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Are Italy finally making progress?

It is a telling sign that many of us would have signed below the dotted line for last night’s Azzurri performance. Was this a sign of how much Conte’s team had achieved, how low our expectations were, or both?

To be truthful, it was a relief that Italy weren’t passed off the park by Vicente Del Bosque’s men, but was this ever likely to happen? Though it was refreshing to see Italy harry Spain’s ball-carriers and never let them find their feet, La Furia Roja has yet to prove that it has moved on from the team that puffed and wheezed in the Brazilian sun.

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Where do Italy go from here?

It’s tough to talk about La Nazionale these days. There are very few certainties, after an up-and-down qualifying campaign.

Our imaginary Azzurri building blocks are full of red flags. Italy are unbeaten in fifty qualifiers? Sure, against the likes of Bulgaria and Malta. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci still make elementary mistakes in an Azzurri shirt. Marco Verratti still has developing to do.

There are so many doubts that’s it is worth asking whether we’re asking the right questions, or contextualising them properly. For example, is having a great squad enough to do well?

 

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Romanzo d’una catastrofe

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.

Giuseppe Rossi: The Case Against

It sometimes occurs to me that being the manager of a national team may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. With too few games in which to evaluate their players and too much time to agonize about each and every single option available to them, these lucky few are then left with the unenviable task of distilling it all down to 23 names whilst dealing with the media backlash, the fans’ expectations, and their players’ wounded egos to boot.

It is in this context that Italy reacted negatively to Cesare Prandelli’s decision to leave Giuseppe Rossi at home last week on fitness grounds, compelling the Fiorentina starlet to miss a third major tournament in a row. The flames were further fanned by the apparent controversy surrounding the validity of Prandelli’s fitness tests – and Rossi’s irked reaction on twitter- leaving many Azzurri fans reaching for the panic button.

And who could blame them? After all, a fit Giuseppe Rossi brings something that the Azzurri have often lacked: a rare combination of flair, creativity, pace and, more importantly, a clinical touch few Italian strikers possess. For all his talent, even Mario Balotelli failed to score in four out of six Italy games at Euro 2012, not to mention his current scoreless streak with the Azzurri going back to October.

In the aftermath of this latest tormentone, some (including this correspondent) were drawn to parallels with a namesake of Rossi’s named Paolo, who went from being a washout who hadn’t played in two years to leading Italy to victory in the 1982 World Cup. Bring a player like Pepito along- the argument went- and he may well rekindle that old spark in a crucial game, fit or unfit. The former Ferguson protégé seemed to confirm this suspicion by adding two goals in an impressive four-game stretch towards the end of the season with Fiorentina- albeit one from the penalty spot.

It was fitness that won out however, ultimately being the factor that axed Rossi’s chances of making the plane after the Fiorentina striker looked like a shadow of his former self in a friendly against Ireland. It may have appeared fanciful to Prandelli to assume that the New Jersey native could come on and turn a game on its head – even as a sub- without that extra half-yard Fernando Torres has been chasing since 2008, and too much of a sacrifice to risk him whilst he wasn’t on his game. Rossi had yet to play a full game since his return, often appearing hesitant to go into challenges and still a step off the pace. Managing 35 minutes as a sub in Serie A, may not have equated in Prandelli’s mind to braving the last quarter of an hour or even extra time in the Amazonian weather- which Italy would only escape come the semifinals if they win their group.

Though the fitness issue has been laughed off by some – after all, Rossi’s namesake Paolo hadn’t played in two years before catching fire in 1982- Prandelli looks to have taken certain lessons from last year’s Confederations Cup to heart, namely the fact that Italy were run off the park by Japan and were barely able to stay on their feet as the clock wound down in their semi-final loss to Spain. It is unlikely the coach wants a repeat performance, as his choice of Mangaratiba (where humidity often spiked in the 90’s) as his World Cup HQ abundantly proves. In this context fitness is much more than a convenient excuse to dump Rossi, and rather a mantra his staff has constantly repeated over the past few weeks. For a squad that is 11th in average age coming into the tournament, this may well turn out to be a deciding factor.

Rossi is also the unfortunate victim of what has, ironically, been a great season for Italian attacking play. Ciro Immobile is one of only six players to have bagged at least 22 goals in one of Europe’s Top Four leagues, assisted by the brilliant, if a tad mercurial Alessio Cerci (one of his outbursts allegedly caused Torino manager Giampiero Ventura to be suddenly taken ill). Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Cassano have, for their part, massively contributed to Napoli and Parma’s campaigns.

For want of a better comparative adjective, it may have been easier for Prandelli to stick with the safe options from a form and fitness perspective, rather than risk upsetting fans by not backing four players who may just have done a little more to deserve a place on the plane. Furthermore, Il Mister’s likely choice of formation would exclude the aforementioned strikers from earning a starting spot, with the midfield cabal and Super Mario shotgunning most of the slots in Prandelli’s 4-1-3-1-1. If none of them are even starting, why should Rossi even be on the plane?

Prandelli may have also felt that rushing Rossi back would have been too great of a risk for a player who has not even come close to playing a full season since 2010-11 (ironically the year after Lippi excluded him from the last World Cup), and whose career is unlikely to survive another ligament tear. Fresh from his recent contract extension, Prandelli may be playing a longer game than many of us give him credit for, and could well envisage France 2016 as the stage on which Rossi can bring the footballing world to its knees.

Granted, it is very hard not to feel sorry for one of Italy’s most promising strikers of the modern era, a player so handicapped by injuries and plain bad luck that his international career may never amount to more than what it is now: a halfway house between his untapped potential and the untold frustration fans (not to mention Rossi) feel every single time fate conspires to keep him out of a tournament.

Yet this unfortunate sequence of events shouldn’t compel Prandelli to select him, or even make him the butt of the fans’ vitriol. For that purpose, all guns should be trained on Marcello Lippi, who recently expressed regret at not selecting Rossi for the 2010 World Cup. With Vincenzo Iaquinta (and his 8 Serie A goals) heading the line, Italy were humiliated in ways that made the 1966 defeat to North Korea appear a respectable outcome by comparison.

Ultimately, it is tempting for fans to want to consider every single possibility before a major tournament, and to add another illusory layer of protection in those unbearable hours before going over the top. Yet whilst the squad is doubtless important, Italy will likely live and die by the starting lineups Prandelli chooses, and the select subs he feels comfortable throwing in the fray (though he is quite inclusive). An English journalist learned that lesson when he negatively compared England’s 2002 squad to Argentina’s, arguing that the Three Lions could never hope to compete against a squad that had kept out the mighty Santiago Solari.

Like Marcelo Bielsa’s side, or indeed Rossi’s Villareal, Italy could very well fail to make the grade, though it won’t be for want of experimentation. Having been pretty much assured of a place in the World Cup as of last summer, Prandelli has enjoyed a luxury few in his position have had: that of tinkering with multiple formations and numerous players, affording him plenty of time to consider the possibility of a World Cup without his own Pablito. Chances are he’ll do just fine.