They hardly lit Cape Town on fire when Italy took on Paraguay in Group F’s opening match on Monday. Although it was not a great performance, they certainly proved that they are not the shambolic mess they were in last year’s Confederations Cup. The Italians kept their defensive line high, they played in two rows of four when defending and made sure each player was marked making life very difficult for the South Americans as they searched for space. Paraguay erred by not trying hard enough to unlock the defence and spent much of the time squaring the ball as opposed to lobbing it over when they were further up the field. But due to the defensive organisation of the Azzurri, the opponents were regularly found retreating back into their own half as they ran out of ideas to penetrate.
Every team has a star man others should watch out for and for Italy, that man is Marcello Lippi. Despite hefty criticism, he proved his tactical awareness on Monday as he made the right substitutions at the right time to change the game for his troops. Moreover, this Italy by comparison to last year’s team are eager to win and they have the mentality to do so. They continued to believe in their strengths, their confidence remained high and even after they equalised they searched endlessly for the goal that would hand them all three points. Statistics show that the average age of winning squads is 29 and Lippi’s team is just over 28 – he might just be right – his team is not old, they are just experienced.
However before we jump on the ‘yes we can’ bandwagon, the same problem that has been repeatedly discussed in every forum around the world reared its ugly head. There was no magic, no flair, and no special player to influence the match. This team is entirely dependent on the collective unit and goals are hard to come by, and with the absence of Andrea Pirlo they may well end up relying on set pieces to get through. It is almost a parasitic way of approaching football as the Azzurri wait to capitalise on any error their opponents make. It is a shame though that a nation that once depended on the flair of Roberto Baggio, the ideas of Paolo Rossi and the playmaking abilities of Alessandro Del Piero have turned into such a robotic and methodical engine.
Next up is New Zealand who shockingly equalised in extra time to achieve their first ever point in a World Cup Tournament. With an extra man in midfield, the Kiwis enjoyed more control than they would ever have hoped for as Slovakia were left wanting for a way to break down their defence. That is perhaps the reason why Lippi is likely to stick with a classic 4-4-2 formation on Sunday. Having undoubtedly noticed Vincenzo Iaquinta struggling on the wing and Alberto Gilardino wallowing in solitude at the top, the Azzurri Tactician will almost certainly change tactics. Claudio Marchisio is unaccustomed to his free role behind the striker and without a natural trequartista or an imaginative figure behind the forwards Lippi should put his faith in the 4-4-2 formation that will not only serve to exploit the strengths of his team but it will also attack the weakness in the opposition.
Possession is not they key to goals as was so clear on Monday. What the Azzurri need to work on is stretching out their attack and making use of all the space on the pitch. The Italians’ play is too narrow and with only three men at the back for New Zealand, Italy should make use of all the space they will have on the flanks. Furthermore, since the Jabulani ball has a mind of its own, the attack needs to take more shots on goal rather than pass the ball around endlessly searching for a way through. Statistics show that 50% of international goals are scored after a series of four passes and in 2006, the majority of goals were scored after two to three passes. Once the ball reaches the final third, more shots on goal should be taken as the longer they procrastinate, the likelier it is they will be dispossessed. Unfortunately, the acrobatic Gianluigi Buffon is likely not to feature and the nation will have to put their faith into the hands of young Federico Marchetti who kept 11 clean sheets for Cagliari last season. One hopes that Italy will not miss Buffon’s heroics too much.