It looked potentially very exciting pre-match. Cesare Prandelli’s starting line-up, in what is probably Italy’s most effective formation, included so many promising players for the future that the level of intrigue surrounding this friendly seemed greater than normal. Perhaps that is why there is a lingering feeling of disappointment at what played out.
Right now, this Italy team lacks an identity, but then we cannot expect them to have one so soon into a new era, under a new Coach, and with new players being introduced. If they are to compete for – and ultimately win – international tournaments, then one needs to be developed.
Prandelli seems determined to instil vibrant attacking football, to the extent that he started against Romania without a single defensive midfielder, and filled the centre of the pitch with ball players. It is admirable, but it will not suffice against any good international team.
The frequency with which Romania attacked the back four was alarming at times, and a side with a bit more quality in attack would have scored more than once from those opportunities. When you counter-attack with four against three and still fail to create a shot at goal, as Romania did in the first-half, it does not speak volumes for the attacking potential on display.
Yet it is more than Italy managed, despite the prospect of Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi being played in their proper positions – up front as strikers rather than wingers. Unfortunately, there was little control of the midfield, so instead of being able to exert constant pressure on a Romanian defence that was missing their best player in Cristian Chivu for all bar the first 16 minutes, forays towards goal were sporadic.
It was not helped by a lack of structure to forward moves – creative freedom is a wonderful asset to possess, but these players have not played together long enough to pull that off. Nevertheless, it was pleasing to watch players in the blue shirt demonstrate an ability to find space and commit to getting in the box, a far cry from the turgid attacking displays of the latter end of Marcello Lippi’s second reign.
The 4-3-1-2 formation was in use for more or less the entire game. A system that makes use of the talent in the squad, and one that does not create positions in a starting XI that cannot be filled effectively. It has been a long time since we have seen Italy deployed in this manner (ignoring the abandoned match against Serbia) – you have to go back to the 2010 World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria to find the last occasion, and we can only hope Prandelli was watching that match and took note of the superb performance, because the disjointed efforts against Romania could well convince him to revert to his beloved 4-2-3-1.
What is clear is that regardless of the system, you need to fill the XI with players capable of stepping up to international football, particularly in midfield. Without laying the finger of blame totally at his door, Stefano Mauri has now had two mediocre games, offering precious little, and his chances of staying in the squad must surely be decreasing with each passing game.
At 30 years old, he is also disadvantaged by his age under a Coach who has made it clear he is looking to a younger generation. Cristian Ledesma will also have to step up considerably if he is to hang around the squad for any significant length of time, although as a debutant he may well be excused for not contributing a great deal on Wednesday evening.
Alberto Aquilani was not much better, but he has age on his side, as well as the fact everybody knows this is not the same Aquilani pre-ankle surgery. He has more to give, and his best is good enough for Italy.
The future appears brighter when eyes are turned towards the defence, a problematic area for some time now. Both Davide Santon and Andrea Ranocchia showed class. The Genoa man is undoubtedly a star of the future, and he highlighted why Lippi was planning to call him up to his 2010 World Cup squad, instead of the less impressive Leonardo Bonucci, before he got injured.
The defence lacked a leader and experience (Giorgio Chiellini has more caps than all of the four defenders who started the match combined), so it is testament to the youngster’s ability that he was able to shine, especially in a first half where the balance of the team was not favourable for defenders.
Ironically, considering the general lack of Italian youngsters at big clubs in Serie A, the worst thing that could happen to Ranocchia in 2011 would be joining co-owners Inter. Talents like this need to play, not sit on the bench behind Iván Córdoba (as Santon did in the recent Milan derby) and Lúcio, if Italy are to develop their identity.