Five days have passed since Italy’s whopping 3-0 defeat at the hands of Brazil, a match which put an an end to Lippi’s South African countryside scouting (one year before the big tournament) and sent the Azzurri home among general shrugs of indifference, frowned eyebrows, and sincere worries in the ranks of Italian supporters.
Confederations Cup… Confederations schmuck
Something should be established right from the get-go in this article, and that is one has to take the FIFA Confederations Cup for its true value: a tournament of prestige, played to fill the gap between Euro and World Cup Summers and to make a certain FIFA mogul (whose name starts with S and ends with …epp Blatter) happy. Happy at proclaiming his love for the beautiful game, the continued globalization of football, the athletic clashing of cultures, and blah blah blah. All that is great for sports unity, but in terms of true football competition no one (certainly not the big teams) takes this tournament seriously. Certainly not to the extent of a Euro tournament, a Copa America, or the master of them all: the FIFA World Cup.
Reading a few of the message boards after Italy’s elimination, I saw comments going along the lines of “where was Italy’s pride? where was Gattuso’s legendary determination?”. I mean seriously… pride? Determination? Are these the words we should be using to qualify the Azzurri’s elimination? Pride & determination are qualities which are stimulated when the going gets tough and when the stakes are high. In terms of international football, they are their greatest when a team is competing for Silvio Gazzaniga‘s golden trophy, not for a tournament who many consider a chore and few really care about. Dead-on to Julian from the Offside World Cup blog for expressing it in one of his poll options: “it’s always embarassing to lose to Brazil and Egypt, but it was a minor tournament and now we know where we stand and what has to change“.
That being said, there are some vital conclusions to be drawn from Italy’s South African performance this month, so let’s have a look at them.
The AGE Factor
Unless the Azzurri want their team nickname changed into “Rossoneri”, some of their oldies gotta go. Experience counts yes, but a large part of the WC 2006 veterans are way past their prime. In the collective shamble that was Italy vs. Brazil few players saved themselves, and among the names of the “guilty” stood high & those of Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Toni, and Gilardino.
The first two, once incredible rocks of solidity & energy, have never been quite the same since that 2005-06 season ended. Cannavaro‘s hoping to re-conquer his pre-World Cup glory by re-acquainting himself with Serie A at Juve, but at 35 years of age can we really expect the same miracles from him as he displayed during the march to Berlin? As for Zambrotta (32), he looked truly embarassing during certain portions of the Brazil game and it’s time bow to the evidence: the workaholic dynamo of Italy’s right wing is no more.
Concerning Toni, his descent into the flames of hell has been truly painful to watch this past year. At its peak of his goalscoring career in the 2007-08 season (40+ goals at his first season with Bayern), the Swiss-Austrian Euro tournament flipped the ex-Fiorentina striker right on his head. Incapable of scoring a goal for the Azzurri since God knows when, “abysmal” doesn’t even begin to describe his performances this season. Unless his form rapidly changes, Toni will have to be content to watch the World Cup in a Munich pub, drinking Jägermeister to drown his sorrows. Gilardino‘s another story since his year with Fiorentina has been more than satisfactory. But just as everyone was quick to use words like “rebirth” and “second life” in the early part of the season, his goalscoring form slowly declined during the months of April & May. In South Africa, he was often inadequate.
Who’s to save? Despite his age, Grosso always put in decent performances for the Azzurri. Camoranesi is really the only Italian player (Cassano excepted) capable of taking opponents one-on-one, Gattuso (coming off from an injury this month) can always be relied upon for sheer determination & aggression. As for Pirlo, well… can anyone really imagine Italy without Pirlo just yet?
Between now and South Africa 2010 still many things can take place, and as De Rossi & Buffon collectively expressed to the press (“show us the players, even the youngsters, which according to you are stronger that those they should substitute“) the replacements identified by the Italian public still aren’t ripe for the big jump. However, there are certain players which Lippi should focus on progressively bringing into the senior group this coming year. I have only selected a few because God knows the list is never exhaustive.
GOALKEEPERS: Buffon is still number one, no question, but his heirs are slowly showing their face. Marchetti seems to be the elected choice, as well as Consigli who, in the current U-21 Euro tournament, already saved the Azzurrini’s hide many times.
DEFENDERS: Santon almost seems to be a certainty. If he repeats his recent year at Inter, there’s no doubt Italy are looking at their starting right/left-back for the next decade. Motta will soon be joining him, capitalizing on his AS Roma and U-21 captaincy experience. Criscito, Bocchetti, De Ceglie, and Santacroce are question marks.
