After finishing runner-up at the recently-concluded UEFA Euro 2012 in a heartbreaking final defeat at the hands of Spain, Italy have managed to get things back on track pretty fast at the World Cup 2014 Qualifiers. The qualification campaign for the World Cup to be held in Brazil in two years’ time has so far been pretty impressive and Italy are currently lying comfortably on top of their qualification group and one may easily assume, Cesare Prandelli won’t face any great difficulties in securing a place in the finals with a number of qualifier games in hand.
While qualification is not likely to be a matter of great concern for the Azzurri, the question that now arises is – Are Italy finally up for the title challenge post the horrendous outing in South Africa back in 2010? You would have pretty vehemently disregarded the very thought if this question was asked earlier this year. The form of the team was far from inspiring and the off-field controversies only fuelled the speculations of the team repeating the disappointment of two years ago.
However, to the greatest surprise of everyone, Italy ended up as one of the finest teams of the tournament second only to eventual champions Spain. Though the defeat in the finals was one that could unsettle the morale of any team, Italy nevertheless earned plaudits for the heart that the team showed getting better of teams that were more fancied for the title.
Post the Euros, Italy did not start on an exactly bright note as they lost the friendly scheduled against England in the month of August failing to protect an early lead. However, the team has meant absolute business in all the official fixtures that followed. After sharing points with Bulgaria in the opening encounter, Italy have managed to win each of their next three games against Malta, Armenia and Denmark respectively. Moreover, barring an unconvincing performance against Malta, the other two victories were fairly comprehensive and the team showed some great temperament on the field. Denmark is certainly the second best team in the group and the recent 3-1 win over them must have done a world of good to the confidence of Cesare Prandelli.
Tactical Flexibility & Choice of players
Unlike his predecessors, Prandelli has always been the biggest endorser of meritocracy and that is the reason why a wide array of players have all earned their national call-ups during his reign. The trend has continued in the World Cup qualifiers too with Prandelli trying several new faces and applying tactical rotations to suit to his selection of players.
Prandelli has mainly deployed two basic formations – a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-1-2. While on the field, several variants of a 4-3-1-2 are apparent when certain tactical switches are made with effective substitutions. The 3-5-2 was even tried for the first two games in the Euros but was wisely discontinued by Prandelli as it failed to produce the desired results. The formation requires a set of players on the wings to track back when the team is out of possession and unfortunately the chosen personnel could not live up to what was expected.
As of now, Italy have Maggio and Criscito as best choices to position on each of the flanks if 3-5-2 is to be continued. However, both these players – excellent as they may be going forward – lack the discipline to assist the narrow defensive line and as Italy play Pirlo at the deepest point of their centre midfield who is pretty vulnerable defensively, the formation itself becomes pretty dangerous for Italy while they are off the ball.
Considering these limitations of the players available, 4-3-1-2 seems a more viable approach for Italy and though the lack of a classic trequartista is fairly evident, Riccardo Montolivo has been carrying the job with near perfection ever since he was given the nod in the Euros from the quarter-final stage. Montolivo is a player who possesses a good passing range and is a good distributor of the ball. Dribbling past defenders when choked for space is not exactly his forte and often he ends up losing the ball in these duels. Ideally such a player should play behind the ball but these positions in the midfield are as of now pretty much cemented by Pirlo, De Rossi and Marchisio. However, Montolivo has done exceedingly well up the pitch and for the lack of his physical strength to outdo the defenders, he makes up for it by creating space for the forwards with his positional sense. Montolivo often drops deep enough in line with Marchisio and Pirlo and gives the midfield a conservative 4 man look.
This adds numbers to the midfield and since Italy rely on possession play under Prandelli, the ball retention is extremely important. Also while venturing forward, Montolivo has considerably improved in his ball holding skills and should his abilities to find that one defence bisecting pass improve, he can pretty much be the missing piece in the 4-3-1-2 jigsaw.
Central defence needs more options
Juventus contingent has been pretty dominant in the defensive line of Italy under Prandelli but it seems some more options need to be tried in this area. While Giorgio Chiellini is certainly one of the best defenders in Europe and Barzagli too has richly earned his place in the team, the continuous selection of Leonardo Bonucci can definitely be questioned.
Angelo Ogbonna is one highly-rated versatile defender in Italy whereas the much criticized Andrea Ranocchia too has immensely improved for Inter this season. Federico Peluso, Daniele Gastaldello and Salvatore Bocchetti are few other names that must be put in the scheme of things from time to time. As far as defending on the flanks is concerned, Mattia Di Sciglio is one defender with great potential to break into the national team and Prandelli must at least give him a shot in one of the two friendlies during the latter part of this international season.
Attack finally has quality but lacks venom
Mario Balotelli should at all cost be established as the primary centre forward for Italy and the challenge lies in dealing with his temperamental antics. Balotelli showed during the Euros what he brings on the table when he is at his best and is one talent Italy cannot afford to waste. Among other names, Pablo Daniel Osvaldo has so far gotten a number of opportunities and has done fairly well. Italy though still lack that one man who inspires confidence to trouble the scorers at will and it looks like such a prolific marksman will not be easy to find. The days of Inzaghi and Vieri are surely past.
However, it will be interesting to see how Prandelli accommodates the incredibly talented young forwards Mattia Destro, Stephan El Shaarawy and Fabio Borini into his setup. El Shaarawy in particular, is doing exceedingly good for Milan this season and one shouldn’t be surprised to see him start more often for Italy.
It seems Antonio Cassano will find it tough to find his place in the national side again considering his fitness limitations. However, his start to the new season with Inter may compel Prandelli to think otherwise.
The Roma contingent on the rise?
One section that has always had its strong presence in the Italy national squad is Juventus. The players from the Turin-based club have historically contributed greatly to the national team and have won considerable silverware too. However, along with Juventus it seems the Roma contingent too is coming to the fore with more and more Roma players receiving their Azzurri call by Prandelli.
Daniele De Rossi, one of the finest in the game in the modern era is the embodiment of AS Roma and is arguably the most important player for Italy presently. Federico Balzaretti too is a strong contender for the left-back position while Osvaldo and Destro should definitely continue to file a strong candidature for a place in the forward line. It seems pretty soon the success or the lack of it at Roma’s end might start to reflect in the results of the Italy national team.
Italy at the moment, are certainly one of the top national sides in the world and should the weaker areas in the squad are promptly addressed, they can put forth a very strong challenge for the World Cup title in Brazil. Cesare Prandelli has come this close to glory at the continental level and missed. He has got himself another opportunity, this time at a bigger stage. How successful he turns out to be during the next two years, only time will tell but one thing is certain – This Italy team is on the rise.