Which system can get the best out of Italy?

Cesare Prandelli’s use of the 3-5-2 was perhaps born out of fear, pressure and the tools at his disposal, but it’s revival on the international scene ensured Italy were the only side in Euro 2012 to deviate from the general tactical framework. After relative success in its two matches the system was shelved for Prandelli’s customary four man defence, one that looks set to stay as the quarter final with England approaches.

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A 3-5-2 based on the miserly Juventus backline appeared to be the way forward should the formation – which came into use after Italy’s 3-0 friendly defeat versus Russia – see the light of day. Despite Andrea Barzagli’s injury, Daniele De Rossi became the designated sweeper and Italy took the game to Spain. This was in part due to the system, Prandelli’s attacking style and Spain’s striker-less setup. Yet it almost worked to bring down the Spaniard’s and won Italy praise. They defended in numbers and counter-attacked with pace, their vertical football troubling Spain at the back.
Days later versus Croatia and with the same formation Italy showed another facet, being able to control the game. The Azzurri pegged Croatia inside their half during the opening 45 minutes, with the wingbacks offering support, the midfield trio busy and the front two pulling defenders out of shape. Croatia’s own tactical switch helped nullify Italy after the break, but only an error meant the equaliser. Beside that chance, the goal conceded against Spain and the time Fernando Torres was on the pitch, Italy have generally looked comfortable inside their own penalty area.
Prandelli reverted to type in the third match against the Republic of Ireland. The four man defence struggled initially in the must-win match and the performance was perhaps the worst overall out of the three, yet it gained the desired result. Italy looked nervous early on and the lack of time under the system seemed evident. Ireland took advantage of any space vacated by Federico Balzaretti and Ignazio Abate, while they could defend in numbers because Italy’s build-up play was too measured. When Italy were at their best – the 15 minutes either side of half time – Ireland could not gain possession as the Azzurri looked dangerous with their neat interplay and movement.
One issue regarding Prandelli’s favoured formation stems from the lack of a suitable playmaker in the squad. His midfield against Ireland saw Thiago Motta, De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio push ahead of Andrea Pirlo but with Motta furthest forward centrally, he is out of position. Alessandro Diamanti is a risk at this level and Riccardo Montolivo lacks a presence to take the match to the opposition.
Looking ahead to England and reports on Friday suggested Prandelli had chosen to stick with the four man defence. Losing Giorgio Chiellini is a huge blow to any potential 3-5-2 return. He is the most experienced left-footed central defender and his absence signifies either Barzgali or Leonardo Bonucci have to be played slightly out of position, or one of the inexperienced Angelo Ogbonna or Davide Astori take Chiellini’s place. Playing a back four is easier to organise defensively, with Bonucci and Barzagli the two central defenders and De Rossi retained in midfield.
As the Irish did at times, exploiting the space behind Italy’s attacking fullbacks will be crucial. Roy Hodgson can take advantage by utilising rapid wingers such as Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Italy must take the ascendency as they managed in the first half against Ireland, culminating in Antonio Cassano scoring. Which two of the main trio – including Mario Balotelli and Antonio Di Natale – start is up in the air, but Balotelli looks set to be one of the two.
England will look to keep shape defensively and lure Italy out before a quick break and as Bonucci mentioned, the English have “the attitude of an Italian team.” The Azzurri will have to utilise their greater technical ability to overwhelm Hodgson’s men and need to find a clinical edge in attack, which has also been lacking. Looking ahead, Prandelli has gone with what he knows best but will it fall into English hands, or can Italy take the ascendency and move forward to the semi finals?
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