There is only so much that you can learn from a friendly against Switzerland. Italy played one immediately before the World Cup in 2006 and they drew 1-1, offering little inkling of the powerhouse that the Azzurri were about to become. Wednesday’s friendly ended on 0-0, a result which leaves no-one particularly happy. On the plus side, we saw Claudio Marchisio and Domenico Criscito in action. It was their first game with the Azzurri, and while neither proved substantially impressive, they showed some signs of promise. Expect them to compete for a starter’s spot – in Euro 2012, not before that. The only perplexity concerns the position of Criscito, who was played as a left full-back – considering the preponderance of Fabio Grosso, Andrea Dossena and Davide Santon in that position, and the aporia of central defenders other than Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini, would it not have made sense to field him in the centre?
Marcello Lippi stated that he was quite satisfied after the match – his team had created plenty of goal-scoring opportunities and it would have been a real beffa (Italian for ‘fluke’) had the Swiss won the game. Despite the confident statement, the man seemed rather irritable, responding with impatience to the poor journalist who had been flung into his jaws (apparently his earlier statement about having “one chance in one billion” of winning the World Cup was “misinterpreted” by the media). This might have been because he sensed the problem that belied his own declaration. The team had created plenty of goal-scoring opportunities – yet they did not score. Why?
Six months ago, the problem was tactical. The formation was inapt to feed the typology of strikers that were being fielded. Today, the tactical scenario has changed (more on this later). The problem, then, is very simple – the strikers are not good enough. Little light at the end of the tunnel is visible either since Lippi has recently reiterated his resistance to Italy’s two best forwards. He shall not call up Antonio Cassano on account of “technical and psychological considerations” whatever that means, and he “shall not go back on [his] decisions” with respect to Francesco Totti’s retirement. The latter decision this writer endorses wholeheartedly – for moral reasons more so than the valid questions of age and form – whilst the former is wholeheartedly condemned. But if we take them for definite, the question remains – if these forwards cannot score against Switzerland, then who should be called up?
One encouraging thing that we can read in this friendly is that the tactical shape of the team continues to evolve. The 4-3-3 was dysfunctional from the beginning, but what we saw on Wednesday night was something different. In the defensive parts of the game, the formation turned into one of the most orthodox versions of a 4-4-2 we can remember, with all of the midfielders perfectly aligned. This explains – and to a great extent legitimates – Lippi’s insistence on Mauro Camoranesi (inconsistent) and Simone Pepe (mediocre) for the right flank. They are two among the purest right wingers in Italy. This deployment of the Italian team is much more effective than the previous 4-3-3, which was shaped around a 4-2-3-1. However, it raises new and interesting problems.
To begin with, if Italy is going to use a 4-4-2, then why keep fielding men who play in roles for a 4-3-3? The midfield, at the moment, includes two defensive midfielders, one playmaker and one winger. One of the defensive midfielders should be dropped and a left winger should take his place (leaving a playmaker and a defensive midfielder in the middle). Granted, the selection for that position is not very broad, but then the same exact thing is true of the right wing, and that is not keeping Pepe from being called up. This would allow for a greater range of tactical solutions on the field. Against Switzerland, almost all of the Italian game was starting from the right, beginning from Gianluca Zambrotta and further rolling to Camoranesi (later, Pepe). As a result, not enough balls were reaching Italy’s only creative and scintillating forward, Giuseppe Rossi, who was starting from the left in accordance with the original 4-3-3 offensive disposition. Young Rossi was creating something interesting almost every time he was served. More importantly, he was finding solutions which were not only classy but also altruistic and oriented towards his teammates, and this is the best summer gift he could offer us. The kid is growing, and he’s growing into a very scary beast.
The lack of movement on the left might have been caused to some extent by the timidity of Criscito, who was at his first match. It is true that when Fabio Grosso is on the pitch, the left looks much more dynamic. Even so, it would be nice to see him interacting with Paolo De Ceglie, Pasquale Foggia or even – dare we say it – such risky names as Sebastian Giovinco, Alessandro Rosina and Raffaele Palladino, rather than Angelo Palombo or Gennaro Gattuso. There needs to be a bridge between the point where the action starts and the one where it is supposed to end, and at the moment, such a bridge is present only on the right. One bridge is much easier to close down than two, so why not find some alternatives on the left? After all, as soon as the first twenty minutes of the game were past and the Swiss had got to grips with the psychologically intimidating effect of playing against the Azzurri, it did not take long for them to extinguish the Italian domination – and even coming close to winning the game.
There is one more problem to discuss before we close. His name is Alberto Gilardino. The striker has not been scoring for a while now. We defended him in the past by claiming that he was being wasted by the formation, and we pointed to his performances with Fiorentina to prove that he still deserved to be considered. Last Wednesday, the formation should have been a good one for him. While his performance did improve, he still should have shown much more. This writer needs to see some more of Gilardino in action with this formation (as we said, there is only so much that you can learn by a friendly against Switzerland). But it is becoming urgent for us to understand what is wrong with him. We certainly hope it is not the fit of the Azzurri shirt. Italy needs efficient strikers right now. They need them desperately.