Italy will start their World Cup campaign with mixed feelings. The four years since their 2006 triumph has gone decently at best. Euro 2008 was a below-par performance and the Confederation’s Cup last summer a complete and utter disaster. Their build-up to the tournament has not raised any great expectations either: 1-1 draws against Cameroon and Switzerland and a 2-1 defeat to Mexico did no favours to Italy’s confidence.
Yet, despite all the troubles and criticism, Lippi adamantly relies in his trusted players: Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Mauro Camoranesi and Gennaro Gattuso all have their best years behind them but they still have some a role to play in Lippi’s plans. Cannavaro still remains key; Gattuso, however, might be this campaign’s Angelo Perruzzi.
In 2006 Italy had an exceptionally diverse and flexible squad with which Lippi could bring about a tactical masterclass. There were six strikers, all with different qualities, all of whom scored at least one goal in the tournament. There were visionaries like Totti, Alesssandro Del Piero and Pirlo. There were style and industry in midfield. There was a masterly defence built around a corner stone in the shape of Cannavaro at his prime. This time around the personnel is no way nearly as good enough but Lippi’s tactical eye is still as sharp as ever.
There are three positions in Italy’s starting eleven that are still open on the eve of their opening fixture: one of the full-back positions and two midfield spots. If Gianluca Zambrotta starts on the right, Domenico Criscito will play on the left, if on the left, Christian Maggio will start on the right. Both players are fairly attacking minded as they are accustomed to wide midfield roles in their home clubs. Especially Maggio could bring needed creativity in defence.
In midfield Andrea Pirlo’s injury has forced Lippi to change his primary plans. It is likely that the more defensive minded Angelo Palombo will start alongside Daniele De Rossi in centre of a three man midfield to relieve some of the defensive duties from De Rossi. Depending on whether Italy play with a flat midfield or a pyramid, it is either Claudio Marchisio or Riccardo Montolivo who will take the third spot. Both make a strong case.
In a flat formation, Marchisio would offer a dynamic attacking threat as an auxiliary winger which would benefit Italy’s counter-attacking aspirations. Montolivo, on the other hand, would be close to a like-for-like substitute for Pirlo. Built in the similar mould, Montolivo would instil needed creativity and slick passing on the tip of a midfield pyramid. From these two, it is perhaps the immensely talented Fiorentina captain who should finally get his big chance in the Italy shirt. In this case, Marchisio would offer an excellent tactical option coming off the bench. As an interesting detail, should Lippi field De Rossi, Palombo and Montolivo, Italy would have three club captains in midfield (of AS Roma, Sampdoria and Fiorentina, respectively).
The tactics: 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1
In the build up to the tournament, Lippi preferred to play with one up front and with two wide forwards. This is noteworthy because there is a shortage of natural wingers in the squad; the only out-and-out winger being Simone Pepe who will only be featured as a late substitute. Despite of this fact, Lippi will most likely use Vincenzo Iaquinta and Antonio Di Natale as wide forwards. Due to his power and directness, Iaquinta is better at a central role and even if Di Natale is no stranger to the wide position, because of his lack of pace, he has struggled at the international level (last European Championships showed us that much). Di Natale, nevertheless, is the focal creative point in Italy’s strategy.
The biggest problem with Italy attacking play will be their lack of pace. With pace I don’t mean flat out speed from zero to one hundred, but quick feet and sharp movement which is needed when keeping possession and breaking through in the attacking third of the pitch. Italy have quality target-forwards in abundance (Iaquinta, Marco Borriello, Alberto Gilardino and Giampaolo Pazzini) but what they need is someone who could shuffle the oppositions back line by taking on defenders. Fabio Quagliarella is the closest Italy have to someone like that and the Napoli forward will probably be used as an impact substitute. In the absence of quicksilvery movement upfront, Italy will rely on directness and power.
It would be totally foolish, however, to presume that a World Cup winning coach is not aware of these defects in his personnel. Lippi knows exactly what he is doing with this slightly modest Italy squad. Despite having a more one-sided squad that four years ago, Lippi still has a palette of tactical manoeuvres to show his tactical mastery. Italy will not retain the World Cup but they will get through from an easy group and go to the quarter-finals, at least.
Buffon remains the most important player for Italy. Big saves are needed since the defence is not nearly as solid as it was in 2006.
One to watch:
Gilardino is the starting forward no matter which system Lippi decides to use. However, should Gilardino shoot blanks, Giampaolo Pazzini will get an opportunity. Pazzini and Gilardino are similar players, but despite Pazzini’s inexperience, the Sampdoria man is a more complete package. Pazzini is powerful in the air, can poach like a pickpocket on a crowded street and is extremely comfortable on the ball.
The likely opening lineup:
Zambrotta Cannavaro Chiellini Criscito
De Rossi Palombo
Iaquinta Di Natale