Marcello Lippi, we do no longer believe in you. Your team is a castle of dust and your players would drink from a river of mercy. You have given us what no supporter of the Azzurri could have expected. You have shown us breathlessness, in the gaze of captain and conqueror Fabio Cannavaro as the team fell apart around him. You have shown us entropy and age in the legs of Luca Toni, slow and burdened like a man in armour, graceless and stilted like a wounded elk. In the far-fetched shots and nervous fouls by Giuseppe Rossi you have painted for us frustration, and humiliation will be the name of the own goal with which Andrea Dossena sealed the 3-0, before even the end of half-time could save us. You have shown us helplessness in the tame fury of Gennaro Gattuso, his hands clasped as he withered on the bench, his eyes lost and distant. Marcello, what you gave us was never Italy. You have shown us fear in ten square feet of grass.
Above all else, you have succeeded in that which no other person could have achieved. You have undone the power of your own legacy. You have thrown sand over your credibility. As one of only three Italian Coaches ever to have won the World Cup, your second mandate was welcomed as the second coming. The friendly against Brazil in February (2-0 to the South Americans) was the first ring of the alarm bell. The persistently sterile game and the odd call-up choices were equally preoccupying – yet we justified or swallowed them all thanks to your reputation. ‘World Champion’ is no wispy title to bear. It imposes humility on the critics. In our first Italy Camp Focus, we described this tournament as Lippi’s opportunity to show us how wrong we all were in calling for Antonio Cassano, a younger squad and a different formation. It was our concession to his greater experience, our way of saying that the man understands football and the Azzurri better than we ever will. Yet if the above-mentioned opportunity really was awarded by this tournament, then, Marcello, you have failed to grasp it. We were right and you were wrong.
As David Swan mentioned in our last Azzurri Analysis, the outcome of this tournament is one of the best we could have hoped for inasmuch as it should force Lippi into altering his agenda. The need for change becomes particularly forceful in light of the consideration that this Brazil team was really not as good as appearances may suggest. Certainly, the one-on-one skills displayed by some of its players are always impressive and their goal-tally so far leaves nothing to be desired, but their team-play and tactical sophistication are deceptively weak – or, at least, limited. Look again at their last few matches. They seem incapable of doing much other than applying general pressure in the defensive moments before phase-switching into swift counter-attacks. Their players – Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Maicon – seem specially selected for this purpose (even the ex-Milan ace was exiled on the flank for most of the last game, as opposed to taking his more creative and multifarious role towards the centre). The terrific technical attributes possessed by these footballers means that often the fool’s mate is successful, but the strategy behind them is really not that special. It certainly doesn’t compare to some of the things we have been shown by Argentina or Spain, for instance. Besides, counters are far from impossible to neutralise if the opposing Coach shows some tactical sagaciousness. Brazil seem less of an all-round, well-oiled machine for the production of beautiful football than a team highly specialised in one type of game and disinterested in exploring other solutions. It is a type of game, moreover, which a group like Italy should have been tailor-made to arrest – so it is twice as troubling that the Verdeoro should have torn the Azzurri to shreds the way they did.
Coming back to our own team, the two great problems for Marcello Lippi so far have been the ineffectiveness of the attack and the incompatibility between Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi in the midfield. The former problem is evidently still a problem. Three goals in three matches with only two goal-scorers is not an impressive record, especially not when all notches came in the same game. Obviously, part of the solution to this is a turnover of men, and this should start from Luca Toni. The man has been dreadful for years and it is only Lippi’s traditionalism which keeps earning him calls – the Coach from Viareggio is enamoured with certain classical types of players such as the gritty defensive midfielder and the potent, terminating striker. His infatuation reaches such extents that he will sometimes pick role over talent (Bobo Vieri was the fixation in 2006, Toni is the one today). Beyond the quality of the individual players there is also a tactical problem. This site has been claiming for several months now that the 4-3-3 can not work without a fantasista, a creative player capable of shifting between roles and positions while building bridges between the offence and the defence. The obvious candidate for the role is Cassano, although there are a few other options, from grandfathers Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti to infant Sebastian Giovinco. Watching Italy play throughout this Confederations Cup has made their absence more conspicuous than it has ever been. The amount of times in the game against Brazil that the ball ended up in Toni’s clumsy feet when the latter was at great distances from goal, only to be lost after some ill-conceived attempt at dribbling or passed back to the holding midfielders, was enough for the point to truly be driven home. Imagine what could have taken place if the ball had been picked up in that position not by Toni but by the silken feet of Cassano or the visionary ones of Totti. It would have been served to the rest of the offence, converted into a through-ball for the fullbacks or used for something completely unpredictable. It certainly would not have been lost.
Lippi’s other problem, the incongruence between Pirlo and De Rossi, was one which this writer recently dubbed as unsolvable. In an interesting twist, it turned out to provide us with one of the few pieces of good news from the tournament. Pirlo was shifted on to the flank for most of the game, relinquishing his central spot and only moving towards it during the defensive phase (when the team practically turned to a 4-4-2 anyway). The result showed lots of promise. Pirlo’s passing skills were of great help to the team, including his classy descent and assist against the USA (from the left flank, incidentally). At the same time, man-marking him tightly proved redundant for the rival teams inasmuch as all it took for Pirlo to free himself was to give the ball back to De Rossi, who provided for an alternative passing outlet. Had there been a fantasista upfront to communicate with the two, the tactical solutions would have been very broad. Furthermore, by allowing De Rossi to play centrally, the Roman could offer the defensive contributions he is usually known for, even though his contingent form in this tournament was quite underwhelming.
The solution of the PDR problem (‘Pirlo – De Rossi’) should have been enough to solidly improve the 4-3-3. Unfortunately, with the PDR issue out of the way, other weaknesses which were previously unforeseen came to the fore. For one thing, the current 4-3-3 uses one of the lateral strikers as a forward and the other as a half-winger (usually on the right, through Simone Pepe or Mauro Camoranesi). As a consequence, far too much responsibility is heaped on the left full-back, who has no-one to help him out as he runs forwards and back to attack and cover. This was exemplified by Fabio Grosso, who ran very much and completely exhausted himself down his wing for the first two games. Inevitably, this led him to disappearing from the matches from the 65th minute onwards. The same thing happened to Dossena against Brazil, leaving all offensive impetus to the runs and crosses of Simone Pepe on the right flank and thereby making Italy’s offensive progress utterly predictable. This calls for a change inasmuch as a team cannot afford to have attacking options only on one flank. Either switch to a 4-4-2 so there is a full-back and a winger on each flank (Giovinco could take up the left) or add a fantasista to the mix so attacks can be channelled more heterogeneously.
Italy walk out of the Confederations Cup with anything but their heads held high and only one major change – the Coach is no longer invulnerable. If it is true that this tournament was no more than a dress rehearsal, then all it revealed was that the king is naked. The rest is still all to be built or rebuilt, including the confidence. So far, the avatar we laid our trust in was a mannequin, a vampire dressed in the golden robes of the World Cup. There is a stake in its fat black heart. And the time for playing around is over. To paraphrase Sylvia Plath – Marcello, Marcello, old captain, we’re through.
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
Italy Camp Focus
Fixtures & Results
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 0-1 Egypt – Homos 40
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 0-3 Brazil – Luis Fabiano 37, 43, Dossena 45 (og)
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