Northern Ireland 0-0 Italy: Pirlo a class above, but poor finishing from both sides

October 9, 2010

The starting line-ups

Both sides had chances to win the game, but Northern Ireland emerge with a well-earned point.

Northern Ireland made one change from their previous qualification game, bringing in Jonny Evans at left-back in place of Craig Cathcart. They played a 4-4-2 shape that often looked like 4-4-1-1 when Warren Feeney dropped deep into midfield when Northern Ireland lost the ball.

Italy played an unusual 4-4-2 / 4-3-3 shape that had Antonio Cassano as a wide attacker (a role he plays well at Sampdoria), Simone Pepe as a more orthodox winger (although he too cut inside) and Stefano Mauri shuttling in a left-sided midfield role.

There was a clear contrast between the approach of the two sides. Italy were playing short passes through the midfield area, where they had a nominal 3 v 2 advantage, with Andrea Pirlo being the best player on the pitch by a long way, and orchestrating the game from the centre of the pitch. Northern Ireland’s approach was more basic, hitting long, direct balls towards the forward two, and in particular towards Chris Brunt on the right-hand side.

Feeney drops in

Northern Ireland’s strategy for dealing with Italy’s extra midfield was to drop Feeney back to help out, often picking up Pirlo, since Northern Ireland’s other two midfielders were playing very deep. This worked reasonably well but Feeney’s determination to chase across the pitch often left Pirlo free – it may have worked better had he near-man-marked Pirlo. The knock-on effect was that Giorgio Chiellini was happy to step forward and start hitting accurate passes with his left foot.

The other impact of Italy’s 3 v 2 in the midfield was that Northern Ireland’s wide players tended to be sucked into the midfield battle, leaving Italy’s full-backs free to get forward, and Italy switched play between the two flanks. Both Domenico Criscito and Mattia Cassani got forward well, with Criscito firing a cross-shot across the six-yard box. In contrast, Northern Ireland’s full-backs stayed at home – pegged back by Cassano and Pepe. In any case, Evans and Gareth McAuley are both centre-backs naturally, and this was evident as Northern Ireland defended across the width of the penalty area. Italy didn’tstretch them enough, with Pepe coming inside rather than holding width and getting down the line.

Northern Ireland crosses

Italy did have problems with Northern Ireland at the other end – Emiliano Viviano didn’t look confident in goal, especially from crosses. Indeed, Brunt’s excellent ball into the box for David Healy was the game’s best chance – Healy somehow contrived to miss a simple header from within the six-yard box, right infront of the goal.

There also seemed to be the possibility of getting in behind Italy – Chiellini’s tendency to stick very closely to his man means a striker making a run away from goal can often open up his defence, but with Feeney dropping deep and Northern Ireland’s direct play meaning midfield runners found it difficult to get forward, there was little chance of this happening. Brunt was the best outlet for the home side, cutting onto his stronger left foot and whipping balls in.

Italy then started to threaten by simple balls played over the top, with Borriello getting to these lofted passes by using strength rather than pace, and Northern Ireland’s defensive line was surprisingly high considering they were playing so narrow, as narrowness is often combined with deeper defensive positioning to good effect.

Second half

Indeed, Northern Ireland did drop deeper in the second period, which prevented balls over the top being an obvious approach, but opened up the midfield zone for Pirlo to dominate even more. The game was more stretched and there were more goalscoring chances and promising situations for both teams.

Still, the game overall kept the same pattern, with Italy dominating the ball but Northern Ireland still threatening. Despite plenty of substitutions in attacking areas for both teams, the formations stayed the same, though Italy looked much more threatening with Claudio Marchisio, Giuseppe Rossi and Giampaolo Pazzini on in place of Mauri, Pepe and Borriello. Ireland also improved with the introduction of Kyle Lafferty, who did an excellent job of holding the ball up and letting midfield runners join him.

It essentially came down to who could put their chances away – and the answer was no-one. Healy’s header remained the game’s best chance but Pepe, Pazzini, Boriello and Davis all should have produced at least one goal between them.


Lafferty and Nigel Worthington both punched the air at full-time – not often you see that the end of a 0-0 at home – but that showed what a good result this was for Northern Ireland, especially considering the opening day 1-0 win over World Cup finalists Slovenia.

Their general outlook was cautious and playing for a point was the idea from the outset, but that’s not to say they didn’t push men forward and attempt to find a ¬†goal themselves – Healy’s miss was quite incredible, and it came from Brunt, who provided some great crosses from the right.

Northern Ireland coped very well with Italy’s front three (or four) by getting two banks of four behind the ball, and defending very narrow which made through balls very tricky for Italy. They slightly left themselves exposed to the threat of full-backs but generally adjusted well, and the one criticism would be that Pirlo was given too much time on the ball, although he is a player that is very, very difficult to stop when he’s on form.

Italian fans will regard this as disappointing result but the performance was not bad – the forward players simply failed to perform, and a change of personnel ahead of the game against Serbia on Tuesday might be on the cards.

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