Hard times seem to have befallen the football of the peninsula. Italian teams have been dropping from international competitions like flies, and the last outing of the Azzurri squad saw them outplayed, outran and ultimately defeated by a markedly more promising Brazil team. The time to reform and rebuild has come, and the game with Montenegro should be seen as a first step in that direction. Let us evaluate how well this first step was taken.
The tactical sector is patently the field where work needs to be done, since the talent and (to a less stable extent) the psychological cohesion is already there. Let’s start from the obvious. Where is Antonio Cassano? The offence has been the weakest department in Marcelo Lippi’s team from the outset – one could argue that it was the weakest link of the chain even in 2006. It is predictable, slow, utterly anonymous and in desperate need of new blood. Given these premises, Cassano represents exactly what this national team needs – a versatile, anarchic, highly talented fantasista in his prime, capable of building bridges between midfield and offence as well as adding that spark of unpredictability necessary to break through a lock-down situation. Even from the point of view of a gradual introduction of new players finalised to the building of a psychologically cohesive group – a method which this writer has been defending from the start – it is becoming late, almost exasperatingly late not to call Talentino. Since it is inconceivable that Lippi’s resistance towards him could be tactical, we must assume there to be an ulterior motif behind this attitude. We hope that such a motif is part of a healthy strategy rather than a result of external pressures, but the situation does lack transparency.
Since the best Italian will not don the Italian shirt (until, we may speculate with some malignancy, he dons that of Juventus or Inter first), let us reason with what we have. The call-ups include new names, some of them intriguing. The mobilisation of Salvatore Bocchetti and Marco Motta may be slightly premature, but the need for fresh youth to offer alternatives to Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta (with a view to beyond 2010, among other things) is so urgent that one can hardly argue against the decision. Given the Fabio Grosso / Andrea Dossena alternation on the left, all that is left is for Fabiano Santacroce (or an equivalent) to be given a chance as the second to Giorgio Chiellini and Italy will be able to boast two names for every position in defence, almost all of them very valid. The only perplexities are that raised by the substitute goalkeepers – fortunately the least urgent of positions. Morgan De Sanctis is the second goalkeeper for Galatasaray and Marco Amelia conceded four goals against Catania (one from the midfield!). Why not call Federico Marchetti of Cagliari – who is putting in some excellent performances and is also younger?
The new names in midfield and offence allow for much more interesting speculation. The game against Brazil highlighted the need for some tactical reformation, and from this point of view the real quandary is whether to keep the 4-3-3 or change to some variation of the 4-4-2 (other possibilities should be scratched as science fiction until we see Lippi using a three-man defence with our own eyes). Both possibilities contain the potential for reward and danger, though the crux of the matter with the 4-4-2 is the absence of wingers. The call-up of Pasquale Foggia, a genuine winger, may be read as a step in that direction, but it is hardly the most reassuring one – Foggia plays for Lazio, a team of such inconsistency that they can win by three and lose by five in the space of two weekends, yet he still fails to garner goals or assists. He is far from a wasted call-up, but he is just as distant from representing the solution to Italy’s problems. As for the 4-3-3, in theory it can work, but it requires one of the offensive players to be a fantasista of the highest class, and the only man in Italy capable of filling in that position is currently not getting called up.
The inclusion of Matteo Brighi to the roster adds another muscular, no-nonsense defensive midfielder to a squad that is far from short of them, and confirms how much value Lippi seems to place in this kind of player. Indeed, early impressions suggest he may take the field against Montenegro with defensive midfielder Angelo Palombo battling alongside Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi. The inclusion and nurturing of the Sampdoria destroyer is good news – the man represents a potentially very valid alternative to Gennaro Gattuso. The bad news is that Lippi is taking no steps to experiment with a different central combination than that of Pirlo and De Rossi. The two have consistently proved incapable of playing together, and the lack of chemistry between them stands, alongside the sterility of the attack, as the team’s greatest problem. Go to South Africa with those two as starters, and you can expect to come home empty handed.
