How on earth can anybody explain that performance? Easily the worst of the three, and coming at a time when Italy needed their best to ensure qualification. It was the embodiment of everything that has been wrong with Italy for two years – and it is such a shame because this side, for all its faults, could have achieved much in a World Cup where, bar Spain and Argentina, the standard of each team is lower than in previous World Cup competitions.
It is difficult to understand the tactical thinking behind the way Italy set out in the first 45 minutes. It had the look of a 4-3-3, but actually became something resembling a very lopsided 4-4-2. Instead of staying high up the pitch, as you would expect in this system, Simone Pepe (anonymous for the entire game) dropped so deep on the right hand side that he joined the midfield trio. Gennaro Gattuso, however, did not move to left midfield in compensation – he is a central midfielder and his remit was clearly to play in the middle. Antonio Di Natale drifted inside from his wide left position, as he usually does, leaving four bodies in midfield and two up-front, but not with any balance.
So Marcello Lippi brought balance back to the team, making sure it was a clear 4-4-2 with two substitutions at half-time, but the performance was still awful until 80 minutes. For a team who needed to win to qualify, they looked disinterested and lethargic, yet in the last 10 minutes they showed what they are capable of when given the freedom that is necessary when you are going out of the tournament. It only leaves fans wondering ‘what if’, and opens up a series of questions and debates about what could have improved the displays.
It is worthless entering into further discussion on the tactical deployment – it has been mentioned, and that is all it deserves. It did not work, and anyone who has watched Italy for the past couple of years would have been able to tell you that before the match had started. Slovakia were more open than both Paraguay and New Zealand before them, as we had anticipated, but Italy were not set up correctly to take advantage of this. Instead, some awful defending arose from what was not very much pressure from the Slovakians. They did not have to do a great deal to create uncertainty, and it is disappointing that mistakes were made with such regularity. All three of Slovakia’s goals were preventable, and all three came from individual errors – two from Daniele De Rossi (the first and third goals) and one from Giorgio Chiellini.
Indeed, De Rossi was at fault for three of the five goals Italy conceded – he admitted that Antolín Alcaraz’s header for Paraguay in the first game was his responsibility. Of course, it is easier to blame the old Fabio Cannavaro for that one, and no doubt some will blame the captain for Kamil Kopúnek scoring Slovakia’s third goal, because it is far better if the blame is apportioned to an individual who will no longer be around the camp. But it was De Rossi’s role, particularly as a defensive midfielder, to track the runners from this, and he was caught on his heels as Kopúnek galloped past him to meet a simple throw-in. Chiellini too was caught in exactly the same manner by Róbert Vittek as he tucked in their second of the day.
Offensively, Italy was not much better, although Vincenzo Iaquinta did have two decent chances (two more than Alberto Gilardino received during his time on the pitch in the first two games), but that is not really enough when you want to win a game. Only when the players decided to really go for it were real opportunities for goals created, and the interplay and switching of positions between Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella was the principle driving force behind this. Some may argue that Quagliarella should have started in the previous two games, but all that would be based on 10 minutes where he was off the leash and doing as he pleased. There is no reason to think he would not have been suffocated by the tactics – and watching his efforts for the first 30 minutes of the second-half adds weight to this.
Ultimately, the Azzurri deserved to lose this game, and thus exit the competition. It is not enough to start playing well at 80 minutes, and a draw would have been unjust and would not have given Slovakia the rewards they deserved. New Coach Cesare Prandelli has a lot of thinking to do. This group of players have demonstrated they have the ability to play well, and whether it is simply a “psychological issue”, as Lippi believes, that is preventing them from doing so remains to be seen. We wait with baited breath, for August, to see the next Italy squad.