Recently, the tired old cliché about Italian defending has taken a battering. Unconvincing displays in the Azzurri’s last two major tournaments has set alarm bells ringing around the peninsula. The rock-solid foundation in which all great Italian teams have been built, has recently been reduced to rubble as a creaking backline has leaked goals at an alarming rate. But a new generation has arrived, and Coach Marcello Lippi must now unwrap the cotton wool from the kids of Italy’s future. Football Italiano now makes a case for the defence.
Since lifting the World Cup in 2006, the Azzurri have shipped 38 goals in 36 matches – statistics that will not please Lippi and his fellow countrymen. So where has it all gone wrong for la Nazionale? Two things immediately spring to mind, firstly, the age of the back four, who have been marshalled for 10 years by the wonderful Fabio Cannavaro. It appears no coincidence that the demise of the backline has coincided with Cannavaro’s ageing bones not allowing him to turn in the consistent performances of the previous decade. His crowning moment was on that unforgettable night in Berlin three years ago. Alongside him in the final against the French stood Marco Materrazzi, who was approaching 33-years-of-age. The Azzurri had already lost Alessandro Nesta (then 30-years-old) earlier in the tournament and it was quite clear that the heart of the defence was taking its final bow. As a country celebrated, three centre-halves with a combined age of 94 years had reached the end. The second major factor was the quality of replacements arriving onto the international scene. Whilst Gianluca Zambrotta’s consistent performances at right-back were to be commended and Fabio Grosso was occasionally showing flashes of why he was at the time one of the world’s best left-backs, the central areas were causing concern, initially for Roberto Donadoni, and then for the returning Lippi. Names such as Nicola Legrottaglie, Andrea Barzagli, Alessandro Gamberini and Giorgio Chiellini had fallen well short of the quality required at international level and Lippi needed to readdress the problem as quickly as possible.
The Lippi system always starts with a back four that allows the full-backs licence to attack down the wings. Having two holding midfield players allows this freedom and fortunately at this time Italy can boast a plethora of talent in this department. Zambrotta has been a wonderful exponent playing within this system but now at 32-years-old, his best days are unfortunately behind him. In the Azzurri’s last outing against Brazil at the Confederations Cup, Zambrotta’s sad decline was cruelly exposed by the eventual tournament winners. The other full-back receiving a torrid time in that same match was Andrea Dossena. Hopelessly out of his depth at the top level, he also put through his own net on the stroke of half-time to round off the worst 45 minutes of his career. One option for Lippi is to move Chiellini to left-back where he has certainly excelled for his club side Juventus and looks far more comfortable. The full-back positions represent an area where Lippi remains unsure of his best combinations. Grosso, when on form, is an obvious candidate at left-back. His excellent forward play can cause opponents danger whenever he crosses the halfway line while his good engine ensures he is able to retreat just as quickly to combat any opposition counter-attacks. At right-back the emerging talent of Davide Santon is manna from heaven for Lippi. A player thrown into the Serie A big time at the turn of the year by his club Coach Jose Mourinho, he has been nothing short of a revelation for Inter. Comparisons with legends such as Giacinto Facchetti and Paolo Maldini are a fitting yet perhaps premature tribute to this unassuming young man, although his reading of the game for an 18-year-old is simply outstanding. He is strong in the tackle, has supreme confidence on the ball and can distribute with pinpoint precision – a superstar in the making. Marco Motta, like Santon, has the potential to be an Azzurri great. Confident at left or right-back, Motta has an incredible turn of pace which allows him to get down the wings and deliver defence-splitting crosses. A fixture of the Azzurrini for the past four years, Motta looks ready to make the step up for full international honours. His permanent signing by Luciano Spalletti at Roma should act as the catalyst to propel him onto the world stage.
As we prepare to bid farewell to Cannavaro at international level, a generous amount of promising young centre-halves have arrived on the scene with perfect timing. Firstly there is Genoa’s Salvatore Bocchetti. One of the revelations of Serie A last season, Bocchetti followed up his impressive Serie A form with some outstanding displays in the European Under-21 championships in Sweden. Just 5’10” tall, he is not the biggest central defender you will ever see, but comparisons to Cannavaro have already been made. Bocchetti, like the Azzurri captain is a Neapolitan and also appears to have a wonderful international career ahead of him. Meanwhile, Bocchetti’s partner in the Under-21 squad, Marco Andreolli could complete the new-look centre-half partnership for the Azzurri. Standing at 6’1”, Andreolli is the perfect foil for Bocchetti, and he also excelled during the summer in Sweden. The one question mark against Andreolli however is his lack of top flight games. Roma’s decision to loan him out to both Vicenza and Sassuolo in Serie B over the past two seasons, could force Lippi to look for a centre-half with more experience. Step forward Fabiano Santacroce. The Brazilian-born youngster from Napoli could well fit the bill. With over 40 first team appearances for the Neapolitan outfit last season, Santacroce has shown great promise, so much so in fact that Lippi drafted him into his squads for the World Cup qualifiers against both Bulgaria and Montenegro. Many people may say a good blend of youth and experience in any good side is necessary, but there is the old adage that if you are good enough you are old enough and this latest crop of potentially world class defenders certainly look good enough.
The emergence of the players mentioned above has ensured Lippi, should qualification to next summer’s World Cup finals be secured, has a rather nice problem facing him. Will he opt for a complete change of personnel, a totally fresh look on which players to place his faith ib, or will players such as Legrottaglie, Gamberini and Chiellini get one more chance to prove they can perform consistently on the international stage? Lippi at this current time has been savagely rounded upon by the Italian median with that glorious night in Berlin becoming a fast-fading memory for many Italians, seemingly deluded by the recent demise of the current world champions. The summer of 2009 will be looked back upon as a watershed for Italian football. In a country that turned defending into a glorious art form, the time for change has arrived. Lippi’s remit over the coming 12 months must be to restore faith and trust in the national team. With Serie A falling behind its two biggest adversaries, the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, the international stage is the perfect place to prove to rest of the world that rumours of Italian football’s demise are somewhat premature. Football moves on and with it comes new systems and strategies on how to play the game, new problems to solve and new goals to achieve. Who would ever bet against one of the world’s most astute Tacticians, with all this new and exciting defensive talent at his disposal, retaining football’s biggest prize in Johannesburg in a year’s time?