Italy 4-3 Japan: Italy start terribly but Prandelli makes an early change to prompt a comeback

June 21, 2013

The starting line-ups

Italy were rather fortunate to win an amazingly open match.

Against Mexico, Italy were superb down the left but disappointing down the right, so Cesare Prandelli kept the left flank intact and changed two players on the right of his 4-3-2-1 – Christian Maggio replaced Ignazio Abate, while Alberto Aquilani came in for Claudio Marchisio.

Alberto Zaccheroni, up against his home country, brought in Ryoichi Maeda upfront, moved Shinji Okazaki to the right, and dropped Hiroshi Kiyotake.

Japan were excellent in the first half hour, but a combination of Prandelli’s substitution and a crazy, end-to-end game somehow let Italy back in.

Japan press

The key feature of Japan’s approach was their pressing high up the pitch. They closed down the Italian centre-backs and forced them into aimless long balls to no-one, meaning the majority of the opening half hour was played in the Italian half.

Even more significantly, Japan  paid close attention to Andrea Pirlo. Keisuke Honda was the closest man to the Juventus regista, and quickly got into his face and dispossessed him, or forced Pirlo to play simple short passes rather than the long, diagonal balls he’s famed for.

This pressing helped keep the tempo of the contest extremely high, and while Italy have a variety of talented technical players, they seemed to struggle with the speed of the game. Serie A remains a relatively slow division (which is why players like Pirlo, Aquilani and Riccardo Montolivo thrive – able to collect possession, look up and play a long diagonal pass under relatively little pressure) and despite Italy’s transformation under Prandelli, they still appear more comfortable with a slower pace.

With Italy unable to work the ball forward, Mario Balotelli was completely isolated. Against Mexico he’d played a rather single-minded game anyway – always looking to shoot rather than tee up teammates, and whether by design or accident, he ended up doing something similar here. He generally worked the right of the pitch, tracked by Yasuyuki Konno, but while he had a couple of good moments, he badly needed support.

Japan push full-backs forward

Japan’s success in the 2011 Asian Cup – the reason they’re competing in this competition – was largely because of the positional bravery and technical quality of their attacking full-backs, Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida. Against Brazil they found it difficult to overlap because Japan were often playing on the counter-attack, but with Italy dispossessed quickly and the game played in the opposition half, both full-backs overlapped and allowed the wide players inside.

Of course, as a pure formation match-up, this made perfect sense. Italy’s 4-3-2-1 system is very narrow on paper, and while Emanuele Giaccherini half-occupied Uchida, Aquilani seemed completely unaware of his job towards the opposite side of the pitch.

Furthermore, neither Montolivo nor Daniele De Rossi attempted to move across to the flank to help shut down the full-backs, so Maggio and Mattia De Sciglio were often overloaded. This benefited Shinji Kagawa and Ozazaki, too – often the overlap prevented the Italian full-backs from getting tight, allowing them space to cross.

Prandelli change

With Italy getting battered, after half an hour Prandelli decided to make a substitution, removing Aquilani and introducing Sebastian Giovinco in his place. This was a particularly decisive move from Prandelli, not a coach who generally makes early tactical switches in this manner.

Aquilani wasn’t dreadful, but he didn’t seem to understand his role on the pitch. “The interpretation will be slightly different with Aquilani’s introduction,” Prandelli said before the match. “We will try to dominate that area of the field. We want to keep possession, as with this humidity it is difficult to run for 90 minutes.”

Clearly, Italy failed in their objective of dominating possession – and Prandelli seemed to decide that instead of continuing along these lines, he’d be better with Giovinco, a more mobile player who could deal with the high tempo, and help connect the midfield and Balotelli. The system didn’t change in numeric terms – it was still 4-3-2-1 – but Giovinco offered something completely different. Italy conceded a second goal shortly after his substitution, but he was certainly key in improving the cohesion in their passing, and improving the service to Balotelli.

While Giaccherini and Giovinco played a little wider and helped stretch the play, restricting the movement of the Japanese forwards slightly, a more important factor was Italy’s ability to work the ball forward and keep Japan in a defensive shape. The tempo of the game dropped a little after Japan went 2-0 up, which helped Italy – and the pressure on the Japanese backline increased. Eventually Italy got a goal back through a header from De Rossi.

Second half

The second half was an extremely frantic, end-to-end contest with very little structure. Italy continued to look much better with two mobile players getting up in support of Balotelli, although they hadn’t really solved their problem on the wings. Nagatomo was still a great force down the left, while Honda drifted right into a pocket of space and created from that flank.

With such a manic second half, the tactical interest came from small factors rather than the overall pattern:

Few other wing-backs are so uncomfortable at full-back as Maggio. At club level his sheer energy works brilliantly, and he has a great knack of arriving at the far post at speed to meet crosses from the opposite flank. As a standard full-back in a four, however, he’s uncomfortable with opponents running at him.

With Kagawa coming inside and Nagatomo overlapping, Maggio looked extremely uncomfortable (especially as he had little protection). Prandelli returned to Abate, who is an attacking player but still more natural in the back four.

On the opposite side, De Sciglio was much poorer than against Mexico, with his defensive abilities given a strong test. He’s slightly unusual as a right-footed left-back, and this was particularly obvious as he tackled with the wrong foot for the foul that resulted in Japan’s third goal.

Prandelli’s decision to remove Giaccherini and introduce Marchisio suggested he was trying to calm the tempo and ensure Italy dominated possession, but the change had little impact and Japan continued to push forward.

Zaccheroni’s introduction of tall forward Mike Havenaar made sense as a late Plan B, especially as Japan were getting joy down the flanks. However, he received little aerial service and actually slowed the game down when carrying the ball forward on a mini-break. In hindsight, in such a frantic second half, a more technical player might have been useful.


Zaccheroni is a good tactician, and in both a positive sense and a negative sense, his tactics were perfect for facing Italy. His side pressed to disrupt the passing of the centre-backs and Pirlo, and when Japan had possession they broke down the flanks, taking advantage of Italy’s lack of support for their full-backs.

Prandelli’s early change certainly helped Italy get back into the game, with Giovinco more suitable for this type of match – it was an admission, however, that Prandelli’s starting strategy had failed.

Neither manager would have wanted such an open game, because their tactical instructions were rather diluted. Neither side were capable of shutting down the game when ahead, and this match could have gone either way.

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