Could it be that the Italy team – current owners of the world’s most prestigious footballing trophy – can be thought of as one of the worst teams to ever play with the tag “current World Cup holders?” The past week will not have helped anyone looking to discredit such a bold question.
Lets start with the Italy-Egypt game. What happened? One of the sides started the encounter incredibly reluctant to attack, even inviting pressure, before managing to nick a goal from a set-piece to then sit on until the end of the game. It secured victory and praise as a solid team performance and left the opposition frustrated and tired. Classic Italian play. Except it was the Egyptians who dispensed the tactical lesson with the world champions Italy dismally abject in defeat. Not the Azzurri’s finest hour, not the 4-3-3’s best game and not a front man who played that night in blue can hold their head high.
The longer the current status of a rigid formation choice coupled with poor squad selection continues, the more distant and less believable the (positive) events of 2006 become. Did a majority of these players and that Coach win the World Cup in Germany? Is the team that played on Thursday night still the holders of said trophy? With every passing game and subsequent poor performance, it gets harder and harder to convince anyone at all that this side will go to South Africa and do their country proud. Italy could return to the continent in a year’s time as holders and only fifth or sixth favourite to retain the trophy they won last time out.
The most disheartening element to Thursday night’s loss at the hands of a weaker side was the lack of fluidity and creativity going forward. The back four and midfield trio were both extremely competent in possession and once again enjoyed more than a fair share of it against their opponents (justification for the 4-3-3 revolves around this fact). But every time the ball went forward, it was to a single Italian player, either out on one of the wings or swamped by three Egyptian defenders with nowhere to go. The disciplined positional play of the Italians saw to it that support from Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gennaro Gattuso would not be forthcoming (except in the form of long balls and distant gestures), but regardless, the front three were clueless. Had the Coach not explained to Vincenzo Iaquinta of his duty to support the diminutive Giuseppe Rossi in attack? Was Fabio Quagliarella afraid of getting his brown shorts dirty or just not aware of his role as right-sided winger? Rossi saved face with some rasping efforts to at least ensure the crowd maintained interest in an otherwise tepid first-half devoid of entertainment until Mohamed Homos’ goal on 40. But even the Villarreal man could have no complaints when he saw the No 17 appear on the fourth official’s board to come off.
Long-term, Lippi has a choice to make – either be a man and admit the formation isn’t fully functioning and work on re-introducing the forward players to the rest of the team, or be a man and put personal differences aside and give Antonio Cassano a chance to prove that his version of the 4-3-3 can work. Short-term of course this tournament won’t see Cassano (or any other fantasista), but the door is still open for a reworking of the 4-3-3 if total abandonment is out of the question.
The formation imposed by Roberto Donadoni and bizarrely kept by Lippi, in theory, should suit the Italians down to the ground. Four at the back is a given, with the full-backs of Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta given licence to roam forward almost at will. A midfield trio of Gattuso, Pirlo and De Rossi is a solid mix of grit, determination, technical ability and creativity – all you could wish for from three central midfielders wearing the national shirt. A front three of a right-winger, runner and striker caps a formation practically invented for the Italians. The prima-punta, seconda-punta and fantastita are roles created for and perfected by Italians through the history of the game, but not executed at all well by the current Confederations crop.
Changing the formation to a 4-4-2 could work going forward, but it then upsets the midfield applecart, with Pirlo now seemingly nominated to go out on the left-wing. Remaining with the infamous 4-3-3 and altering how the forward line works is a compromise even Lippi should be willing to accept – he avoids embarrassment with his formation still on the field and the applecart remains untouched, only the donkey(s) leading it changed.
Looking to the Brazil game, Italy may not win, they may not qualify for the semi-finals (which to all intents and purposes was a ridiculous notion going into the tournament as world champions), but for Lippi and the squad available to him, Sunday night’s game is now all about damage limitation. So many questions were raised before this tournament about team formation, squad selection and Cassano – South Africa 2009 was a chance for Lippi and his staff to put to bed some of those, not intensify debate 12 months before the defence of the world title comes around.
A positive display against Brazil, coupled hopefully with a positive result and therefore progression to the semis is not a world away from this group of players. The Coach needs to pick the best 11 available and find a formation that suits that. It is practically obvious, and the approach most Coaches would have when their team’s place in a competition is threatened. The 4-3-3 works inasmuch as the defence and midfield roles are filled by seven players born to play there, and they will be the base for the 2010 defence to build from. But, focusing on the task in hand, the current front-three-unit needs drastic rearranging if Messrs Gilardino, Iaquinta, Camoranesi, Toni, Rossi, Pepe and Quagliarella are to enjoy any success against Brazil. On paper, playing three up top against the Copa America holders is extremely aggressive, but also currently on paper are the names of some very provincial players in the Azzurri squad struggling to justify their place in the side. The players available simply cannot cope with the pressure the current skin-tight form of the 4-3-3 system puts on them. Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Iaquinta all rely on several sources of creativity to provide them with goal-scoring chances at club level, whilst Rossi thrives on playing alongside a target man in a two-man attack in La Liga. Mauro Camoranesi, Quagliarella and Simone Pepe are not up to the task of being the sole basis of every Italy attack – the former is so out of form he’s in Argentina whilst the other two lack the experience of playing in teams that demand such a high level of efficiency in possession.
Italy needs a win and at least in their favour they will be up against a relaxed Brazil side there to be caught on the back foot. Forget the formation debate and squad quality, the Confederations Cup is now about sending a message out that this team has fight in it. The Brazil game does need an aggressive approach the 4-3-3 usually indicates in non-Italian sides and the attacking players available – although not Italy’s finest – still provide any half-decent Coach with options. Either go for dynamic wing-play and have Pepe and Quagliarella bombing down the flanks countering Dani Alves and Kleber and providing distribution from two sources for any from Iaquinta, Toni or Gilardino, or stick two up-top as out-and-out strikers leaving Rossi floating off them for any opportune shots and passes.
Sticking with the current 4-3-3 set-up is going to leave the international careers of all the forward players in the squad with major question marks hanging over them – Italy will not beat a physically tough (although not entirely susceptible) Brazilian defence with clearly-defined attacking roles imposed on this band of footballing lightweights. Whilst playing the South Americans will highlight the defensive strengths still inherent in the formation, the Azzurri will struggle moreso against Brazil than the previous two opponents to create anything moving past the halfway line. A bit of flexibility in the roles and movement for any of the attacking players could see the Azzurri’s game come to life.
The 4-3-3 may have doomed Italy to an early exit from a ‘dress rehearsal’ tournament but it could, with a bit of loosening, be the side’s saving grace come Sunday. Stick with the current rigidity and Italy is out and can look to a year’s scrutiny game by game with the tag of ‘worst world champions in living memory’ edging ever nearer.
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
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 vs. Brazil
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