It appears we intend to sneak into South Africa unnoticed. Perhaps that way, everybody will fear the name and reputation, without having seen the team play. While Spain are beating every single top nation with consummate ease, home and away, Italy are ensuring the spotlight remains fixed elsewhere by ensuring nothing of any note happens in their matches between now and the start of the World Cup.
At least, that is what it feels like. Only one goal has been scored in the past three games (against Holland, Sweden and Cameroon), but three clean sheets suggests the defence is starting to sort itself out after leaking goals against mediocre sides like Republic of Ireland and Cyprus in qualifying – or does it? Another friendly brought another change of formation – a Genoa-esque 3-4-3 – but the mentality remained the same. The Azzurri were incredibly negative in the opening 45 minutes, an issue that was only slightly addressed at half-time when the team looked just that little bit more adventurous. If Genoa is at one end of the spectrum when it comes to playing the 3-4-3 with an attacking slant, Italy demonstrated the other end with a defensive performance that meant they could have played until the weekend and they would not have conceded a goal. When out of possession, it morphed into a 5-4-1, with Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito dropping back from midfield to join the three central defenders, and débutante Andrea Cossu and Antonio Di Natale filling the gap in midfield. It meant the other débutante, Leonardo Bonucci, impressed alongside Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini in defence. But then again, when you are surrounded by seven other players in the defensive phase, it makes your life as a defender much easier.
Naturally, when you play like this, the other side to the game suffers. Marcello Lippi admitted that in the first-half there was too much focus on defence, and unfortunately it meant that Cameroon could have played until the weekend and not conceded a goal either, such was the lack of threat going forward. The lack of several players who are, in all likelihood, starters in this team did not aid the cause. Yet the game against Sweden saw Marco Marchionni, Davide Biondini, Antonio Candreva and Giampaolo Pazzini all start – three of those will be lucky to make the squad to South Africa – and the performance still contained more attacking verve than we saw in Monaco on Wednesday night. Poor Cossu suffered the most, playing out of position on the right (though he tried his absolute best to wander in from his flank and take up the trequartista position he does for Cagliari) and in a team that seemingly had no interest in scoring a goal, his debut was one to forget, bar a couple of good moments in the first-half.
Lippi stated Cossu was included because he was searching for an alternative to Mauro Camoranesi, a player who is very limited in what he offers the national team anyway. In all probability, Cossu is not the man he is looking for. At 29-years-old, he is not an option for the future, and his squad place would be better served giving a younger player with promise more experience at this level, even if he is not going to make the squad, like the aforementioned Candreva.
So Cossu suffered, but was it worth it? Have we learned anything new from the 3-4-3 experiment? We now know if Italy wants to defend a lead, this is probably the best option. This writer suspects that had they been more open, more adventurous, then they would have struggled defensively, which is why Lippi is unlikely to start the World Cup with this system. If anything, this smacks of a plan that was formulated around the return of Alessandro Nesta – the Coach’s “disappointment” (and continued hope that he will changed his mind) that he has decided not to make himself available for selection was telling, suggestive of a man who was expecting the opposite, and had planned for such a moment. Cannavaro would clearly not be dropped, and Chiellini is potentially the mainstay of the backline for the next 10 years, and it would be incredible if he were to lose a starting place. Certainly, you do not make overtures of such a public nature to a player, as Lippi has done, if you only intended to put him on the bench. The only solution is a three-man defence, incorporating each of them, a ‘solution’ the World Cup winning tactician decided to stick with in the absence of the Milan star, possibly to make it look as if it were his plan all along, regardless of the personnel.
Would there be a better defensive unit than Cannavaro, Nesta and Chiellini at the World Cup? It did not work against Cameroon, but with more confidence in the men at the back, a more expansive approach to the game can be employed. Amongst all the experimentation, there might just be one idea above all that rests in Lippi’s mind, but it rests on the actions of one individual. Now his return would put a mark on the sonar.