Who would have thought that Italy’s 2-1 win over England would turn out to be the consolation prize in a group dominated by a CONCACAF team? Who would have expected Group of Death whipping boys Costa Rica to send two European giants packing in a little over ten days?
Following two humbling defeats in as many lacklustre performances, Italy are going home without manager Cesare Prandelli, who resigned in the wake of the 1-0 defeat to Uruguay that sent Italy crashing out of the competition whilst assuming responsibility for the defeat.
For a four-time world champion, two consecutive group stage exits are unheard of around these parts since the early 1960’s- and are more than enough justification for the resumption of a favored Italian pastime: the blame game.
After a wonderful showing at Euro 2012, few would have thought that Cesare Prandelli ran the risk of losing his job. The Azzurri had qualified without breaking sweat, and looked to be in the process of replacing their traditional defence-minded philosophy with an attractive brand of possession football- albeit more reactive than the hype would have us believe.
Yet the coach may well be the biggest culprit this time around, a position confirmed by the numerous tactical blunders he was responsible for during the tournament, and which would have arguably justified his sacking had he not left the fold immediately after Italy’s elimination.
Prandelli failed to adapt to the constant pressure that sides like Uruguay and Costa Rica applied on Italy’s midfield, all while tightening it up and the back and requiring Italy to pick apart a nine-man wall. In that light, is it so surprising that the Azzurri struggled against Ireland two years ago at the European Championship?
It is quite one thing to play Spain, Croatia and Germany- opponents who are far more expansive, and hence liable to give Pirlo more room and breathing space. It is another to try the same stunt against sides that are waiting for the opportunity to counter, exploiting a potentially lethal combination of inferior Italian defending and unimaginative attacking play. Italy’s front three (or front two against Uruguay) moved so poorly that Andrea Pirlo & co were often forced to spurn good opportunities on the counter by going for the safe pass down the wing, allowing their opponents to come back and cover. Italy’s form was so poor that they failed to muster a single dangerous chance from open play against Uruguay, or indeed in the second half against Jorge Luis Pinto’s Costa Rica.
Though it later emerged that Cassano was not well liked in the dressing room, he may well have been the X factor Italy were lacking up front, where a sedentary Balotelli added very little to Italy’s buildup and looked horrific when pulling the trigger. In a possession system a little bit of unpredictability is always needed, and Cassano would have added the counterweight Italy needed to avoid looking like the slow, cumbersome and predictable team we saw against Latin American opposition.
Things were little better on the wings: just like Guardiola’s Barcelona needed Lionel Messi and a mobile front three to provide an outlet to their buildup, so Italy needed both a creative spark and pace.Instead, the Azzurri got two disappearing acts in Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile, not to mention Alessio Cerci, who was “born offside” in the decidedly wrong sense of the term.
It is here that Prandelli’s months of experimentation were downgraded to mere tinkering, to tell-tale signs of a coach uncertain about both his starters and his attacking philosophy. Italy looked atrocious second half against Costa Rica, and though the players definitely deserve a share in the blame, a manager’s job is to make his charges comfortable in their roles. The Azzurri were as sloppy on the ball (if not more) as they had been back in the equally catastrophic 2002 and 2010 campaigns.
A robust dose of mea culpa is in order here, as Giuseppe Rossi, a player I discounted on fitness grounds, could not have done worse than those who boarded the plane instead of him. The Rossi debate opens up Prandelli for further criticism, namely regarding the 23 men who ultimately flew to Brazil. Did Prandelli call up the best players in the league, rather than those who best fit his system? Did the players who really raised their game this season (including Cerci and Immobile) get enough playing time in the (admittedly few) games Italy played in 2014?
A good example of how to handle a similar situation can arguably be found across the Alps- where Didier Deschamps kept plugging away with roughly the players and system, all whilst including new elements (notoriously Antoine Griezmann). He may, admittedly, have been a little fortunate that it all came together in the return leg against the Ukraine, but at least his side have shown clear signs of progress and look to be on the right track four years after the Knysna incident. Four years after failing to beat New Zealand, Italy are stuck in a rut once more.
Prandelli can, admittedly, attribute part of this disaster to factors beyond his control- including injuries to Christian Maggio as well as Riccardo Montolivo, two vital cogs in the 2012 campaign. Though he kept from criticizing his charges, Il Mister certainly didn’t have the pick of the European litter some of his predecessors had access to, right-back Ignazio Abate being a case in point. It is quite ironic, moreover, that many of these young players aren’t getting the opportunities they need to grow, especially when one considers how star-drained the Serie A really is. That considered, Italy’s made it all the way to the final just two years ago with a similar squad.
A more reasonable defence of the manager could well hedge on the difficult weather conditions the Azzurri encountered. Why Italy should have to play all three of their games in a tropical climate is frankly beyond me, and would have only escaped this damp furnace in the second round or, even worse, the quarter finals if they topped the group. With Italy’s players barely able to stand in the second half of last year’s semi-final Confederations Cup defeat to Spain, it is likely Prandelli wanted to keep his charges fresh for as long as possible this time round, and chose to adopt a more possession-based system to do so. Keep the ball, the logic goes, and you can slow the game down to a pace more suited to Italy’s heavy legs, thus allowing them to change the tempo when they need to. It is not a coincidence that so few European teams have made it to the second round, penalized as they were by conditions which their Latin American colleagues exploited to the full.
This all considered, the former Fiorentina coach can’t blame all of his errors on the weather, nor indeed on the Marchisio red card that some fans are blaming. My contention is that he lunged in looking for more than just the ball, his foot twisting awkwardly on Arevalo’s leg and giving the impression that the Juventus midfielder was aiming to add something extra to the contact, presumably unaware that the referee was right behind him. Then again, Italy have survived red cards before, namely against Australia in 2006, when Marco Materazzi was unfairly sent off early on in Italy’s Round of 16 tie. The Azzurri ended up holding Australia to just two clear-cut chances, and scraped through thanks to a highly questionable penalty call. It was significant that Uruguay really didn’t create much after the Juventus midfielder’s marching orders- but were able to exploit set-pieces, a major weakness for Italy in the qualifying campaign.
Prandelli’s substitutions are equally indefensible. His changes against Costa Rica were particularly rash- coming at half-time when Italy had at least showed some signs of life. It turned out that removing Candreva and Marchisio may well have cost Italy the game: both midfielders, whilst not brilliant, did at least provide an outlet to the midfield and a link (albeit tenuous) to Balotelli. They were both instrumental against England and arguably had a bad half against Costa Rica. There was no such luck for Insigne and Cerci, who blundered around looking listless and confused, and were more often than not caught offside anyway. The choice of Thiago Motta for the latter two games was puzzling- looking more tired than team-mates who had played the full 90 is a rare feat, but one Motta accomplished consummately.
Though he deserved more of a chance as a starter, Cassano the sub seemed a ridiculous choice once Italy went down to ten men against Uruguay, as he lacked the pace to contribute either offensively or defensively. It is a convenient microcosm for how the tournament went for the Azzurri- lacking a clear purpose, or indeed a read on the situation. Just like Prandelli’s Fiorentina sides seemed to run out of steam towards the end of the season, so Italy look to have exhausted their seemingly ample supplies of both energy and ideas. It’s high time for a change.