Euro 2012 preview: Italy
In many ways, Cesare Prandelli isn’t a typical Italian coach. He’s a highly intelligent man, but one doesn’t think of him as a pure tactician like Marcello Lippi, Giovanni Trapattoni or Fabio Capello. He’s of an Arsene Wenger figure – he wants an overall, attacking philosophy rather than lots of specific tactics, and likes developing young players to suit his footballing identity.
He has attempted to move Italy towards a more positive style of play. That’s partly because it’s Prandelli’s natural style as coach, but also because Italy don’t have the secure defenders we’re accustomed to. The days of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini have gone – Italy have good defenders, but not great ones. They’re more blessed in midfield.
Prandelli explains: “Many of the players felt that the time had come to play – I won’t say a different type of game because, in football, there is nothing new – but something else. Given that I have plenty of quality midfielders, I felt we should play to our strengths and with these players that means a much more attacking game.”
However, Italy’s problem is that they lack good wide players to play a four-man midfield. This isn’t a new problem, and even when they won the World Cup in 2006 they played a central midfielder (Simone Perrotta) on one flank, and an Argentine (Mauro Camoranesi) on the other. However, they’ve generally compensated for that with a world class number ten, allowing them to play a 4-3-1-2 or a 3-4-1-2, basing their play around a Roberto Baggio or Francesco Totti figure. Prandelli doesn’t really have that type of player either – Antonio Cassano plays higher up, Sebastian Giovinco’s international experience is limited and Alessandro Diamanti still doesn’t seem like a serious option, despite his inclusion in the squad.
Prandelli’s compromise has been interesting – he wants a constantly rotating midfield, making up for lack of a nominated central playmaker with movement and fluidity. That was obvious when he played 4-3-3 (the preferred formation at the start of his reign), and the experiment has continued with the midfield diamond he’s been using recently. The player at the base of the diamond, the fabulous Andrea Pirlo, stays in position and sprays passes forward. But the other three players – probably Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio as the shuttlers, and Riccardo Montolivo nominally at the top – switch around.
It’s an unusual system that is more fascinating than it is truly effective, and it doesn’t completely disguise the fact the Italy don’t have a true trequartista. Montolivo is a talented yet frustrating player who has never quite found his best position – even after years of playing under Prandelli for Fiorentina – and it’s arguable that he doesn’t offer anything not provided by the other three midfielders. Still, if his movement is intelligent he can drag players around and create space for the runs of De Rossi and Marchisio, who are both excellent at steaming into the box.
Further forward, in a strike duo that is probably the most naturally gifted yet most troublesome in the tournament, Prandelli is putting his faith in Cassano, who will play as an inside-left, and Mario Balotelli, who is the primary centre-forward but tends to move into the channels.
But this assumes that Prandelli will play the 4-3-1-2 system. In fact, he retains that Italian penchant for switching systems late in the day – which provides great tactical interest. He’s the only coach in the tournament who seems unsure of his best formation, and also the only coach who will probably go with something other than a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.
The other option is a 3-5-2. This would see the same forward duo, one player – probably Montolivo – dropped from the midfield, and a back three combined with wing-backs. A week ago, this made great sense because it meant Prandelli could field an all-Juventus back three of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, ahead of Juve’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. However, this is less likely because of the news that Barzagli will miss a significant part of the tournament with a calf strain. De Rossi could drop deep – he showed this season for Roma that he can play there, but it’s clearly not his best position.
And so we return to the idea of a diamond in midfield, and a back four. It will still be an all-Juventus centre-back pairing of Chiellini and Bonucci, and with Domenico Criscito omitted due to his involvement in the current match-fixing probe in Italy, Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti will play (he would have battled Chiellini for that role, but Chiellini is now needed in the centre).
On the opposite flank will be Napoli’s Christian Maggio. Both these players are extremely energetic and forward-thinking – Maggio has been used as a wing-back rather than a full-back for the last few years as Napoli, while Balzaretti has often got through a lot of running in Palermo’s narrow systems. With a midfield diamond probable, Italy need consistent support from full-back, and the onus upon these players to get forward is huge.
That could leave the Italian defence exposed, often without protection from full-back, and while Pirlo has been superb for Juventus in that lone holding role this season, he’s not the best player defensively nor the most mobile, and may be overawed with direct counter-attacks through the centre of the pitch. He’ll need support from higher up, with De Rossi and Marchisio expected to close down energetically, yet also scamper back and protect the defence.
But let’s not imply that Pirlo is Italy’s weak link – he’s their key player. His ability to hit accurate long balls (with either foot) into the feet of the strikers is Italy’s best asset, and when combined with the runs of Cassano and Balotelli, he could be one of the tournament’s star performers.
Italy also have attacking variety. Fabio Borini is a clever wide forward, another who makes good runs (and would be perfect if Prandelli wants to switch to a 4-3-3), while Antonio Di Natale isn’t really fancied by Prandelli, but would be a constant menace and a natural finisher. Giovinco and Diamanti, again, provide different options. Prandelli’s problem isn’t variety, but outright quality.
Italy don’t have enough players who guarantee top-level performances, and therefore they’re relying upon the strategy of their coach to have a significant impact upon this tournament. Prandelli’s preference for unusual formations (in the context of this tournament) means Italy will provide an interesting challenge for their opponents, who might struggle to cope with a diamond.
Coach – Cesare Prandelli
Formation – Probably 4-3-1-2
Key player – Andrea Pirlo
Strength – Good possession play
Weakness – The absence of two key starters from the defence, plus no reliable number ten
Key tactical question – What formation does Prandelli play?
Key quote – Prandelli: “The feeling was that we needed to evolve our style, to try and play a little more on the front foot.”
Betfair odds: 18.0 (17/1)
Recommended bet: Italy v Spain to be over 2.5 goals at 2.46