A savour-less result is better than a bitter one, so there is no use in being disappointed. Marcello Lippi said that he was satisfied at the end of the match, which is obvious – as long as supporters are seeing their team in shades of grey, a Coach is guaranteed to see everything in rosy hues. There are good and bad things to take away from this match, but conclusive statements are still quite a way to go.
The first thing that must be noted is how disappointing the Dutch were. Other than Eljero Elia, who tore the Azzurri to shreds whenever he descended down the left, their movement on the offence was evanescent and timid. Gianluigi Buffon could have spent most of the match playing chess with the photographers, really. As for the Dutch defence, the poverty of their performance was not surprising, but astonishing. Some of the spaces which they failed to cover seemed taken out of an illustration from the most elementary of football manuals. It is true that the Italians, having stepped onto the field with yet another new formation, gave little in the way of reference, but still. If this is how the Oranje intend to play at the World Cup, then they might as well not buy the plane ticket.
In last week’s article, we called the Dutch team ‘very powerful’ and one of the three or four favourite teams for the World Cup. We were obviously mistaken. There are a number of possible explanations behind their disappointing game – it was no more than a friendly, the tactics were ‘experimental,’ they were playing away, and so on. But the defensive frailties which they revealed, especially those on a tactical level, transcended these pretexts. Their set-up does not bode well for a Coach who intends to keep a team undefeated over the course of a seven-game tournament. If the Dutch wish to add a World Cup to their trophy cabinet, then they shall have to tighten their coverage skills at once.
Onto the Italians, two aspects of the performance are immediately outstanding. Firstly, the midfield was brilliant. They were balanced, disciplined and brave. The reasons for this are difficult to read – in the last two games against Ireland and Cyprus, the central department of the team appeared disorganized and spiritless. It may simply be due to the fact that Andrea Pirlo was playing without the partnership of Daniele De Rossi, since the combination of these two players has already proved dysfunctional in the past. And of course the individual performances left their imprint – Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi were both in excellent shape, and Antonio Candreva was surprisingly impressive when it came to building bridges between the midfield and the offence. Lippi may have been right about the latter player when he praised the boy’s tactical flexibility. He deserves another run, and who knows that he may not turn out to be the surprise call-up for 2010.
It will take a few more games before we understand why (it may all have been due to the risible man-marking of the Dutch), but it is undeniable that the midfield looked very strong. Some of the geometries drawn when coming forward were so pretty that we may even call this Lippi’s best Italy since his second appointment – matched, perhaps, only by the one he fielded against Bulgaria.
The second point to consider is decidedly less positive, and it is the sterility of the attack – a spring of trouble that Italy have been faced with for as long as we can remember. There were some flashes of tactical merit in the opportunistic passes by Alberto Gilardino and in the effort of his team-mates, but overall the work done was underwhelming, especially in light of the support that was offered by the midfield. Italy should have scored. They had the spaces and the opportunities, and they should have scored (without the aid of Giampaolo Pazzini’s extended arm, we mean). Heavens help the Azzurri if they go under in the scoreboards against a team doted with a more effective defence – or if they do not improve their own offence by the time that moment comes.
Raffaele Palladino, a player who could have been of great use in the context of our drought of wingers, failed to grasp his opportunity. His performance was lacklustre, and with better options on the offence, it seems unlikely we will see him in South Africa. Speaking of better options – what an impressive display by Giuseppe Rossi. Still the most talented among the strikers fielded to date, still the greatest hope for the Italian offence in the present state of the call-ups. He was fast, humble and willing, and he seems to have lost for good that aura of selfishness which marked his first few matches under Lippi. His stature gives him some trouble in the aerial game, but it is also the condition for his swift changes in pace and direction. The real trouble with Rossi is consistency, since his form at Villareal is not exactly sparkling. Will he be fit come the summer? Let the prayers commence.
Of course, we cannot speak about the attack without a passing mention of Antonio Cassano. For a stadium too small to accommodate 30,000 people, the number of banners calling for the man was extraordinary (this writer counted six different ones, and those were only the ones picked by the cameras). Before ten minutes of the game had expired, a supporter ran into the pitch with a blue shirt bearing the following text – Cassano in Nazionale. The words are explicit, and the gesture, given the modesty of the location, even more so. Who knows if any of this will ever bear fruit.
With that aside, and all things considered, it was a pretty perplexing match. Confrontations between Italy and Holland normally offer a wealth of material for analysis, but this one seems to have rippled the waters more than it cleared them. Mighty Holland played badly, saved from defeat only by the Italian inconclusiveness, and no-one knows why. Italy’s midfield went from dire to galvanising in the space of one match, albeit one separated by a time-span of a couple of months. And the Azzurri team as a whole still lacks a true tactical identity, having gone back to the 4-2-3-1 for this game, yet this seemed to work. Baffling, really. There were good and bad things to be taken from this match, but a conclusion, that just wasn’t there.