Slovakia 3-2 Italy: Vittek’s hold-up play the key to victory

June 24, 2010

The starting line-ups

A crushing defeat for Italy, but a deserved win for Slovakia, who had a more cohesive side and a clearer gameplan.

Marcello Lippi started with three central midfielders (Rino Gattuso was recalled) and one winger, in Simone Pepe. He generally played on the right, although switched to the left later in the first half. Gattuso seemed to occupy whichever side of midfield Pepe was not on. Antonio di Natale played off Vincenzo Iaquinta.

Slovakia played a basic 4-2-3-1 system, with Marek Hamsik the closest midfield runner to Robert Vittek. Juraj Kucka and Zdeno Strba patrolled the midfield, and with no direct Italian opponent, took it in turns to get forward.

The key to the game was how well the two strikers fared. Iaquinta won balls in the air, but struggled to hold the ball up. The central midfielders were always a long, long way from supporting him, and he generally only had di Natale to pass to. Pepe got forward but only in wide areas, and rarely offered a goal threat.

On the other hand, Vittek was superb. His movement was good – creating space for Hamsik’s late runs – whilst his hold-up play was even better. Slovakia generally looked to hit long balls towards him, and he shielded the ball from the centre-backs excellently, giving the three midfield runners time to connect with him. It was widely predicted that Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini would struggle in this competition against pace – so it’s ironic that their downfall came when they were up against a fairly technically-limited target man.

Italy poor

Italy were clueless in possession – the midfield trio simply didn’t work. Daniele de Rossi was playing very deep, just in front of the back four – Gattuso’s role was seemingly merely to provide running on the opposite side to Pepe, whilst Riccardo Montolivo was the furthest forward of the three, but still regularly 30-40 yards away from the two strikers.

The side seemed lopsided because of the different nature of Pepe and Gatusso. When Pepe was on the right, di Natale dropped slightly to the left to provide some balance, but when Pepe switched sides Italy were too asymmetrical. The full-backs may have been expected to provide support, and Zambrotta made a few typical surging runs, but both Miroslav Stoch and Erik Jendrisek did good defensive jobs, meaning Italy struggled to find anyone in space.

Slovakia’s first goal came from a misplaced pass from de Rossi, and it was a simple ball to Vittek, in space on the edge of the area, that opened up Italy’s defence. He was clearly getting the better of the defenders, and Italy were doing nothing to cut off the supply to him. There was little pressing because the midfield was so deep, and the Slovakia central midfielders had all the time in the world to look up and launch balls forward. Pressing high up the pitch can often be a good way to disrupt long ball football, as Chile showed against Switzerland.

Second half

For the second game running, Lippi made two half-time substitutions, and completely reshaped his team. He switched to a 4-2-3-1 that featured Pepe and Fabio Quagaliarella wide, and di Natale still just off Iaquinta. Italy then looked to play long balls to Iaquinta and get the other attackers close to him. The biggest compliment to Slovakia was that Lippi was essentially trying to recreate their tactics.

Slovakia, though, were more well-versed in this approach. The second goal came when Vittek got across Chiellini to turn in a low cross towards the near post.

The introduction of Andrea Pirlo seemed to lift Italy, and he played more thoughtful, incisive passes towards the wide forwards. Quagliarella’s impact was even more vital, because he was involved in everything that was good for Italy. His volley was blocked from on (just over?) the line by Martin Skrtel, his shot lead to the Di Natale rebound for the first goal, his tap-in was disallowed for a marginal offside, his sublime chip in the final minute for the second goal gave Italy hope. His omission until the second half of Italy’s final match at this tournament is baffling.

Slovakia had scored their crucial third with a goal wonderful for its simplicity – a perfectly-timed run by Kamil Kopunek met a throw over the defence to slot home. But the replays reveal the real creator of the goal – Vittek. He was the star yet again, as his move towards the ball dragged Italy’s central defenders out of position and created a huge gap for Kopunek to exploit.


It was a game that was tactical in a more narrow sense than many football games – it wasn’t won because one side’s tactics were deliberately geared to outmanoeuvre the other. It was simply that one side had a cohesive plan for attacking and players that understood their individual roles well, the other were poorly-organised and looked uncomfortable in their shape. The role of Vittek was more crucial than any other individual performance in the World Cup so far – he utterly dominated both centre-backs, creating opportunities for both him and others.

Slovakia will struggle to recreate this display, and could have been knocked out with a single goal in the other game, but their gameplan worked brilliantly. Get the ball up to Vittek, get him to hold it up, get runners supporting him. Italy were poor, but Slovakia were excellent.

Italy’s exit is frustrating. They brought nothing to the tournament in their opening two games, and then showed in the final 20 minutes here how dangerous they could have been. Fielding both di Natale and Quagliarella alongside a central striker has seemed the right option from the start of tournament, and Lippi will be regretting not trying that sooner.

It’s a sad end for Lippi, the hero of four years ago. His tactical and selection decisions were wrong throughout. The ‘reliance on his 2006 players’ line has been overstated (indeed, if he’d been able to select his spine of Buffon-Nesta-Pirlo-Totti-Toni for every game here, he probably would have been better off) but he does seem to have a curious disregard for form.

They may have been one goal away from qualification, but equally at no point in the competition were they leading a match.

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