FIFA’s decision to book out a date in the international calendar before the majority of European club seasons had commenced was met with fierce criticism from former players and club managers alike – most of which was directed towards the respective national FA’s for actually taking advantage of the date and arranging a fixture. In any case, Italy’s friendly in Switzerland, played at St. Jakob-Park in Basel, was essentially a pre-season match, albeit between countries instead of clubs.
Surprisingly, considering the timing of the game, the Italian performance offered us a glimpse of just what this team can do, providing the correct players are picked in the right system. The 0-0 draw will, to those just glancing at the results, appear as if it is the same Italy that limped out of the Confederations Cup in June. Yet, the display by many of the players suggests Coach Marcello Lippi could well be steering the side back onto the right track. He kept his pre-match promise to start with new boys Claudio Marchisio and Domenico Criscito, and also to play with two players in attack. It meant a thankful return to 4-4-2 and a huge improvement in performance from all the players.
Put simply, every one of the starting XI looked more comfortable. It was a straight 4-4-2, not a 4-2-3-1, or any other variation that complicates matters. Giuseppe Rossi, a huge beneficiary of the change, was given licence to roam around Alberto Gilardino and cause as much chaos as possible. It is a shame he did not completely grab this opportunity to cement himself into the thoughts of Lippi. He was given 60 minutes, and whilst demonstrating some neat touches, did not impose himself on the Swiss as he would have liked. This position of seconda punta is still very much open for somebody to grab. In the absence of Antonio Cassano, Rossi remains the best choice at the moment, but he is no Roberto Baggio. There is no doubt that he has a long way to go as a player, the potential to become a fantasista and make the role his own is definitely there. However, he is unlikely to do so before 2010, and so the Azzurri face the prospect of heading into the World Cup without that special player, the fantasista, the one who can win games with a single moment of genius.
La Nazionale may therefore have to rely on their midfield to make the difference, and though they were unable to against Ottmar Hitzfeld’s outfit, a few alterations, detailed later, could change that. Debutant Marchisio started on the left hand side for this friendly game, out of position, but offered more than enough to suggest he has a future at this level. His energy on that flank ensured that Gilardino, and Vincenzo Iaquinta in the second half, had plenty of support – an interesting development from previous games where the striker was often isolated or lacking the numbers to make the attacking phases count. There seemed to be a concerted effort from Mauro Camoranesi on the opposite flank (he departed injured in the first-half for Simone Pepe, who continued his good work), Andrea Pirlo and Marchisio himself to ensure there were enough members of the team in and around the Swiss penalty area when Italy had possession of the ball in dangerous areas.
The Azzurri’s latest Juventus addition also provides something of an added bonus – that of security against the counter attack. His work-rate ensured that Angelo Palombo and the defence were not outnumbered by any Swiss counter. It was not uncommon to find Marchisio gallop back and take up a position alongside Palombo in the centre to nullify the threat, or delay attacks until the remaining two members of the midfield returned. As simple an aspect as it may be to highlight, it is no less important than the more glamorous roles of Rossi and Pirlo. Indeed, his youth and stamina allows the latter, and Camoranesi, both of whom are in their thirties, and neither of which are particularly quick at tracking back, to expend more of their energies in getting forward as they do not have to sprint back every time the ball is lost during attacking play. Yet, his usual positioning on the left ensured Pirlo was best placed to receive the ball from the defence in the middle of the pitch, and distribute it accordingly. Lippi must receive some of the credit for this tactical change, as must Marchisio for his impressive adaptation to a slightly unfamiliar role.
In fact “role” is an often unused word in football, even though it is one that is significant in today’s game. The 23-year-old has a great chance to become Lippi’s role player, similar to Simone Perrotta in 2006. He too played out of position on the left hand side of midfield, and whilst not having exactly the same function as Marchisio did on Wednesday evening (they have slightly different characteristics as players), it was strikingly similar. What he now must do is knuckle down at Juventus and claim a starting position. He has fierce competition – Felipe Melo is more or less a guaranteed starter due to his price tag, and Momo Sissoko has been a key part of their midfield since his arrival. He is essentially competing with Tiago, Christian Poulsen and Mauro Camoranesi for that last spot, and we could be left with a situation where Juventus are giving with one hand (Sebastian Giovinco is in the same position, he must play regular football), and taking away with the other.
Any failure for the youngster to play regular football should, happily enough, not leave Italy with a problem in the middle. If truth be told, he is probably not part of la Nazionale’s strongest and most effective midfield, but producing this will require a small adjustment in positioning and personnel. Clearly, Palombo will not be a starter in the World Cup, unless there is an injury crisis. Daniele De Rossi and Gennaro Gattuso were both missing from this friendly, and naturally the former would take the Sampdoria man’s place in the team. Without Marchisio, Lippi has a number of options, one of which would actually produce his best option for the midfield quartet providing everybody is fit and available. He could introduce Simone Pepe to play on the left wing, as he has done on numerous occasions. An alternative is Fabio Grosso, who he trialled in midfield for just under 20 minutes against Switzerland, though it would be a surprise if he uses this option in a competitive match. The best solution, however, is to introduce Gattuso, and move Pirlo to the left hand side, where he was relatively effective in the Confederations Cup. Roma skipper De Rossi replaces Marchisio’s transition defence and also provides the outlet in the midfield for the centre-backs to offload the ball, even if he does not have Pirlo’s passing abilities. In turn, the Milan maestro does not have as much responsibility to take the ball from the defenders, and so can spend more time taking up threatening positions in the opposition half of the field where he is difficult to mark. In essence, he would become the closest thing Italy has to a fantasista, and is best placed to make the difference from midfield.
The September qualifying games, away to Georgia and at home to Bulgaria, will give a greater insight into the direction Lippi is taking his team in the run-up to the World Cup. Despite his rather silly attempt at playing down the influence of the Confederations Cup debacle – he claims he had these changes and new players in mind anyway – the switch to a 4-4-2 suggests otherwise. Providing this is kept, the World Cup holders have a fantastic chance of being competitive next year. The true test of Lippi’s faith in this will come in Tbilisi – roll on September.