Italy 1-1 Paraguay: Italy dominate possession but struggle to create

June 15, 2010

Italy dominated the game but rarely provided a real goal threat, whilst Paraguay sat back, defended and were happy to rely on set-pieces. Marcello Lippi’s switch to 4-4-2 on the hour mark resulted in Italy looking a far better side.

Italy started out in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Claudio Marchisio playing the attacking midfield role ahead of Ricardo Montolivo and Daniele de Rossi. Simone Pepe was a slight surprise on the right, so Vincenzo Iaquinta switched to the left. Domenico Criscito came in at left-back, so Gianluca Zambrotta started on the right.

Like Italy, Paraguay have experimented with various systems in the build-up to the tournament, but went for a fairly basic 4-4-2, with the Borussia Dortmund pairing of Nelson Valdez and Lucas Barrios upfront.

High defensive line from Italy

The most surprising thing about the two sides’ tactics was how high up the pitch Italy’s defence played. With Fabio Cannavaro’s lack of pace a major talking point ahead of the tournament, many expected Italy to drop deep and defend on the edge of their own penalty area, but Cannavaro was happy enough to defend high up, and overall had a very good game, looking to nip ahead of the strikers when they received the ball to feet, rather than let himself be turned and outdone for pace.

Paraguay didn’t look to exploit this high line, however. Both strikers tended to drop into deeper positions and look for a ball along the floor, whereas a pass over the top might have tested Italy more. Valdez did a better job than Barrios when receiving these balls, buying free-kicks, and one of them led to the first goal, where Antolin Alcaraz powered home.

A lack of inspiration from Italy

Both sides were pressing well in midfield, and hence both struggled to get the ball into dangerous positions to create chances. Italy were doing well in central midfield, with Riccardo Montolivo playing intelligent passes, and both the full-backs were getting down the line and becoming involved in play. The problem was, as we all suspected, creativity.

Marchisio was barely in the game. Despite playing as the central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 against a 4-4-2, he struggled to find space between the lines and generally picked up the ball too far from goal. He rarely, if ever, linked with Alberto Gilardino and played simple, sideways balls – surely that was the domain of Montolivo? Mesut Ozil showed how to play that role yesterday by being the game’s central figure, but the game passed Marchisio by and it was no surprise when Lippi looked to replace him later on.

Gilardino’s movement was as good as ever, but with Iaquinta not the most mobile player and Pepe hugging the touchline, there was no-one there to exploit the space he created. Pepe showed some good skill on the ball and looked to be Italy’s best attacking outlet, but his final ball was often poor

Switch to 4-4-2 changes the game

The game took the same pattern for the first 15 minutes of the second half, and then Lippi had seen enough and withdrew Marchisio, putting Camoranesi on in his place. This meant Italy shifted to a 4-4-2 and suddenly, they looked a much better side. Montolivo grew in stature as he was able to play higher up the pitch with Marchisio no longer occupying his space, whilst de Rossi became an all-round dominant midfielder rather than one playing a reserved role in front of the defence. In Camoranesi and Pepe they had two genuine wide players who stretched the play, and the use of two strikers meant that Paraguay no longer had a spare man at the back.

The goal came from an inswinging corner which Justo Villar made a complete mess of, but overall Italy upped their game with their new shape, to the point where it’s difficult to explain in logical terms why it was such an improvement. Their passing was quicker and the movement of individual players was more intelligent, and yet this was when they no longer had a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield. The new shape simply suited their individual attacking players better. Credit Lippi for making the switch, or criticize him for starting with a shape that plainly wasn’t working?

Gerardo Martino moved to a 5-3-2 for the final 15 minutes of the game, presumably an attempt to regain their spare man in the centre of defence. In theory this should have opened up the game for Italy’s full-backs to attack, but by this time they were both tired and with Pepe and Camoranesi occupying the flanks, had less space to exploit. They rarely looked like grabbing a winner.


In a tactical sense, Italy’s two formations were of more interest than the tactical battle as a whole. Paraguay defended well in two banks of four and kept it tight between the lines, but they were clearly looking for a point. Nothing wrong with that, and Denmark and the US have both had a similar mentality and done interesting things tactically, but there was relatively little to remark upon from Paraguay here.

Lippi faces some big decisions ahead of the next game against New Zealand, decisions which will be more complicated should Andrea Pirlo return from injury. He’s often been used in Marchisio’s trequartista position in recent months and would surely replace the Juventus man rather than Montolivo, who drifted in and out but largely did well.

The fact that Italy looked so much better in a 4-4-2 than a 4-2-3-1 would suggest that this is the way to go for the next game, but then that might play into the hands of New Zealand’s three-man defence. Expect the unexpected from Lippi.

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