Italy is in a period of transition, apparently. A transition that involves five of the XI that started against the USA in the 2006 World Cup starting once again in a game against the same opponents in 2009. A further six of the squad for the game against the USA yesterday were also involved in the successful 2006 campaign. As such, it is very difficult to spot where the development in this squad is taking place. Giorgio Chiellini has proved a godsend, whilst Daniele De Rossi has matured into a wonderful midfield player, both examples were important in overcoming the Americans on Monday evening.
Why were two defensive players important in winning a match 3-1? Quite simply, whilst the squad might be undergoing a (slow) metamorphosis into one with youth and pace, the tactics are unfortunately in that inactive pupal stage, if we are to continue with the Lepidopteran life cycle analogy. Coach Marcello Lippi just will not budge from this 4-3-3 that Roberto Donadoni inflicted on the team, despite the countless number of performances where it has failed to work. There are only so many times you can get away with a half-time deficit, like the one the Azzurri carried into the interval against Bob Bradley’s side when they were 1-0 down to 10-men. As such, the Gold Cup holders had by far the better chances in the first 45 minutes, and despite giving away the penalty that led to their goal, both Chiellini and De Rossi made numerous tackles and interceptions of a vital nature.
The problems with this formation are the same ones that have accompanied this useless method of playing since Donadoni introduced it during his tenure – a lack of creative freedom to those who can create (this also compounds the fact that Italy has few players of genuine international quality in attacking areas), lack of fluidity in off-the-ball movement, and the use of wingers. Nothing has changed – if the team were not able to use this system three years ago, they are hardly likely to be able to do so now considering that half of the squad for the Confederations Cup is the same. The USA had a good share of possession in the first half, something which they should not have been able to do with a midfield of Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark and Benny Feilhaber – a trio vastly inferior to their Azzurri counterparts. They were given time and space by a rigid and passive Italian midfield that were clearly sent out with strict positioning duties. The only creative flame emanated from Andrea Pirlo, and that was reduced to a mere flicker by a system that did not give him opportunity to express himself. When you have Gennaro Gattuso and De Rossi in the centre, you would perhaps think that the Milan man could be given licence to roam, but not with this 4-3-3.
Thankfully, this was all changed on 55 minutes. Having tried for a small period to go 4-4-2, with Pirlo loitering to the left, Lippi realised that embarrassment loomed if he did not make alterations. Giuseppe Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo were introduced for Gattuso and Mauro Camoranesi, and Italy started to line up in a 4-3-1-2:
19 Zambrotta – 6 Legrottaglie – 4 Chiellini – 3 Grosso
20 Montolivo – 10 De Rossi – 21 Pirlo
15 Iaquinta – 11 Gilardino
The change in play was startling. Possession went through a prolonged spell where it was dominated by those in blue, off-the-ball movement was at a level with which the American defenders could not cope, Pirlo started to play like he did two years ago, Rossi made his Coach look incredibly stupid by highlighting exactly why he should be starting every international in the middle, even Montolivo gave his best display to date for his country. Did this happen by chance? Absolutely not. For the first time in a long while, the Azzurri were playing in a system that utilised their strengths – a number of central players of high quality – and with that they were given a freedom they appeared to relish.
That 4-3-1-2 was not rigid. In fact, it was so fluid that it was actually difficult to tell exactly how the World Cup-winning Coach had set his men up after the substitutions. With the ball, it was more like a 4-1-3-2, because Pirlo and Montolivo pushed so far up the pitch to join the attacking phases of play. These two individuals were very important to the second-half comeback. At times they would drift wide, helping Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta obtain space behind the full-backs. At other moments, they would be found around the penalty area, keeping the ball moving in a threatening area of the field, thus ensuring the pressure was fixed on the opposition. Their presence also ensured that Rossi could find space against the already short-numbered USA, impressing in the free role he appeared to have. The Villarreal forward popped up primarily in central areas, but he would successfully wander out wide, or drop a bit deeper to gain space to run at defenders (as he did for his first goal).
This system removed all of the problems with the 4-3-3 mentioned earlier. However the key aspect to it all is freedom. Italy does not have many creative players that can cope with top level international football. To then restrict the few that the country does have in rigid systems simply leaves very little to offer as a forward unit. In any game of football, and with any team, the midfield always dictates the style of play – the players that are deployed, the instructions they are given. If you deploy two defensive players, as Lippi did in the first half, you are leaving the threat from central areas to one man (in this case Andrea Pirlo). To then strangle him within a system will only lead to the sort of performance that was witnessed in the initial 45 minutes. Removing one of these defensive players for a more adventurous and technically gifted midfielder, combined with the clear release of Pirlo to play, resulted in a different style of play. A style that is conducive to winning matches.
This is not to say that two defensive players should not be used. One factor we have ignored so far is the extra man in front of the midfield (Rossi), given the free role. The extra central player provides a lovely link between the middle of the pitch and the strikers (Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta), drags opposition markers out of position and leaves space for the newly released midfielders to push into. As seen on Monday night, this also works the other way. A three man midfield is certainly the way to go, but whatever the composition of the trio, that individual placed in front of them, in the free role, is paramount.
It would be nice to see the Coach learn from these second half displays, where he has changed the system and/or the players within it and seen a massive change in fortunes. Chances are we will see Rossi start the next game, and although this may be somewhat hopeful, we could see the 4-3-1-2 from the start. If indeed this does occur, what is needed is perseverance, the sort that has been given to 4-3-3. All too often we see the former Juventus Tactician try something new, and then quickly change back to the tried and tested failure after it does not work wonders inside 60 minutes. Persevere, and Italy could well end up making history in South Africa next year.
Italy 3-1 USA – Rossi 58, 93, De Rossi 72; Donovan 41
Italy (4-3-3): Buffon – Grosso, Chiellini, Legrottaglie, Zambrotta – Gattuso (Rossi 56), Pirlo, De Rossi – Camoranesi (Montolivo 56), Gilardino (Toni 68), Iaquinta
USA (4-2-3-1): Howard – Bornstein (Kljestan 85), Spector, DeMerit, Onyewu – Clark, Bradley – Feilhaber, Dempsey, Donovan – Altidore (Davies 65)
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 3-1 USA – Rossi 58, 93, De Rossi 72; Donovan 41
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy vs. Egypt
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. Brazil
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg