Italy’s problem with creativity must be overcome

June 10, 2010

A possible Italy line-up for the opening game

No-one is talking about Italy ahead of this tournament, despite them being the holders, despite them breezing through qualification, despite them having received the most favourable draw of any side.

The pessimism stems from the lack of quality, both in their playing squad as a whole, and from the performances over the past four years. Star names like Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Rino Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo are still around and capable of big performances, but all are nowhere near the players they were four years ago.

For Italy to have a good tournament, they need others to step up. The key players are the likes of Daniele de Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alberto Gilardino – top class Serie A players for many years, and ones who must now perform on the world stage for the Azzurri.

Marcello Lippi, the 2006 winner, has returned as manager after Roberto Donadoni’s poor Euro 2008. He has been criticized for having too much faith in his favourites, and a reluctance to bring in some promising younger players. That said, recently he has brought in fresh blood to freshen up the squad – he now needs to place one or two of them into the first team.

Shape of the team

In terms of formation, Lippi is completely unpredictable. He has tried various shapes – 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 3-4-1-2 and 4-3-2-1 – and has promised tactical flexibility throughout the tournament. That’s to be expected – Italy won the World Cup in 2006 by playing different systems in different games, and will face three very different styles of football in the group stage.

The most likely formation seems to be a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 shape, that would have featured Andrea Pirlo playing further forward than he’s done for the past eight seasons, returning to something approaching a trequartista role. Pirlo looks unlikely to be fit for the opening two games, and so his place may go to Riccardo Montolivo, a hugely talented playmaker who captains Fiorentina, and who deserves an opportunity for the national side.

The two deeper midfielders will probably be de Rossi and Angelo Palombo, the Sampdoria midfield general who is unquestionably in better form than Gatusso (who admittedly remains one of Lippi’s favourites).

Defence

At the back, the Juventus trio of Gianluigi Buffon in goal with Chiellini and Cannavaro ahead should have little problems in the opening three games, although Cannavaro has looked very shaky at points over the past year, particularly when playing against pace – expect Italy to play a deep defensive line to compensate.

A switch to three at the back could make sense against sides playing two out-and-out strikers, which would mean turning to either Leonardo Bonucci or Salvatore Bocchetti, who have just seven caps between them. The full-backs would push on to become wing-backs with little problem.

If Italy play a tridente, they will probably be spread across the pitch with two wide forwards, rather than a trequartista behind two strikers, as is traditional

One full-back will be Gianluca Zambrotta, and his position will be decided according to whether Lippi prefers Domenico Criscito, a left-back, or Christian Maggio, a right-back. Both have played further forward in wide midfield positions for the majority of the past year at club level, and offer a great attacking threat.

Forwards

Which full-back plays might depend on the forward three, because Lippi often fields a striker in one of the wide roles. It’s often Vincenzo Iaquinta on the right – he is more of a central striker but works hard on the wing and provides a direct goal threat, especially in the air. On the opposite side will be Antonio di Natale, a player more comfortable in a wide position, and coming off a brilliant season where he finished Serie A top goalscorer in a poor Udinese side.

The central striker should be Alberto Gilardino, a marvellous player who offers excellent movement, particularly with darting runs towards the near post, and has recently become the natural heir to Pippo Inzaghi by being involved in running battles with the linesman. Giampaolo Pazzini is an alternative, playing more of a targetman role.

In theory, this Italian side works better than it actually has done on the pitch, however, and the friendly performances haven’t been particularly encouraging. Fabio Quagliarella’s goal against Switzerland may help his cause – he is more suited to the wide-right position than Iaquinta. A tridente of di Natale-Gilardino-Quagliarella looks best on paper, with two genuine wide forwards either side of a poacher with good movement, but this has never been tried by Lippi.

Two players who deserve a starting spot – Riccardo Montolivo and Fabio Quagliarella – linked up for Italy’s (slightly strange) goal against Switzerland last week

What Italy really lack is a trequartista, being without Francesco Totti for the first time since the World Cup of 1998. None of the forwards are deep-lying ones who could play that role, and so it might be up to Pirlo and/or Montolivo to play further forward – otherwise Italy could struggle for creativity in the final third.

Alternatively, Lippi will use different forwards to perform different roles. In the World Cup four years ago he took six forwards – Totti, Gilardino, Iaquinta, Luca Toni, Alessandro del Piero and Pippo Inzaghi – and incredibly, all of them scored at one point or another, as all were needed at separate times. That might be the case again, but then Lippi has less of a variety in attacking roles this time. Simone Pepe of Udinese could offer natural width as substitute.

Conclusion

Italy should be able to waltz through the group stage. In the quarter-finals, they’ll probably come up against Spain, a side they managed to stifle two years ago at the same stage. A good defensive display can be expected despite Cannavaro’s advancing years.

Creativity is the main worry with no Totti and no Pirlo (for the opening games), and how Lippi gets around that problem might hold the key to their performance. With a tactician like Lippi they could be more successful than people expect, although he has fewer options than four years ago.

Italy’s problem with creativity must be overcome

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