Maggio, Abate and Cassani: The state of the full-back in Italy

Footballitaliano.co.uk wrote in February that the Italian full-back had declined. While that is true in the main, and there is an obvious difference in quality with full-backs of past Italian national teams and this one, there is still reason to believe that this generation’s full-backs have a significant impact on Italian football..
It is well known that Calcio has a history of producing world class full-backs. In the 60s and 70s there was Inter’s Giacinto Facchetti, a man with iron lungs, a weapon of devastating counter attacks down the flank who won two European Cups. Italy’s 1982 World Cup winning team also had one, Antonio Cabrini, another missile on the counter attack whose left footed crosses supplied the ammunition for a devastatingly in-form Paolo Rossi. In the last twenty years there have been others such as the legendary Paolo Maldini, while Gianluca Zambrotta went from being a decent winger to a world class full-back mid-way though the last decade.
There is not a world class full-back coming through, Christian Maggio is very good for Napoli but he has only excelled over the last season and is still to establish himself as a name outside Italy, while his positioning and composure can be suspect at times. It is likely that people will not remember him as being world class – as the man who took over from Zambrotta. However, like Maggio, there are a number of very capable ones around, and it can be argued that Serie A is in an era when teams rely on full-backs more than ever.
Maggio is the prime example. With Napoli playing narrow at the back with three central defenders, while Marek Hamsik tucks in-field on the right further up the pitch, the Italian international has the freedom of the right wing. He drops back towards his defence when the opposition have possession while he is always looking for the transition, when Napoli wins the ball back, to create an extra man on the counter attack. The ploy worked brilliantly in the game against Man City. Having stolen the ball on the halfway line from Gareth Barry, Maggio charged up the pitch and placed a perfectly weighted pass for Edinson Cavani to slot past City goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Napoli’s narrowness at the back gives the full-backs more responsibility to affect the play because they have the most space to work in. This is probably more effective in Serie A because most teams play with a narrow formation. Under Ranieri Inter have reverted to the 4-3-1-2 of last season which is also the same system in which champions Milan set up. This has also seen the emergence of another winger converted to full-back in Ignazio Abate. The ex Torino winger was one of the Rossoneri’s key performers last season and looks to be adding a solid defensive aspect to his overlapping play. With most teams fielded like this, play is often congested in the centre with eight players taking up central midfield positions giving the full backs a great deal of space.
Maggio and Abate are not the only players who have benefitted from having so much space to play in. Last season both Palermo full-backs Federico Balzaretti and Mattia Cassani established themselves within Cesare Prandelli’s Italy squad.
Palermo was also a team who relied on the fullbacks for width. Often playing a narrow 4-3-2-1 formation that accommodated two attacking midfielders in Javier Pastore, who has now left for Paris Saint Germain, and Josip Ilicic. It was then the job of both fullbacks to raid down the flanks in support. Both players easily fit into Prandelli’s team too, with his team also adopting a narrow 4-3-1-2 which again relies on both full-backs getting forward to create width.
The likes of Abate, Balzaretti, Cassani or Maggio are not listed in many people’s lists of the world’s best full-backs, but neither was Fabio Grosso before the World Cup of 2006.

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