Cesare Prandelli’s decision to resign in the wake of the Azzurri’s 1-0 defeat to Uruguay was a noble one, premised on the idea that he was responsible for Italy’s poor showing in the World Cup. Setting aside his tenure as the Italian coach this cycle, if we focus on this match, then it was the correct decision to shoulder the blame.
Things started well for Italy. As expected, they ran out with a 3-5-2 formation with Verratti and Marchisio as deputies for Pirlo with Immobile getting a rare start. In hindsight, the decision to start Mario Balotelli may have been a bad one as his early yellow card meant he finished the half playing conservatively and was subbed out at halftime. If Prandelli had shocked everyone and started Immobile and, say, Insigne (or brought Giuseppe Rossi who would have been critical here), he could have saved Balotelli in case he needed a spark off the bench. As stated, that’s hindsight and starting the AC Milan striker is almost never a bad idea.
The first half played out exactly as Italy needed it to. The game was slowed down, the Azzurri played well in the midfield, and a draw (which would send Italy through) looked likely. The red flags were up front where Balotelli was constrained and Ciro Immobile was playing very poorly, but halftime is where things began to go wrong for Prandelli. He substituted Marco Parolo for Balotelli, which by default changes the Italian shape to a 4-5-1/4-2-3-1 with no striker support for Immobile. Left alone up top, the Dortmund signee was impotent and, when Claudio Marchisio was sent off for a rash challenge, forced another change. This time, Prandelli brought on Cassano to play up top. If Cassano had come on at halftime, he would have allowed Italy to have a better attacking option and more support for Immobile, linking him to the midfield. Instead, as of the 71st minute, Italy were essentially playing for the tie with no back-up plan.
Again, it is easy to criticize in hindsight, but when you are playing a desperate team with such attacking talent and are a man down, having the ability to hit on the counter when they over-commit or strike back if you go down is critical. Cassano at this stage is not a lone striker at the international level especially when Italy only had ten men. Prandelli was making a massive gamble that anyone could see would come back to, er, bite him.
It almost didn’t. Credit should go to the Juventus back three for playing positionally so well and for Buffon for bailing out Italy at times with massive saves. In another game that Italy and Uruguay draw, we would be discussing Bonucci and Chiellini obviously positioning themselves perfectly to deny Suarez et. al. clear scoring opportunities. As it was, this will be shoved to the bottom of the story.
Thiago Motta coming on to the pitch in the 75th minute was further evidence of how poorly Prandelli’s strategy had unraveled. Frankly he was the best and only option to come on at that point, and again he played poorly.
Looking back on his tenure, there is plenty positive to say about Cesare Prandelli as the coach of the Italian national team. But in maybe the most critical game of his tenure, he flopped worse than some of his players.