World Cup 2010 was the occasion, and South Africa – the venue. Slovakia 3 – 2 Italy. The scoreline read as Italy’s stalwarts trudged off the pitch with disappointment etched across their faces after their exit from the group stage at the hands of Slovakia. Italy were expected to cruise through this particular group considering the other two opponents were Paraguay and New Zealand, against whom, the Azzuri could only manage draws. Manager Marcello Lippi who had famously guided them to the World Cup win of 2006 was left stunned.
Something had gone drastically wrong and there was a strong clamour for refreshment. Captain Fabio Cannavaro publicly admitted that there was not enough young talent coming through the ranks and Italian footballing head, Giancarlo Abete called for a serious analysis of what he described as a ‘structural crisis’ in the country with promises of an overhaul.
Two years on, Italy has managed to reach the finals of Euro 12. It was a final which they pitifully lost, but throughout the tournament, Italy’s football was very unlike what one would expect. Cesare Prandelli did not revert back to Italy’s trusted old tactical ally – The Catenaccio. He instead set about implementing a far more dynamic, attacking style. And his proactive approach has reaped dividends. Despite a humiliating 4 – 0 loss in the final, thanks to a Spanish masterclass; the Italians bowed out with their heads held high and with admiration pouring out from all quarters for the team’s ideology and guts.
Italy achieved what they did by finishing second in the group stage and beating England in the quarters, before decimating Joachim Loew’s Germany (tipped as the top contenders to snatch the Euro trophy from Spain) 2 – 1 with a very fine performance both as an attacking and defensive unit. What truly makes this a whole heartedly appreciable effort was the fact that Prandelli did use a sizable chunk of the World Cup squad that had crashed out in South Africa and then he made a few bold additions.
Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Christian Maggio, Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci, Riccardo Montolivo, Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale had all made the trip to the World Cup in 2010. Prandelli added a few late bloomers to the squad without worrying about upsetting the establishment – Federico Balzaretti (30), Thiago Motta (29), Emanuele Giacherini (27), Antonio Nocerino (27) and Alessandro Diamanti (29) were all representing Italy for the first time in a major tournament.
Exhibiting his penchant for a calculated risk, Prandelli excluded all of the strikers who played for Italy in the World Cup except for Antonio Di Natale. And in a daring move, he preferred to go with not one but two highly temperamental forwards in Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. This was only Cassano’s second major tournament for Italy despite having made his debut for Italy in 2003 and having been recognized one of the most naturally talented footballers the nation had.
Unfortunately for him, he was also known for being a controversy magnet and found chances with the national team hard to come by. Cesare Prandelli’s faith in the emerging youth was distributed amongst Balotelli (21), Fabio Borini (21), Ignazio Abate (25), Angelo Ogbonna (24) and Sebastian Giovinco (25). Having known his players over the last two years helped Prandelli.
He had a vision for this Italian team. It did not necessarily mean a ‘phasing out’ of the old guard or an overzealous introduction of talented youth. Of course, one can question if Italy had enough world-class young talent at their disposal to facilitate a large-scale transition at all. However, one cannot question the fact that Prandelli did not just ‘make do’ with what he had, but he ensured that he brought the very best out of what was available to him. If he succeeds with his long-term vision for the National team, there is every chance that the national team will be looked at as pre and post Prandelli.
The greatest of footballing teams have been built by managers being able to find the right combination of players required for success and this is what Italy managed to do under Cesare Prandelli. Age did not matter, whether they played for a Champions League regular club did not either and previous reputations were thrown out of the window. If you’re good enough and you’re old; it doesn’t matter, you can still be ‘gold’ – was the prevailing mantra.
This is what, England must search for. A combination of personnel and tactics that will give the nation hopes of not just participating against the best, but actually managing to compete and outplay the top teams.
Coming to the tactical argument, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson have both used the 4 – 4 – 2 formation in the World Cup and Euros. Capello pushed Gerrard out wide to the left during the World Cup, leaving Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry manning the central midfield with James Milner playing on the right. In comparison Roy Hodgson used the very same formation but pushed Gerrard back into central midfield, playing him alongside Scott Parker with Ashley Young on the left and Milner on the right.
