Welcome back, commander. Following Roberto Donadoni’s farcical management of the Italian national team between summers 2006 and 2008, it was with a sense of relief that most Italians hailed the return of World Cup-winning Marcello Lippi as Azzurri Coach. Half a year later, it is time to start assessing his work – and the picture that emerges is one of a sturdy, concrete, yet somewhat sterile team.
Lippi inherited a squad with two main shortcomings, both laid bare by the Euro 2008 debacle. The first was a tactical crisis of identity. The second was a geriatric average age – Italy was the oldest team at the tournament, and the players would only get older come 2010. Familiar as he was with these issues (when Lippi took the reins of command from Giovanni Trapattoni in 2004, the situation was not entirely different), the veteran Coach pulled his sleeves back and got to work.
As in 2004, his approach to both problems has been very gradual. His first game against Austria fielded virtually the same team that had competed in Euro 2008. Today, some new regulars have come under the spotlight, but they are few and have had to suffer long waits. Other young guns to have been loudly clamoured for by the public – for instance Inter’s Mario Balotelli or Juventus’ Sebastian Giovinco – have yet to taste the Azzurri shirt and seem unlikely to do so in the near future. While this approach can be frustrating for those who expected a drastic injection of new blood (in the fashion of Spain or the Netherlands), it is also consistent with Lippi’s philosophy that teams should be built with the psychological factor coming first and the technical aspect a pretty distant second. A proper integration of new names is unlikely to be completed before next summer (or even next Christmas) – and it will always take place under the eyes of older, more mature players, who will ensure that the youngsters know their place.
The results are double-edged. On one side, Lippi’s new Italy has a fighting spirit and a tenacity that mirrors the old one. Since retaking his place at the helm of the team, Lippi has not lost a single game (added to the winning streak of the pre-Donadoni era, this makes him the most successful Italian coach in history and for that alone he deserves some credit). On the other hand, though, there is a feeling that such sluggish progress comes at the expense of missing some opportunities with the youngest players, who will thus be unable to contribute in time for the World Cup. Take the defence. Last summer Italy found itself – for the first time in decades – in a crisis involving a shortage of defenders. Today, this problem is far from fixed. Keeper Gianluigi Buffon and young central defender Giorgio Chiellini are rightful starters, since they are both phenomenal, but Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso have all looked well beyond their prime. They are still the starters, too.
With the exception of Grosso, who finds a satisfying alter-ego in Liverpool starlet Andrea Dossena, none of these players have an evident and/or tested substitute. What happens if Zambrotta goes down? And what central defenders could replace Chiellini? Nicola Legrottaglie and Alessandro Gamberini have done a good job so far with Juventus and Fiorentina respectively and they deserve their chance, but they are hardly ‘new blood’ (Legrottaglie is 32). As far as interesting prospects go, Domenico Criscito and Fabiano Santacroce have been pulling off some remarkable performances this season, so why have they been so utterly ignored? They are certainly more deserving of a call-up than Milan’s Daniele Bonera, who has featured on the last few lists.
Fortunately, Lippi has proved less conservative with the midfield – outside of Daniele De Rossi (an explosive youngster himself), there are almost no guaranteed starters for 2010 in the centre of the pitch. The old guard from Milan, Roma and Juventus are all still there, but they find themselves fighting for a starting spot alongside some thrilling children of thunder – namely Alberto Aquilani and Riccardo Montolivo – who barely add up to fifty years between the two of them. While the average age for the starting defence is still around 30 (above that if you don’t count Chiellini), the midfield could go to South Africa with a very healthy 27, or even – tentatively – a 25.
The combination of veterans and youngsters available provides Italy with tremendous versatility in the midfield, one which Lippi seems intent on fully exploiting to solve the team’s other big problem – the aporia of concrete tactical vision. On paper, Lippi’s team seems to adopt a 4-3-3. In reality, the two lateral offensive players tend to drop back to central and defensive positions while the central midfielder spearheads runs into the box, making it a pretty loyal adaptation of Roma coach Luciano Spalletti’s 4-2-3-1 – a fast, innovative formation which proved unstoppable when it was first introduced (albeit being recently ditched in the capital). Lippi’s iteration of the 4-2-3-1 hopes to retain the immediacy and unpredictability of its game while adding a further defensive layer of its own, held together – primarily – by the iron of the team’s psychological resolve.
The intent is ambitious, no doubt, and as such has not been free of difficulties. Most of these have concerned the attack. While the defence compensates what it lacks (for now) in depth with mental grit and the midfield is looking more plastically brilliant than it has in years, the tip of the sword is still distressingly blunt. The impressive streak of victories garnered by Lippi belies the fact that too many of these conquests were dreary, hard-won, trudge-in-the-mud affairs, decided more often by luck than by any display of skill – this against such European minnows as Bulgaria and Greece.
The 4-2-3-1 bases its anarchic attack on the fact that the three offensive players are expected to constantly switch roles and positions with each other. It therefore calls for some very versatile forwards. One of the side-effects of this is that it has erased the contributions that some of the more traditional role-players can bring to the table – Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino is an old style prima punta who is proving devastating in the league, but he has enormous difficulties netting with the Azzurri. Other poachers also seem wasted in the current formation.
At the same time, in his quest to find the right players for the right spots, Lippi has made some pretty mixed decisions. On the bright side, he has successfully integrated some young elements of great potential. Udinese’s Simone Pepe, albeit not the most technically gifted man in Serie A, is a ductile and energetic player with lots of pace. Like Vincenzo Iaquinta in 2006, he can make for an excellent sub. A much more luminous future can instead be gleaned for Giuseppe Rossi, the 20-year-old Villarreal player. The young forward is superbly talented and could very well become a star – it is to everyone’s benefit that Lippi should have called him up and started him on several occasions.
On the other hand, some of Lippi’s other choices have been questionable at the very least. Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale may be versatile, yes, but he is not exactly a world-class player and not exactly young (31), yet he is one of the most consistent starters so far. And what of Lippi’s infatuation with Bayern’s Luca Toni, the other great starter for the Azzurri? He was an implacable poacher once upon a time, but if he is given a blue shirt now he becomes incapable of scoring in three industrial fishing nets if they’re hung around him in a circle. And he, too, is pushing his thirties.
Yet none of these decisions are nearly as bewildering as Lippi’s ostracism against Sampdoria ace Antonio Cassano. Considering Francesco Totti’s retirement and Alessandro Del Piero’s tendency to under-perform with the national team, Cassano may very well be the best Italian forward available today – he is frightfully talented, a proven Azzurri performer and in the prime of his age. He is also very adaptable and would make a perfect fit for the 4-2-3-1. Yet Lippi has not called him up once, not even as a sub – a fact which is all the more puzzling if we consider that Lippi himself used to be a great admirer of Talentino. Nor has there been any public split or argument between the two. De gustibus non disputandum est – Cassano’s exclusion, ultimately, seems motivated purely by questions of taste.
There is a good chance that this is all part of Lippi’s psychological game to ensure that the generational change comes about gradually. The strategy would make sense, since Cassano is notoriously disruptive of dressing-room equilibriums. So, before casting our judgment, we will give Lippi the benefit of the doubt and see where players like Cassano and Toni find themselves another six months from now. Besides, by that time, much will have happened. Other nebulous and potentially decisive issues, such as the stories around a return of Totti or the eligibility of Amauri, are bound to have found resolution. Italy will have played a friendly against Brazil and will be set to kick off the Confederations Cup. No doubt the look of the Azzurri team will change a lot by then. If Lippi keeps this up, hopefully their results will not.