his talents to benefit the striker. A creative player ‘arriving late’ does not have the same impact as a midfielder who can score goals.
Montolivo is not a goalscoring midfielder, but he was under instruction to break and join the forwards – a job he performed relatively well, crossing the ball from which Fabio Quagliarella eventually scored. Lippi did not want to lose the passing ability that Pirlo usually provides from deep positions, so the Fiorentina man was not quite given a position behind the striker, as Claudio Marchisio was against Mexico. Instead, he had to drop alongside Angelo Palombo and Gennaro Gattuso when the team was not in possession, thus allowing him to be in deeper positions to receive the ball from the defence (à la Pirlo), whilst Lippi could replace the injured Milan midfielder with a more defensive player in Gattuso. You would think Montolivo dropping back into midfield would help defensively, but his lazy marking contributed to Gökhan Inler’s opening goal. His presence means he is required to involve himself in this side of the game, and his two colleagues in the midfield are relying on him to do the job properly. If you move him forward slightly, his marking responsibilities diminish, and the two defensive midfielders know they have to rely on each other to defend.
He, along with Quagliarella (who moved to the right-hand side), seemed to be given more freedom in the second-half – the midfield was not as rigid and as a result Italy controlled large parts of the remainder of the match. On a regular basis, Montolivo roamed in positions behind the forwards, ready to receive the ball, rather than having to make his way there as soon as the team retrieved it from the opposition. It benefitted the team as a whole, and the performance clearly improved. The concern, however, is that precious few chances were created from the improvement. In fact, the better chances were in the first-half, when Italy looked more vulnerable to Swiss pressure. The reason for this can be found in how the ball was used. Simone Pepe, who replaced Andrea Cossu at half-time, is a willing runner but he does not create a great deal. The same can be applied to Quagliarella – lots of running but not a lot came from it. A player with his supposed talent, pace, and in a wide position, should be attacking full-backs and trying to beat them, yet there was practically nothing like this in the entire game from any wide player. Therefore, anything that looked like an attacking move had to come from Montolivo – and although he had a decent 90 minutes, he was not that impressive.
The game has probably not changed Lippi’s thinking too much (then again, it does not appear any game can cause the World Cup winner to waver from his plan) as to the starting-XI for the opener against Paraguay. The wide players did not play well enough to suggest they are capable of displacing Antonio Di Natale or Vincenzo Iaquinta from the team, and Montolivo has more than likely lost out to Gattuso (who was superb) in the race to replace Pirlo. It means we are left praying that it really is just fitness issues that stand between Italy and good performances.
Switzerland 1-1 Italy – Inler 10 – Quagliarella 14
Switzerland: Benaglio (Woelfli 46); Lichtsteiner, Senderos, Grichting, Ziegler (Magnin 81); Fernandes (Shaqiri 87), Inler, Huggel, Behrami (Barnetta 58); Frei (Hakan Yakin 75), Nkufo (Derdiyok 67)
Italy: Marchetti; Maggio, Bocchetti, Chiellini, Zambrotta (Criscito 81); Gattuso (Iaquinta 85), Palombo (De Rossi 88), Montolivo; Cossu (Pepe 46), Pazzini (Gilardino 76), Quagliarella (Di Natale 66)