MIDFIELDERS: The hot topic right now is Gaetano D’Agostino. To avoid the classic flash-in-the-pan scenario I say “wait”, but the quality (set-pieces included) is definitely there. Marchisio is progressively taking a real leadership role at Juve and the Azzurrini, and along those same lines we find Luca Cigarini of Parma. If there’s anyone who should be the likely back-up for DDR/Gattuso it’s one of those two. Then there’s also Brighi (not really a youngster anymore), the true revelation of Roma’s midfield this season.
FORWARDS: In terms of U-21 context, three names come to mind in this section: Giovinco, Balotelli, Acquafresca. The former needs to find continuity & playing time at Juventus, but we all know what he’s capable of on a good day. The latter scored 3 goals at the Sweden U-21 tournament, litterally taking the Azzurrini to the top of the group (but then flopping in the semi-final). Can he repeat himself the coming year? As for Super Mario, discipline problems seem to be his only Achilles’ heel. If he finds a way to correct them, his power, technique, and mobility make him one of the most feared strikers of Serie A. Need I even mention that with Giovinco & Balotelli Italy would also have two very dangerous set-piece specialists?
I will add
two three more names to this list (once again, not really youngsters but possible replacements nonetheless). The first are both Sampdoria players: Pazzini (who’s had a fantastic rebirth in the Ligurian capital) and Cassano. For the latter, compatibility problems with Lippi seem to be the only real obstacle and one which, so far, has proven insurmountable for the Talent of Bari Vecchia. Who knows… As for the third player, his possible call-up will undoubtedly become headline material again in September, when his Italian citizenship finally goes through and he starts his new season at Juve. I am talking of course about Amauri.
TACTICS: 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1… Can Someone Explain?
Making a short analysis of Azzurri-tactics from 2006 up to this point, Italy essentially played 4-2-3-1 for the majority of the tournament (despite originally starting with a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1), a formation which was then shifted into a 4-3-3 during the Donadoni era. Post-Donadoni Lippi seems to have embraced this tactic as well, often proposing Di Natale, Iaquinta, Camoranesi, and Pepe in the roles of external wingers, keeping one striker (Toni, Gilardino) isolated up front.
Clearly, while the 4-3-3 formation has been going fairly well during qualifiers, it did NOT work in South Africa. With the almost certain promotion of Giuseppe Rossi to a starting position in 2010, Lippi needs to find a way to make his plans work, possibly with the addition of a second striker or the re-shuffling of his midfield positions. Clearly, the 4-man backline is very unlikely to be modified anytime soon, but I foresee a progressive re-emergence of the 4-2-3-1 formation, with De Rossi/Pirlo/Gattuso defensive mids and Rossi/Giovinco/Balotelli occupying any of the OM positions. Who occupies the striker position is a much more difficult guess to make.
LIPPI: That “Sly Silver Fox”…
The Italian manager got under some pretty heavy flak in the post-elimination mood (including from Facebook users, read this article in Italian for a funny story). According to a Gazzetta poll, the majority of Italian supporters are putting Lippi on the chopping block for the Italy 0-3 Brazil shamble, “both because of pre-tournament call-ups as well as in-game tactical changes”.
For me, one English expression clearly expresses my feelings concerning this view: BOLLOCKS. While Lippi is obviously directly responsible for the people he brought to South Africa with him, this was part of a long-term plan. As Fox Sports analyst & blogger Bobby McMahon said in the FSC report Monday, Lippi is one “sly silver fox”. He is using the Confederations Cup to have a final test at some of his World Cup champions from 2006, and to his reasoning seems to be along the lines of (to quote Bobby) “If you do well, great, if not, I finally gets the freedom to bring in new players to replace you“.
There is a small fallacy in Bobby’s theory, which seems to be suggesting that Lippi is somehow looking to justify himself in the eyes of the Italian public. I don’t believe that to be true. Lippi’s a manager who never felt the need to justify himself or explain his choices in front of anyone. But I do agree on the fact this Confederations Cup was an early 2010 test for the Azzurri, a test which some of the players clearly failed and who therefore might have their place in the team be seriously put into question in the coming months.
At the end of the day, I look at this tournament and say to myself: “You know what? Good! We took those losses against Egypt and Brazil a year early. We will learn from them, and when the REAL tournament comes next Summer we’ll be ready”.
Say whatever you want, but when the nº1-ranked team in the world loses 2-0 to the USA I’m actually somewhat glad we got to go home one week early.