That was Italy’s first team. Or at least that is what Coach Marcello Lippi thought would be his first team. He excused the 2-1 defeat to Mexico by talking about a lack of game time compared to the opponents (and he does have a point), but with only a week left until the World Cup kicks off, perhaps doubts about the team are creeping into his mind, because what was witnessed against Mexico simply did not work.
We finally got a glimpse of what Lippi has been so delighted with in training – Claudio Marchisio playing further up the pitch in a 4-2-3-1, behind the striker. His movement was clever, as Lippi himself had told us in his regular bulletins to the media. Unfortunately, the general shoddiness of the team’s performance meant we did not get a chance to assess whether he has the level of technical quality required to really make the position his own. He struggled to receive the ball in areas where he could make a difference – so all we were left to watch was clever movement with no end product. An interesting, yet related aside was the constant alternation between the Juventus man and Andrea Pirlo, switching between deep and advanced positions. But once again, it is difficult to judge whether this is a positive or negative move for the team, because neither player saw enough of the ball when loitering behind the striker. It has the potential to unsettle the opposition, with each player bringing a different set of skills to the role, or unsettle Italy through those variable skills leading to unknown outcomes when going forward.
This system only lasted 35 minutes before it was changed to 4-4-2, with Marchisio moving to the left-hand side and Antonio Di Natale becoming a central striker. This remained the formation of choice for the rest of the match, with different personnel taking the various positions throughout. It speaks volumes for the Italian display that there was not one stand-out player. Leonardo Bonucci, who no doubt received the watchful gaze of many fans hoping that he would present himself as the future of Italian defending, had a tough night against a slick Mexican attack. The defensive line as a whole struggled to deal with anything that resembled a clever pass, and the team had issues getting the ball off them – neatly demonstrated by a 60% possession statistic in Mexico’s favour at the end of the first-half.
If you are having trouble defensively, then it is not a bad idea to show you can deal with the ball at your feet (especially if you are an Italian defender). Distribution was not a particular strong point for the Bari centre-back, giving the ball away on more than one occasion – not something you can afford when you cannot win it back. Of course, a lesson like this will have been good for the youngster in what was only his second cap. He scored the goal that gave the Azzurri hope of scraping an undeserved draw, but more importantly he has played against a very talented attacking unit.
The biggest lesson for Lippi (if he chooses to notice) is that this Italy have great performances in them, but only when deployed in certain systems. There is not the talent available in the squad to be able to play any formation – this is a 4-3-1-2 squad, and we learnt this in the home qualifier against Bulgaria all the way back in September. Similarly, there is not the depth to allow any number of players to be used in a particular position without it adversely affecting the team. Spain can play well in a 4-3-3 with any trio in midfield and up-front because they have so much talent – Italy do not, and it is futile to continue behaving as if they can. A better model to follow would be Brazil – they play the same system in each game, and Dunga picks players he knows can play well in the roles that arise from this system, essentially leaving a very clear structure in their 23-man squad of two players for each position. Italy can win the World Cup, but only with 4-3-1-2 – the one formation that allows each of the 10 outfield players to play well.
Italy 1-2 Mexico – Bonucci 88 – Vela 16, Medina 83
Italy: Buffon; Zambrotta (Maggio 63), Bonucci, Cannavaro (Bocchetti 87), Criscito; Pirlo (Palombo 81), De Rossi (Quagliarella 75); Iaquinta, Marchisio, Di Natale (Pepe 46); Gilardino (Pazzini 63)
Mexico: Perez; Aguilar, Rodriguez (Moreno 69), Osorio, Salcido; Juarez (Guardado 86), Marquez (Barrera 46), Torrado; Giovani Dos Santos (Medina 52), Hernandez (Blanco 70), Vela (Castro 82)