Step Up 2 – Lippi’s great tactical quandry after Brazil

Football Italiano will discuss the finer details of the Italy-Brazil match from last Tuesday in David Swan’s Azzurri Analysis, but before then, this article wishes to add some considerations on the tactical future of the Italian squad after this game.

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For starters, it is clear that some players have to be dropped. Not necessarily right now, but in due time Antonio Di Natale, Simone Perrotta and Luca Toni (to name but a few) will have to be sifted out of the Azzurri, leaving space for other names – hopefully starting from Antonio Cassano. To be fair, this process was already taking place (Lippi has been favouring a gradual introduction of new names for the whole first six months), but the Tuesday shock should accelerate it in all the best ways.

The (generational) turn-over of players is, for the most part, tactically inconsequential. Most of the names which deserve to be replaced have a ready substitute – Antonio Di Natale can be replaced with Giuseppe Rossi, Simone Perrotta finds a wonderful alter-ego in the much younger Matteo Brighi (not to mention Claudio Marchisio, though the latter has a slightly different role), and so on. The match has exposed some other squad weaknesses, but mostly they can be solved (for instance, Brazil was wreaking havoc down the wings. While Gianluca Zambrotta can hardly be blamed for this, since there are very few – if any – fullbacks who can contain a football phenomenon like Robinho, Fabio Grosso on the other hand was revealing dreadful defensive limitations. The man shows some need a replacement, and dulcis in fundo, one has already been found – check out our article on the rising star of Santon:

  • Santon to think about
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    There is one bifurcation, however, which has been fully exposed by the Italy-Brazil game and the resolution of which will be crucial to the future of the Azzurri. Simply put, it is time to face up to the reality that Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi cannot work together, at least not in this tactical set-up. The problem was obvious (and has been commented upon) since coach Roberto Donadoni’s era. De Rossi is a defensive midfielder endowed with the power and versatility to fulfil other roles. Pirlo is a first-base director who acts as a point of passage for a team to choose its offensive slant – balls come to him, and by his judgment are sent off to the left, centre or right, in long- or short-range passes, according to where the adversary seems most vulnerable.

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    Where’s the catch? In positioning. In order to best fulfil their roles, both of these players need to be very central, with the rest of the team orbiting around them. When played together in that position, they simply step on each other’s toes. The rest of the team suffers disorientation too, uncertain as to which director to follow. The obvious solution, one already tested by Donadoni, is to take one of the two players and change his position. Unfortunately, while this tends to restore the effectiveness of whomever retains the centre, it drastically debilitates his colleague. If Pirlo is played on the sides, his age limitations begin to show – he lacks the speed and dynamism for runs down the flank or incursions down the centre, and he has trouble keeping up with the demands for assistance by his fullback. If De Rossi is played on a flank, this effectively halves his defensive capacity, leaving enormous holes on whichever side he is not assigned to (holes which any intelligent opponent will be quick to exploit, ensuring that De Rossi’s contributions become practically immaterial as all the offensives are channelled far away from him).

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    Lippi has been trying to solve the PDR problem (‘Pirlo – De Rossi’) for a while, and several commentators – including this writer – were confident he could succeed. Last Tuesday proved to us that he has not. The interaction between the two players was awful. The intention seemed to be for them to alternate their position in the centre, but the result was simply a jammed mechanism. When De Rossi was away from his ideal positions, he met enormous trouble offering his usual offensive contributions (one shot over the whole game, no assists, almost no runs). Nor did he offer an adequate playing partner to Pirlo. The latter, for his own part, was occasionally asked to step outside his usual positions, and the results were terrible. Most of the Brazilian midfielders danced around him effortlessly, and on a time when he took the ball just outside his own box (a position typically dominated by De Rossi) he lost it foolishly to Robinho, who went on to score the second goal. Finally, when both players acted in the centre, it saw two footballers being wasted on the same role and the rest of the team so lost as to what to do that the entire strategy reduced itself to throwing long balls. (It did not help that Riccardo Montolivo, who has been long awaited, seemed pretty much lost on the football pitch as well).

    Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi cannot play together, and if they do, it comes to the expense of the entire Azzurri team. It is a hard truth to swallow, since they are the two best midfielders in the team, but one the English public is familiar with (does the Gerrard and Lampard case ring a bell?). It must be faced right now, and there are of course only two ways to solve this.

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    First solution. Change the tactical set-up. The 4-2-3-1 is a delicate formation to work with in the first place, requiring some very specific role-players working in alternation with some extremely versatile ones. Italy does not necessarily possess those players. The two defensive midfielders certainly do not fit the required partnership. So find a new formation where Pirlo and De Rossi can both work in the centre without the team falling apart because of this (alternatively, which amounts to the same thing, find a formation which valorises the contributions that Pirlo and De Rossi can offer when in unorthodox positions – on the wings, outside the rival’s box, in defence). Of course, such a change in tactics means that some radical reformations would have to take place on the rest of the squad. A search for true wingers (currently the most lacking category among the Azzurri) might have to begin, and the dynamics of the offensive players will have to be completely reshuffled. This may be for the good – the offence is still the weakest department of the Italy squad, and this could clear the way for Antonio Cassano as well as ending the waste of specific role-players (like Alberto Gilardino, or even Alessandro Del Piero) who find themselves unexploited in the current formation.

    Second solution. Much more simple – drop one between Pirlo and De Rossi. It would be a brave decision, but not necessarily unwise, provided that a new and more effective combination can be found (Spain benched Fabregas and did not call up Raul in 2008, and they won the Euros). If only one had to go, it would almost certainly be Pirlo. De Rossi is younger, he possesses several of Pirlo’s qualities and offers many more of his own. Pirlo, while still a great player in his own right, has been showing severe dips in his form in the last few seasons, and it is hard to see how an extra year on his shoulders would take him closer rather than farther from his dazzling 2006 form. It would be a hard decision to make, as we said. But if that were what it came to, then De Rossi would have to stay. He simply brings much more to the table.

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    Then again, all of these speculations may need more time than expected to come to fruition. Lippi is a conservatory at heart, and he could end up sticking with the formation and relying on nothing more than the generational change to improve his squad. This is not entirely senseless – it does have to be said that you do not ditch an entire formation overnight on account of one lost game. But that game revealed some weaknesses. Some of them, like the ineffectiveness of Antonio Di Natale, are simply a disturbance on the surface. But one, the incongruity between De Rossi and Pirlo, is a serious structural crack. It needs to be addressed now, or if not now, then at least before the Confederations Cup in the summer – the longer it is left to sit, the harder it will become to deal with, and it could well bring down the whole team. Lippi is a smarter man than most and he may just as well manage to solve the problem by some third method, thus presenting himself in 2010 with a solid, winning team capable of bringing home the cup again. If such a third method exists, though, one which keeps both men and retains the tactical set-up, then this writer freely admits to not having the faintest idea of what it could be.

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