Italy 1-1 New Zealand: Why did Lippi start with a 4-4-2?

June 20, 2010

The starting line-ups

A heroic defensive performance from New Zealand, who now have two more points than most people expected, but Italy’s tactics made it easy for them.

Italy had a change in goal because of Gigi Buffon’s injury, but otherwise Marcello Lippi kept faith with the same ten outfield players that started the 1-1 draw against Paraguay. New Zealand boss Ricki Herbert also used the same players as in their 1-1 draw against Slovakia.

New Zealand kept their 3-4-3 system, but Lippi changed his shape – switching from the 4-2-3-1 against Paraguay to a basic 4-4-2 shape. Sometimes the shift between these two can be simple if it means bringing back the wingers and pushing the central attacking player upfront, but with the players Lippi uses, it becomes a little more complicated. Claudio Marchisio moved from a central position to wide left, whilst Vincenzo Iaquinta, after complaining about Lippi’s tactics, went from a left-sided attacking role to the position he wanted, as a central striker.

As a manager well-respected as a tactical master, and one who promised tactical flexibility coming into the tournament, a change in formation was no surprise in itself, but it was bizarre that he opted to go for 4-4-2, considering New Zealand were certain to stick to their favoured 3-4-3 system.

Classic 3 v 2 situation

We know the problems with playing a back three – it’s fine against two central strikers, but against three-man attacks, it faces problems. Either the outside centre-backs are dragged wide, leaving gaps in the defence, or the wing-backs are forced to play as conventional full-backs, creating a 5 v 3 situation and a shortfall elsewhere.

It seems strange, then, that Lippi decided to play a 4-4-2 with two out-and-out strikers, as this played perfectly into the hands of New Zealand defensively. They had two man-markers with a spare man at the back. They had 4 v 4 in midfield, with the wing-backs picking up Italy’s wide midfielders. They had three forwards, with the outside two trying to pin Italy’s full-backs back, and tracking them into defensive zones if they got forward. Herbert must have been delighted when he saw Italy setting out at kick-off.

FIFA's average position diagram of Italy's players in the first half

You can field two strikers against a three-man defence if one drops deep or moves into wide positions to stretch the defence. But that never happened in the first half for Italy – the FIFA average positions diagram (right) shows how central Alberto Gilardino and Iaquinta were, meaning the New Zealand three could quite easily cover them in the centre of the pitch – right where they wanted them.

Set-piece problems

Just as in their opening game, Italy conceded from a long, centralish free-kick played towards the far post. Usually the masters of defence, they seemed to be holding a deep line when defending these set-pieces – and although the goal was probably offside, Italy’s marking was once again very poor.

The Azzurri dominated the midfield, with Riccardo Montolivo having an excellent game alongside Daniele de Rossi. The Fiorentina man kept possession well in the centre of midfield and looked to play more ambitious passes when he got into the final third. He also came closest to scoring in open play – his low drive from 30 yards in the first half hit the inside the post, whilst in the second half he drew a good save out of Paston from a similar distance.

The formations for the final half hour

Italy’s problem was not in midfield, it was upfront. The lack of movement from Gilardino was disappointing, whilst Iaquinta continues to show poor touch on the ball. It was no surprise when one of them was taken off at half-time (it was Gilardino, although Iaquinta was equally bad), and Lippi brought on Antonio di Natale, a player who is more comfortable in wide areas.

Substitutions acknowledge 4-4-2 error

He also chose to bring on Mauro Camoranesi for Simone Pepe, and there was a slight chance of shape – a cross between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3, when di Natale moved left and Camoranesi played high up the pitch.

On the hour mark, Lippi made his final change, removing Claudio Marchisio (who, it must be said, has done absolutely nothing in either game) and bringing on Sampdoria’s on form Giampaolo Pazzini, a tall out-and-out striker who played centrally, with di Natale on the left and Iaquinta to the right. Camoranesi played from the right and drifted into the centre, whilst Montolivo worked the left-hand side of the midfield area.

Because Italy had two wide forwards, New Zealand’s wing-backs were forced to drop back, creating a five-man defence, and a 5-2-3, or 5-4-1 when their wide forwards tracked the full-backs into advanced positions. Italy had New Zealand pinned back on the edge of their own area, but couldn’t find a breakthrough. They resorted to hitting long crosses towards Pazzini and Iaquinta, an approach criticized after the game by Domenico Criscito. New Zealand packed their own penalty area with defenders, with skipper Ryan Nelsen the best player on the pitch by some distance.

Italy's average positions after Pazzini came on

Italy now had a decent formation to try and get a goal, but the performances of their wide forwards was poor – di Natale influenced the game little and Iaquinta is not the man to create in the final third. Montolivo and de Rossi were hitting good passes to the flanks, Camoranesi was finding space, but Italy rarely looked like finding a way through because of the lack of movement from the front three. Zambrotta supported the attack but Criscito found it more difficult to get on the ball in the final third.

New Zealand reacted well to Italy’s change in shape. They persevered with three forwards, and their midfielders let Italy have the ball in deep positions, only pressing when they got within30-40 yards of the goal. The one space they left was in front of the defence – perhaps acknowledging that they could afford to do so, with Italy’s lack of a trequartista. Montolivo came closest with his shot from that very position, and it was shame Lippi didn’t give him the opportunity to play in that position permanently, as it was a potential threat New Zealand never had to deal with.

After the game, Lippi said, “Di Natale and Camoranesi were introduced to drag the three defenders out of position”. Why didn’t he try and do this from the start?


Credit to New Zealand who defended bravely throughout, but realistically a side like Italy have should never have given them a chance, especially with the minnows playing such an unusual formation that has clear weaknesses against wide forwards.

Marchisio must surely be dropped, whilst Iaquinta playing in a wide role is so frustrating considering Fabio Qugaliarella is sitting on the bench. The positives are that the defence doesn’t look as bad as some expected (at least from open play) and the midfield keeps possession well, but there doesn’t seem to be any invention upfront or in wide positions. Of the seven attacking players Lippi has used – Gilardino, Pazzini, Iaquinta, di Natale, Pepe, Camoranesi and Marchisio – not one can be sure of his place against Slovakia in the final game. Lippi has one more chance to get it right.

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