If the trio Palombo, Pirlo, De Rossi is played, we can expect the team to be fielded in the usual 4-3-3. This is logical. Lippi is a conservatory coach and he will not reform the whole team overnight. Donadoni did that, and it led him nowhere. The look of the central trio is indicative of Lippi’s steadfast philosophy on how a 4-3-3 should be arranged – one creative midfielder to orchestrate play, flanked by two defensive pit-bulls. The concept is fine on paper, but there are some doubts as to whether these are the right players to execute it. As usual, these doubts come down to the Pirlo – De Rossi quandary. De Rossi is wasted on the flank and the trio lacks the vital element of speed. Simone Perrotta supplied that in 2006, and today it could be given by any of a number of young players – Aquilani, Brighi, Marchisio, if Pirlo were to be dropped and the orchestrating responsibilities be given to De Rossi.
All this is not to say that modest Montenegro will have an easy day – only that the match is bound to be a rather ugly, trudge-in-the-mud affair. Last time the conflict was resolved by two unsystematic goals conquered – call it a coincidence – by the speed of Aquilani (in a midfield without Pirlo, one may add). No thanks to the forwards of course, but this match may be decided by similar events. Montenegro play with five midfielders, something which allows them to quash Italy’s offensive drive (fed as it is by an outnumbered central department) even as it limits their own possibilities in the attack. Mirko Vucinic is a highly talented striker who already pierced the net in the first leg, but he will be working on his own against a squad which at the back is as hard and cogent as granite. He will need the support of Stevan Jovetic, but the unripe Fiorentina talent is too tactically indefinite to guarantee a breakthrough. The philosophy of Montenegro Coach Zoran Filipović seems to be that of throwing Jovetic into the middle of the pitch and hoping that his talent will at some stage produce a flash of genius to illuminate the night – an approach which may bear fruit if the kid is having a good game, but one which is hardly admirable for its cleverness either.
The Italy roster for the offence bears some differences with those of the immediate past, most notably in the inclusion of Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini. This is a good thing, since the young man is clearly not free of some skill, but one has to wonder whether Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni would have been dropped had they not been injured. Gilardino has a lot to give (if he is used properly), but Toni is as fast-paced as a paralytic turtle and about as unpredictable – his removal is long overdue. Also, what on earth are Antonio Di Natale and Simone Pepe still doing on that list? The latter may find some use as a sub if the plane carrying the 23 starters crashes into the mountains (the man showed some promise at the beginning of this season, but he certainly has not held it up), but Di Natale could only compete for a World Cup if mediocrity were turned into a sport. The two players are in fact so mediocre that picking them almost seems like a deliberate affront against Cassano. Their call is justified neither by their talent nor by their performances – of which are currently dreadful for Udinese.
It also raises questions as to what combination of players will actually be deployed. Hopefully Giuseppe Rossi, who represents the only truly, unconditionally convincing name on that list, will start on a flank instead of Di Natale, and Pazzini should take the centre to supply power and finishing. The third name could be anyone (Foggia, Pepe, even Quagliarella) – they will still find themselves in the ominous shadow of Cassano, a man born for that role. And if it seems like we are beating on a note we’ve already hit upon, then forgive us, but Lippi himself has been ignoring Cassano’s own symphonies on the pitch for so long that we can not help but provide the echo. Italy simply can not play in the 4-3-3 formation without a fantasista, and the only true fantasista available is Cassano. This is becoming so evident that other minor reformations (say, the call of Foggia) only serve to highlight the major issue. The current call-ups do represent a step forward, but one which is still far too timid. For a four-time World Cup champion, this is not enough.
Ideally, Italy could do with another shock (after that provided by Brazil) to conclusively bring to light their weaknesses – and start the process of solving them. Montenegro is not the team to provide that, even if they show the better game, they will likely be crushed by the sheer individual talent of the names in the Italy squad or by their own frailties. Ireland may have a better chance, seen how well they have been doing lately. It is not often that supporters of a team should root for their adversaries, but this is one of those times. Italy need a defeat. They need that more than they need the three points. If it does not come before the Confederations Cup, when the Azzurri shall be confronting Brazil again, that is already one trophy that can be kissed goodbye.