For the first time in more than a year, Italy played the way they are expected to play when confronting minor opposition. They held the ball, made their own luck and ultimately won by a rotund 2-0 over the Bulgarians. Good news, but also puzzling news for a number of reasons.
The shape of Marcello Lippi’s Italy is becoming increasingly harder to predict. What we saw on Wednesday was no longer a 4-4-2 – at least not the same one as in the past few games. This looked more like a 4-3-1-2, with Andrea Pirlo slotted behind the two forwards Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino. The experiment may be deemed a success, but an important qualifier must be iterated in that Bulgaria was not playing very well. Compared to their previous game against the Azzurri, they lacked punch and verve (perhaps a consequence of playing in Turin rather than at home). We will have to see how the formation works in future games, especially against tougher opposition, before casting any form of judgment.
The primary concern for the Azzurri, in recent times, has been the attack. Yesterday’s performance was discrete, to some extents inspired by the kinetic form of Iaquinta (brilliant on the second goal, wasteful on other occasions). To some degree, though, the success must be credited to the poor coverage of defensive spaces offered by the Bulgarians, especially on occasion of the first poaching. It is also to be noted that Iaquinta missed several easy opportunities and that Gilardino, other than a couple of run-of-the-mill passes, still cannot leave an incision on the game. The position of seconda punta is not an issue for the Azzurri – Iaquinta and Giuseppe Rossi offer sufficient coverage, with Fabio Quagliarella and Antonio Di Natale lending depth and the ghost of Antonio Cassano hovering in the background. The Italian prima punta is a different story altogether. Since the eclipse of Luca Toni, Gilardino has been left as the only man for that position, and while the kid has lots of obvious talent, he is demonstrating himself to be increasingly inadequate for the role. Using two supporting strikers together – say, Iaquinta and Rossi – is an option which has already proved ineffective, so an alternative must be found promptly. At this stage, Lippi’s aversion to Giampaolo Pazzini is becoming almost as incomprehensible as the one he holds against his teammate Cassano (though the two things may be linked).
Lippi expressed great satisfaction at the end of the match, even tinged with a sentiment of vindication. It was as though he had proved us wrong. That should have been his task at the Confederations Cup, not against Bulgaria, and this 2-0 victory is not enough to wipe out the humiliation suffered against Brazil. After that tournament, three necessities had been laid bare for the Italian team – the need for a new formation, a younger overall squad and the inclusion of Antonio Cassano. How has Lippi been dealing with these issues?
The first problem has been faced very well so far. The 4-3-3 was finally ditched, the 4-4-2 was given a run, and now the 4-3-1-2 gave us a very pretty performance. But the efforts and drive should not cloak the fact that the situation is still very unstable. The 4-3-1-2 needs to be field-tested many more times to find out its weaknesses and figure the solutions to them. It offers the considerable advantage of fielding three central midfielders and discarding the need for wingers (which Italy notoriously lacks), thus exploiting the best of what the national pool has to offer. However, giving the position of trequartista to Pirlo exposes the team to a number of risks. The most classical, indeed the most obvious reaction to the 4-3-1-2 by an adversary team is to stick a defensive midfielder on to the trequartista to try and nullify his influence on the game. It happened to Francesco Totti in 2006, it will happen to anyone who takes up his role in 2010.
The Bulgarians were not prepared for this formation, but the next teams in line will be, and they will not be shy of using their defensive midfielders. If that takes place, then someone as aged as Pirlo is unlikely to possess the pace to escape the heavy man-marking and Italy may find itself shorn of its creative pivot. A younger offensive regista could possess that pace, and the only viable alternative that comes to mind is Liverpool’s Alberto Aquilani – but can his energy compensate for his lack of experience, and more importantly, will he find his form in time for the 2010 tournament? Lippi has shown a liking to Aquilani on several occasions and his recent interviews suggest he hasn’t lost his soft spot. Time will tell, but it is early to say whether Pirlo fits in the formation and it would be way too premature to label the 4-3-1-2 as the solution to all of Italy’s problems.
The second problem was the need for a younger squad. Lippi has taken on this issue at cautionary speed. The offence is young enough as it is and its problems are not a matter of age, so we can leave that aside. The work done on the midfield can be deemed satisfying, assuming that Claudio Marchisio keeps starting over Gennaro Gattuso. With Daniele De Rossi also on the pitch, that makes for two youngsters and two experienced players (Mauro Camoranesi and Pirlo) playing together. Proper replacements must be found and field-tested, but we may – tentatively – call the above combination a healthy one. The defence is where hardly any progress has been made, with only Giorgio Chiellini to represent the U-30 national team. Not enough chances have been given to the fresher players, and the full-backs are a real cause of concern. Gianluca Zambrotta no longer looks at his best and the possibility of starting Davide Santon or Marco Motta in his position should be taken seriously. Fabio Grosso has been the recipient of much praise, and his talents coming forward are incontrovertible, but people are still in denial as to his stamina. We cannot remember a time in the past two years in which Grosso has lasted beyond the 60th minute of the match. Partly due to his age, partly as a result of the onerous requirements of a formation without wingers, the man sputters out for the final third of any game. In a tournament where extra-time often drags confrontations into two-hour-long battles, this is not reliable. Either it becomes common practice to take him off in the second half – and in that case, his alter-ego must start being trained now – be it Domenico Criscito or Santon – or he must no longer be considered a starter.
Lippi has done an excellent job at confronting the first problem of the Azzurri, the formation. He has done a passable job with the second problem, the need for youth. And he has done an absolutely terrible job with the third, the need for a fantasista and specifically the omission of Cassano. We shall not repeat what we said in our last Camp Focus, but we shall note in passing that the Stadio Olimpico of Turin – the friendliest arena that a Juventino like Lippi could find – was full of banners invoking Fantantonio. These do not mean much in and of themselves (there were also banners calling for Alessandro Del Piero and one for Kakha Kaladze, the man who scored the two own-goals in the match against Georgia!), but they give a measure of how solitary Lippi is in his ostracism to fantasia.
– Italy Camp Focus – And it came to pass… – June 23, 2009 – A reflection of the Azzurri at the Confederations Cup, plus links to Football Italiano’s full coverage of the competition
FIFA World Cup 2010 Qualifying – UEFA Group 8
September 6, 2008 – Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium, Larnaca
Cyprus 1-2 Italy – Aloneftis 28; Di Natale 8, 90
September 10, 2008 – Stadio Friuli, Udine
Italy 2-0 Georgia – De Rossi 17, 89
October 11, 2008 – Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia
Bulgaria 0-0 Italy
October 15, 2008 – Via del Mare, Lecce
Italy 2-1 Montenegro – Aquilani 8,29; Vučinić 19
March 28, 2009 – Pod Goricom, Podgorica
Montenegro 0-2 Italy – Pirlo 11, Pazzini 73
April 1, 2009 – Stadio San Nicola, Bari
Italy 1-1 Republic of Ireland – Iaquinta 10; Keane 87
September 5, 2009 – Boris Paichadze Stadium, Tbilisi
Georgia 0-2 Italy – Kaladze OG 57, OG 67
September 9, 2009 – Stadio Olimpico, Turin
Italy 2-0 Bulgaria – Grosso 12, Iaqunita 39
October 10, 2009 – Croke Park, Dublin
Republic of Ireland vs. Italy
October 14, 2009 – venue tbc
Italy vs. Cyprus
World Cup South Africa 2010 Final draw – December 4, 2009