England certainly played better against superior opposition in the Euro’s when compared to the World Cup, however the 4 – 4 – 2 in any shape or form simply doesn’t help a nation whose players aren’t considered the best technically. Capello seemed to be realizing that playing a three-man midfield had its benefits, before his untimely departure after a clash with the FA over John Terry’s removal as captain.
This is where a parallel must be drawn with Italy’s midfield. The team played two formations through the course of the tournament. A 3 – 5 – 2 and a 4 – 3 – 1 – 2 meant that Italy ensured that they weren’t outnumbered in midfield by any team that faces them. While England do not yet possess someone to match the considerable talents of Andrea Pirlo, they certainly have personnel who can match a Daniele De Rossi, Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo or a Marchisio.
Most would agree that Steven Gerrard had a good tournament in general, but it might have been even better had he had another player supporting him in central midfield. Both Gerrard and Parker were outnumbered before eventually getting knackered due to chasing after the ball for large periods. While Gerrard’s distribution is not as creatively effective and consistently accurate as Pirlo’s, he does have the ability to pass it long and short as Liverpool and England fans will testify.
It is then down to the manager to release the shackles and allow him to dictate play to the best of his abilities. Jack Wilshere certainly has the potential to deliver from that position in future. However, Wilshere or even Pirlo himself (if he played for England) would’ve failed miserably in a two man midfield against modern-day industrious sides who press high up the pitch.
Roy Hodgson must persevere to find a combination of players capable of cultivating an innate sense of understanding and camaraderie, whether it is by relying upon the youth or even by calling up hitherto unused players from smaller clubs. Hodgson hasn’t had the time to properly scout and watch what is available, so it is understandable that he chose to go with a mixture of proven names and top young talent, but there could be more on offer. Especially with the Premier League being as competitive as it is, good players could be found in smaller clubs around England.
Selecting Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was a brave move, but something about it also reeked of a populist measure implemented in order to satisfy the prevailing public opinion. How much of The Ox did England see at the tournament? This is not to criticize AOC but merely to suggest that there were more experienced alternatives in players like Adam Johnson, Matt Jarvis, Scott Sinclair or Nathan Dyer.
Hodgson called up Jordan Henderson to replace the injured Frank Lampard but there was also the option of calling players like Danny Murphy or Leon Osman who both had very good domestic seasons for their clubs and could have proven to be more reliable squad players. The selection of Martin Kelly was the most inexplicable one, and the continued expulsion of Micah Richards from any sort of involvement with the senior team is a baffling case.
While selecting youngsters must definitely be a priority for Hodgson and England, any player that gets into the English squad must be able to command the trust of the manager in order to be used. This trust seemed to be lacking despite initial brave selections. Only Danny Welbeck had any discernible impact upon the English squad. Also in hindsight, after every major tournament, one gets the feeling that the ‘youngsters’ go on just to make up the numbers. It is important to remember that the national team cannot be used as a finishing school for youngsters and it would serve England better if youngsters were selected upon their ability to compete for a place in the starting 11.
If one looks at the ‘youngsters’ in the Italy squad – Abate and Giovinco are both 25, and have been playing top flight football for the best part of the last five years. Mario Balotelli is a proven world-class talent regularly playing at a top club. Fabio Borini is the only player who can still be seen as young and with the potential to only fill in a spot and even he has done his bit by scoring 10 goals for Roma this season.
England’s dream of matching up to Spain is one that will take time to implement. After all, the Spaniards themselves underwent decades of empty-handed returns from major tournaments before assembling this swashbuckling squad and enthralling audiences with their brand of football. While England slowly but surely can match up to Spain, at this juncture, it would be better for the three Lions team to simply look at what Italy have achieved by optimizing their resources and learn. If England must achieve glory in Brazil, Roy Hodgson must be willing to dig deep into his resources, innovate with his tactics and experiment for two years in order to find the perfect solution.
Attacking or defensive football is not the question. The question merely is if England can win a major tournament with the tools (no pun intended) in hand? The answer would be a yes. If Prandelli could bring together a disjointed Italy and rally to the finals by also delivering scintillating football, Hodgson must look his way to see what worked, take notes and then perhaps a nation can dream.