Tactical Breakdown - Italy 1-1 New Zealand
As results go, the Kiwi fruit of a point against the world champions defies logic, and serves as a reminder of what an unpredictable game this is. It may also placate some of the ill-feeling from England fans towards their illustrious and well-rewarded players to know that they are far from alone in terms of unexpectedly poor results. So how did this happen? And how did the shape and structure of the two sides conspire to produce this anomaly of a result?
In terms of formation, Ricky Herbert's decision to go with three centre halves was clearly intended to create the presence of a spare man against Italy’s two forward players. Marcello Lippi's decision to start the game with a 4-4-2 system was an offensive move by his own standards and was the work of a coach who expected to secure a clear and decisive victory. The key indicators of how the game would pan out were - would the expected Italian siege materialise and how would the All Whites cope with it? Could New Zealand gain significant spells of possession and break up the likely tidal wave? And would the Kiwis be able to mount some sort of attacking threat, likely to centre around much-travelled English League target man Rory Fallon?
The expected Azzurri dominance in terms of possession and territory was tempered somewhat by their opponents' excellent closing down and pressing of the space in the opening period. The key when employing a pressing game is to do so early and in unison, so there are no pockets for breaking players to occupy. Herbert has his side well drilled and immensely committed, with a real team ethic to make up for their inferior quality player for player, so the admirable way in which the white shirts defended as one is unsurprising. With Italian attacks petering out, could they get Fallon to hold up the ball, give them some respite and maybe build something?
New Zealand are a powerful side, with Fallon, Winston Reid and Ryan Nelsen all providing a real aerial threat. Set plays are a great leveller, and Shane Smeltz' (admittedly offside) goal from a long diagonal free-kick was a danger that Lippi had identified before the game. Now we really had a game on, and the presence of Nelsen and Simon Elliott in particular was going to be vital. The former to marshal the two less experienced players either side of him, and the latter to screen in front of them, put his foot on the ball, and start the moves that would give his side time to grab some air. As the period wore on, the Italian pressure mounted, and the tight pressing of the early stages diminished to the point where Riccardo Montolivo got a coconut shy at goal from range. Mark Paston was beaten but fortunately for him the post was not.
The minor disappointment among the Kiwi ranks will be the soft penalty that levelled it. Tommy Smith's tug at Daniele De Rossi's shirt was naïve more than anything. It must have come as a blessed relief to the Azzurri, who may have felt this was North Korea 1966 all over again. The new goal was to get through to half-time at 1-1 and play in incremental stages from there. Italy huffed and puffed but never really looked like blowing the All White house down. Fears or hopes of a Kiwi collapse turned out to be premature and false as Nelsen in particular proved commanding in the air and a real galvanising force for his team. Like England, Italy look tired, and no tactical framework in the world is going to change that.
Into the second half, and Mauro Camoranesi and Antonio De Natale were brought on with the aim of providing some guile and creativity to make better use of Italy's 60% of the ball. The Udinese man had a shot saved by Paston early on, and it did look for a spell like the crucial goal was inevitable. However, what New Zealand did brilliantly was 'gang up' on blue shirts, perfectly happy to risk their bodies and looks for the cause. Shots were blocked, Azzurri players rarely got clean efforts on goal, and Nelsen, man of the match by an absolute mile, produced a display of blocking, heading and competing that would have graced any side on earth. Paston, shaky in the first game with Slovakia, was much improved here, beating away a Camoranesi effort as the Italian pot shots came from further and further back. Italy and their supporters were becoming desperate, with those in face paint looking bitterly ironic.
Fallon, exhausted, booked and clearly not on Fabio Cannavaro's Christmas card list, made way for Chris Wood of West Bromwich Albion. Amid the Alamo at the other end, there was a brief flirtation with the unthinkable as the 18-year old had a magnificent cameo, holding up the ball with aplomb, winning headers and giving his more illustrious opponents more nightmares than the Exorcist and the Elm Street films put together. His moment came eight minutes from the end, as he made Cannavaro look like a fringe player on Hackney Marshes, before firing just wide.
Herbert can take immense credit for the way in which he organised his side to defend in numbers, confront the opposition and respect but not fear them. The long balls up to the front player were a real leveller too, and while Chris Killen was relatively quiet despite working hard, Fallon and Wood did the job of a trademark number nine. It must be said that Lippi did not get a huge amount wrong. His changes were well-intended and made sense, and his side was set up in a way that should really have got the win from somewhere. His team tried, but were low on drive and energy, while the Kiwis not only had an excellent game-plan, but executed it with fire, desire and the spirit of never say die. Sean Fitzpatrick will be proud of them, for sure.