Italy Camp Focus – An Encouraging start but lack of width may pose problems

They hardly lit Cape Town on fire when Italy took on Paraguay in Group F’s match on Monday, but they certainly proved that they are not the shambolic mess they were in last year’s Confederations Cup. The Italians kept their defensive line high, they played in two rows of four when defending, and they made sure each player was marked, making life very difficult for the South Americans as they struggled to find space. Paraguay erred by not pushing hard enough to unlock the Italian defence, spending much of their time squaring the ball as opposed to attempting a more direct passing game. Throughout the match, due to the defensive organisation of the Azzurri, the opponents were regularly found retreating back into their own half as a midfield short on creativity continually ran out of ideas.

Every team has a star man others should watch out for. For Italy , that man is Marcello Lippi. Despite hefty criticism, he demonstrated his tactical awareness on Monday as he made the right substitutions at the right time to swing the game in favour of his players. Moreover, this Italy – in comparison to last year’s team – are eager to win, and they have the mentality to do so. They continued to believe in their strengths, their confidence remained high, and even after they equalised they searched endlessly for the goal that would have handed them all three points. Statistics show that the average age of winning squads is 29 and Lippi’s team is just over 28. The veteran manager might just be right when he says that his team is not old, just experienced.

However, before we jump on the ‘yes we can’ bandwagon, we should acknowledge that, during the game, the same old problems that have been repeatedly discussed across the footballing world reared their collective ugly head. There was no magic, no flair, no spark, and no special player who looked capable of truly influencing the match. This Italian team is entirely dependent on the collective unit and goals are hard to come by. With the absence of Andrea Pirlo, they may well end up relying on set pieces to get through. It is almost a parasitic way of approaching football, as the Azzurri wait to capitalise on any error their opponents make in hope of snatching a goal. On the whole, it is something of a shame that a nation that once depended on the flair of Roberto Baggio, the creativity of Paolo Rossi and the playmaking abilities of Alessandro Del Piero have turned into such a robotic and methodical outfit.

Next up is New Zealand, who notched up their first ever point in a World Cup Tournament on Tuesday with a last-gasp equalizer against Slovakia. With an extra man in midfield, the Kiwis enjoyed more control than they could ever have hoped for, as their European opponents looked sloppy in position and were continually out-muscled in the air. That is perhaps the reason why Lippi is likely to stick with a classic 4-4-2 formation on Sunday. Having undoubtedly noticed Vincenzo Iaquinta struggling on the wing and Alberto Gilardino wallowing in solitude up top, the Azzurri tactician will almost certainly change tactics. Claudio Marchisio is unaccustomed to his free role behind the strike,r and without a natural trequartista or an imaginative figure behind the forward, Lippi should put his faith in the 4-4-2 formation that will not only serve to exploit the strengths of his team but also attack the weaknesses of his opposition.

Possession is not they key to goals, as was all too clear on Monday. What the Azzurri need to work on is stretching out their attack and making use of all the space on the pitch. The Italians’ play is too narrow, and with only three men at the back for New Zealand, Italy should make use of all the space they will have on the flanks. Furthermore, since the Jabulani ball has a mind of its own (just today, Fabio Capello dubbed it the “worst ball of all time”), the attack needs to produce more shots on goal. Statistics show that 50% of international goals are scored after a series of four passes, and in 2006, the majority of goals were scored after two to three passes. Once the ball reaches the final third, the Azzurri need to get their shots off quicker, as the longer they procrastinate, the likelier it is they will be dispossessed.

Unfortunately, the acrobatic Gianluigi Buffon is likely not to feature, and the nation will have to put their faith in the young Federico Marchetti, who kept 11 clean sheets for Cagliari last season. One hopes that Italy will not miss Buffon’s heroics too much, and that the lessons learned from the Paraguay game can be put into practice against hardy world cup minnows New Zealand.

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