After a match like this, one would normally do well to take a night’s rest to carefully analyze the situation, see what went wrong, and what can be done to correct it. That is undoubtedly what Roberto Donadoni and his players will be doing over the next few days, to make sure that this debacle isn’t repeated vs. Romania.
I, on the other hand, have the luxury to live in timezone where a night’s rest isn’t necessary: at 7′o clock in the evening I can attempt to take a preliminary guess at why (oh why) Italy conceded 3 goals tonight, without scoring any.
Culprit nº1: The Defense (in particular the center-backs)
When a team concedes 3 goals, it’s pretty obvious: it is either the defense’s fault, the goalkeeper’s fault, or both. When you have someone like Gigi Buffon, you’re pretty much covered goalkeeping-wise. Gigi’s clearance on Van der Vaart’s cross may not have been impeccable (he could have played it safe by deflecting the ball into corner), you can’t really fault Italy’s nº1 for the 1-0.
Materazzi-Barzagli now… that’s a whole other story. Before tonight, these two had played together competitively only once (and that was over a year ago). After tonight’s performance, it seems fairly obvious that that one match wasn’t enough: cohesion, covering, and man-marking were all horribly off the mark today. No one without exception thought Cannavaro’s injury would be easy to overcome, but to think that his absence would weigh so heavily onto a team which, over the years, has made of defense of their strongest weapons, was absolutely unthinkable. Over the next few days, Donadoni’s biggest efforts will have to be focused on this problem, because a solution is needed. Fast.
Materazzi‘s match (much like his season this year) was mediocre at best. My guess is that he just doesn’t have reliability anymore, he has lost his place as a starter. Barzagli wasn’t all that better to be honest, but at least one step higher than his Inter colleague. Unfortunately, alternatives aren’t exactly abundant in the Azzurri camp. Giorgio Chiellini had a phenomenal season with Juve in this role, but his recent test-match with Barzagli during practice ended with his team conceding five goals. Not the greatest of omens. Christian Panucci did a little better as he reverted to center-back during today’s match, but not by a great stretch. However, Fabio Grosso‘s rising match-form (both during training and vs. Netherlands) would make this solution the most likely choice for the match against Romania.
Culprit nº2: The Offside
You can say whatever you want about the Azzurri’s performance: they didn’t play well, they made too many mistakes, Holland deserved their win, blah blah blah. The fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, the pivotal point in this match was Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s 1-0 goal. Was it offside, was it not offside? The key element to consider here is Panucci’s position at the time of Van Bronckhorst’s shot. There is absolutely no question that RVN was a good 2-3 yards past Andrea Barzagli at that time, so the question is: did the linesman base his call by considering Panucci was in fact in play, or is he just fu**ing blind as a bat?
No doubt UEFA will come up with some kind of statement in the next few days to clear this up, but my take on the matter: Panucci was out of the playing field, not participating in the play, and therefore cannot be considered as keeping RVN onside. Big fu**ing mistake by the linesman in my opinion.
Culprit nº3: Roberto Donadoni
Well, undoubtedly the coach is going to get some blame for this. Ultimately a few of his choices directly led to the Azzurri’s defeat today, but the question is: would anyone have done differently?
Starting from the Materazzi-Barzagli pick, it was undoubtedly a mistake that backfired, but in all honesty and in Donadoni’s defense: I would have chosen the exact same men. Materazzi had the experience, the reliability with the Azzurri shirt, and seemed the most ideal candidate to replace Fabio Cannavaro. Recent tests made with Chiellini-Barzagli hadn’t exactly been promising (see above), so the only other viable alternative was to put Panucci in the center and Grosso on the left. Something which, given the Lyon wing-back’s limited contribution to the defensive effort, Donadoni was probably not ready to risk.
By the same token, the Don’s choice at picking Massimo Ambrosini over Daniele De Rossi can be defended with the same arguments: “playing it safe” vs. “taking a chance”. Ambrosini gives more to the defensive effort than DDR, and his entente with AC Milan teammates Pirlo & Gattuso gives plenty of reliability (usually) to Italy’s midfield. Faced with a tough opponent like Holland, my guess is that Donadoni wanted to play the containment card early, leaving the ace of creativity to the likes of Pirlo, Di Natale, and Camoranesi. Given how things have turned out today, this was obviously the wrong choice but once again, crucifying Donadoni for it would be unjustified.
Now with that said, let’s leave the Devil’s advocate vest on the coat hanger and look at what Donadoni did do wrong (and should take blame for). Firstly the substitutions: they came too late. Had the score been only 0-1, one could have understood the Don not wanting to take too many chances just yet. However, the Azzurri were already two goals down at the break and considerably suffering in both defense & midfield. Changes were necessary to inject some creativity and at least attempt to turn things around. Grosso’s insertion for Materazzi was a good move, but was leaving Daniele De Rossi off the bench wise? Shouldn’t have more defensive players like Gattuso or Ambrosini made way for Serie A’s best midfielder this year, perhaps even for Alberto Aquilani? Finally, was keeping Cassano on the bench till minute 75 really a good idea?
The answer to all those questions, looking at tonight’s final result, is obviously no.
Minor culprits: The Midfield and Luca Toni
Now I now what you’re going to say… “don’t you fu**ing dare touch Luca Toni, what else could he have done?!” Notice I put our beloved Bayern Munich striker in the “minor culprit” section. And the answer to that previous question is… something more. This wasn’t, by all accounts, Toni’s finest performance. He did his share for a while but at some point, collectively collapsed mentally like the rest of his teammates. That missed re-directed header for Di Natale in minute 8 and that missed shot over van der Sar in minute 75 also raise questions… you’re much better than this Luca!! We need our goalscoring machine.
Onto a “less controversial” issue: the midfield. Today, it was quite simply terrible. Not as bad as the defense mind you, but when your opponents manage to beat you in ball possession, speed, and technique quite so vividly, something’s not working right. With Ambrosini, this should have been a “contain” type of midfield. It turned out to be quite the opposite (and the defense didn’t help). Common sense suggests Daniele De Rossi should be making a start vs. Romania in 3 days’ time.
My predictive guess for Italy’s formation in the next match?
Zambrotta, Panucci, Barzagli, Grosso
Gattuso, Pirlo, De Rossi
Camoranesi, Toni, Di Natale
And I’d say the odds of Di Natale & Del Piero are about 60/40 right now…