It’s a curious thing to lose genius. Four years ago Marcello Lippi tactical masterclass and unconventional match-to-match selection policy were the keys to Italy’s somewhat surprising triumph. Lippi picked a diverse group of players, all with some kind of a role to play in the course of the tournament. Lippi’s preliminary squad selections for 2010 had similar characteristics but in South Africa the ingredients of success from four years back were conspicuously absent when push came to shove. Lippi relied stubbornly on his favourite players and (dare I say it) at times seemed oblivious to the flaws in their play.

Lippi by no means had a brilliant Italy squad at his disposal, but then again it was a squad he had selected. Furthermore, if the tournament taught us anything, it was the fact that you don’t need a world class squad in order to be successful (if Holland could reach the final, this Azzurri side should have had equal opportunity). Already before the tournament Lippi’s selections (and particularly the selections he didn’t make) caused wide consternation. Lippi picked players who had had a poor season behind them (a host of Juventus players after an awful season), players who had fitness problems and players who had seemed way past their prime already in the Confederations Cup disaster a year ago.

Tactics and player roles

Italy opened the tournament against Parguay with a 1-1 draw in a match that was never supposed to be a walk in the park. Italy started brightly by taking the initiative and playing some fairly decent football. There was pace. There was width. There was control. There was an attacking intent and some fine passing moves. And even if Italy should have perhaps taken three points, a draw against the hard-to-beat Paraguayans was a sufficient result. Then the reigning world champions were up against New Zealand, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, which then spelled the beginning of Italy’s downfall. The Italians were unable to break All Whites’ defensive blockade (scoring only from a penalty) and failed to remedy their own defensive problems, conceding an identical set piece as against Paraguay. In addition to a disappointing result, there were alarming signs that Lippi might not be on the top of his tactical game any more (since the tactical mistakes are analysed here, there’s no point in discussing it in any great length in this article).

Despite another one all draw, Italy were always looking to squeeze through the group especially since Slovakia had been utterly rubbish against Paraguay. Slovakia, a team making their début at the World Cup stage, were never supposed to have a prayer against the four time champions who are renowned masters of situations where they are with their backs against the wall. But what happened? Slovakia dominated the game from the start. They created opportunities and put the dumbfounded Italians on the back foot. All of a sudden it was 1-0 for Slovakia. Then 2-0. Then 3-1 and at the final whistle, after a fifteen minute period when Italy actually started to show some heart, the scoreboard read 3-2. Italy were out, finishing last in the easiest group of the tournament.

If Lippi had shown tactical fallibility in the New Zealand match, he got his tactics all wrong at the most crucial hour. In the two prior matches, Italy’s centre midfield (with Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi) had been the stand out area of the team. In this game it was their poorest. Lippi brought in his old favourite Gennaro Gattuso as an enforcer and this move messed up their midfield play completely. The player roles seemed unclear, not only to the spectator but to the players as well. The understanding in terms of movement and passing that Montolivo and De Rossi had had was utterly lost. Montolivo tried to push forward but was often forced to drag back when De Rossi and Gattuso were either leaving too much open space when Italy were without the ball or failed to initiate play when they had possession. Especially De Rossi’s performance was below-par. Was he supposed to man-mark Marek Hamsik? It is unlikely (more likely Gattuso was, but he was all over the place as usual), but if he indeed was, it was a fools errand to sacrifice one of Italy’s best and most creative players to mark a player who had had, according to his high standards, an unspectacular tournament so far. If this was the case, Lippi seemed to man marked the Hamsik who plays for Napoli, not the one who was wearing a Slovakian jersey and operating in the centre of a four man midfield. All the inclusion of Gattuso did was to disrupt the best and most creative area of the team.

The Cassano controversy

Italy’s biggest failure in terms of actual play was that they couldn’t find a tactical solution in the central area of their attacking third. Pretty much before every major tournament there is animated discussion about the inclusion of a trequartista in Italy. And this year Cassano was the people’s favourite. Cassono would have been the obvious choice and in retrospect it is easy to say that the Sampdoria man would have been the missing link. It is debatable, though, whether his performances last season actually merited a place in the team. A bigger question is, why was Totti left out? Let’s not dwell on this issue, however, because it is not actually pertinent since both players were absent from the World Cup (and also because the issue is already discussed here in more detail). An interesting question is why was Andrea Cossu, an attacking midfielder for Cagliari, included in the squad if Lippi was not prepared to use him at a time when Italy were desperately struggling for creativity? Surely Lippi though Cossu to be good enough since he picked him in the first place.

Fabio Quagliarella was perhaps the player who was always closest to filling the creative void. Or at least he should have been. The Napoli forward is not a midfielder as such but he tends to operate in a wide area and is more than capable of producing the spectacular. He should probably not have been the first choice striker but, especially after his equalizer against Switzerland in the dress rehearsal to the tournament and after indifferent performances from Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino, the 27 year-old should have had a bigger role to play. Lippi, however, waited for 225 minutes until introducing Quagliarella.

Simone Pepe symbolises the failure of the whole team

In the Slovakia match there were two things that crystallised Italy’s fall. Firstly, Quagliarella (after scoring a beautiful ship and single-handedly putting Italy back into the game) shedding the most tears of all the Italy players after the final whistle was blown. And secondly, Pepe (Lippi’s trusted man and favoured creative player) bluntly missing Italy’s lifeline at the far post in the dying minutes of the match. It is fair to say that Quagliarella did more in fourty-five minutes than the rest of the team during the whole game.

You can’t blame Pepe from trying though. The Juventus winger (who played for Udinese last season) has enough industry to start a revolution, but not enough creativity to even spark a light bulb. One explanation for Pepe’s big role is that Lippi wanted to use him in a Kuyt/Park role. But this is doubtable though, since the oppositions’ tactics did not require the use of such a player. More plausibly, Lippi used Pepe since he was one of the few, if not the only, genuine wide attacker in the squad. If so, one would’ve expected Lippi to replace Pepe after seeing him play 180 minutes of football in a key attacking role without delivering a single successful end-product. Lippi persisted and Italy went out with a whimper. Lippi’s trust not only in Pepe but Vicenzo Iaquinta and Mauro Camoranesi (and Gattuso) as well was probably just one of those curious things with coaches; all coaches have their favourites and these players tend to be those who follow the coach’s system to the button (even if they are bordering on the rubbish).

Not the fitting end to Lippi’s career as Italy coach

Despite this gargantuan failure, Lippi remains one of the great coaches of the modern era (and one of I Went For the Ball!’s all time favourites, which makes it all the more painful to criticise him). One who has achieved so much during a career spanning three decades should not be judged solely by a poor latter day period of two years. However, it is not unheard of that in the latter days of one’s career, even the most innovative coaches tend to show signs of conservatism and adamant belief in their own infallibility, in their own system and in their favoured players. And this time Lippi’s key players were not up to the task. Two matches should have been enough for him to see this. Let alone two years.