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South Africa 2010 Analysis: Reasons behind Italy’s Struggles

Italy managed to draw 1-1 against both Paraguay and New Zealand while failing to impress despite having seen a lot in terms of ball possession, in particular against the Kiwis when the Italians had just over 70% in terms of ball possession. Pundits and fans alike are debating what has gone wrong for the Azzurri in South Africa 2010 with some attributing it to the Italian tendency to start slow referencing Spain 1982, USA 1994 and even Germany 2006.

What some fail to acknowledge is the fact the Italian squads in previous editions of the World Cup in 1982, 1994 and 2006 were far superior to Italy’s current team in terms of the quality of defenders and talent in the attacking department. In USA 1994 the Azzurri could rely on some of the best defenders to every play the game such as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi while four years ago Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta were at their best. Zambrotta has admittedly surprised in this tournament and has been consistent and playing his best football in 3 years albeit still short of his commanding performances in 2006. The main concern here is Cannavaro’s decline with the skipper at fault on both occasions when the Azzurri conceded to Paraguay and New Zealand.

On both occasions, Cannavaro was off in his positioning and could not jump higher than the opponent or control the ball. Against the Kiwis the ball took a deflection off the captain proving he was clueless in terms of his positioning while the Paraguayan goal scorer out jumped both Cannavaro and Daniele De Rossi to score the opener against Italy. Cannavaro has become a weak link in the Azzurri’s defensive line and he is by far the slowest and least impressive of the back four considering Giorgio Chiellini is powerful and tough tackling while Zambrotta is consistent and Domenico Criscito has shown promise on the left flank.

Another main issue is the lack of talent up front with none of the strikers, including Antonio Di Natale, known for their ability to create something spectacular out of nothing. Alberto Gilardino has been a massive disappointment and has barely shot the ball on or off target with the match against the Kiwis showing how ineffective he can be if there is insufficient supply inside the box. The problem with Gilardino is the fact he does not get involved in the build-up and he does not create for himself or teammates rendering him useless in both World Cup matches. The other striker who has started Vincenzo Iaquinta has been played out of position and has struggled to shoot on target due to the lack of supply from the midfielders yet he at least puts the effort and chases the ball. This leaves Antonio Di Natale as the only striker capable of making a difference for the Azzurri yet in both matches he was inserted in the match in the second-half giving him little time to get accustomed to the opponents and to get in the flow.

Di Natale can create and can score as shown by his impressive 29-goal tally in Serie A yet he does need the support of the midfielders. The other two strikers on the bench are Giampaolo Pazzini and Fabio Quagliarella with neither considered world class. Compare those to the attackers at Italy’s disposal in 1994 and one name will suffice to show the massive gap in quality: Roberto Baggio. The former Fiorentina and Juventus forward was the hero for Italy in USA ’94 yet the Italians also had other stars on the bench or starting such as Gianfranco Zola and Giuseppe Signori. In 2006, Italy could rely on Alessandro Del Piero coming off the bench to offer a spark and Francesco Totti starting despite his questionable fitness due to surgery. None of the current forwards compare or come close to Baggio or Totti in terms of talent or the ability to change the direction of the match from a set-piece or a magical move.

This raises the question about Marcello Lippi’s decision to overlook Giuseppe Rossi who was one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise disastrous campaign in the Confederations Cup last year. Everyone knew Lippi would not consider Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano and Fabrizio Miccoli for various reasons while Alessandro Del Piero is perhaps too old for consideration. Under such circumstances, why did not Lippi pick Totti despite his age? Instead Lippi argued Totti could not withstand the rigors of having to play 7 matches in a single month. One can easily counter that by saying why not use Totti or even Del Piero as substitutes or perhaps for 30 minutes during each match? They surely could provide more spark than Pazzini or Di Natale who is closing on 33 years (Totti is a year older and Del Piero is 2 years older).

Besides the deficiencies on the defensive end due to Cannavaro’s alarming drop in level and the blow following Gianluigi Buffon’s injury, the lack of a creative force will come back to haunt Lippi and the Azzurri if it has not already done so since the Italians could end their campaign prematurely if the Slovaks are not beaten. Below is a list of other key factors which have hurt the Azzurri:

Set-Pieces: The Azzurri were a force defending against set-pieces and actually used them best to their advantage. In this tournament so far, the Italians have conceded twice as a result of free-kicks and have lacked in terms of positioning (particularly Cannavaro).

Trailing: The Azzurri have trailed against both Paraguay and New Zealand which is a major disadvantage considering the lack of goals in this tournament and more importantly the Italian strategy which relies more on taking the lead, sitting back and bouncing on the mistakes of opponents to score more goals. The Azzurri needed to score first to force opponents to come out and let go of their defensive plot. Ironically, Italy lost 4 points because of teams successfully implementing the Italian strategy.

Injuries: The injury to Gianluigi Buffon will not be felt at this stage but it is a massive blow and against the likes of the Netherlands, Argentina or Brazil, the Juventus goalkeeper could be a difference maker. The injuries to Andrea Pirlo, Mauro Camoranesi and Claudio Marchisio have hurt the Azzurri in one way or another. Missing Pirlo has forced Lippi to keep experimenting using formations which actually do not suit the Italian players. In addition, Camoranesi has been a marginal influence off the bench while Marchisio has struggled in both matches.

Tactics & Positioning: The system used by Lippi was a complete failure and even when he shifted to a more suitable 4-4-2 it did not work properly because Marchisio was still being used out of position while the strikers were starved from service. Marchisio cannot be used as a left-winger or a playmaker behind the striker. He was an attacking midfielder way back in his youth career but he has been a central midfielder since breaking into the Juventus starting lineup. Lippi is wasting three players by using his system or the current team selection since Marchisio, Iaquinta and Gilardino are all struggling under this formation. The key is to either move Marchisio to a more central role or simply to bench him once Pirlo returns or perhaps even starting Camoranesi at his expense while moving Simone Pepe to the left flank.

Shots on Target: Against the Kiwis,Italy had 15 corners, shot 23 times and had possession 71% of the time yet only shot 5 times on target including a penalty and the rest were  long-distance shots. Not one shot on target by Gilardino and Iaquinta, except for his converted penalty. Montolivo had one long range effort which hit the post while two other shots on target came courtesy of long distance strikes by De Rossi and Camoranesi. Thus, there was a single effort inside the penalty box which was on target and it came from substitute Di Natale. This is quite shocking and will not help the Azzurri cause considering in 2006 both goals against the Germans were from shots from inside the box. According to ESPN’s stats New Zealand’s goalkeeper Mark Paston touched the ball more than any other player from the Kiwis who cleared the ball more than 50 times (most of any team in South Africa 2010). Clearly all stats were to Italy’s advantage yet the Azzurri failed to defeat the Kiwis in another sign of the declining game of the Italians.

Marcello Lippi: No one can argue Lippi’s ability to guide teams to glory as evidenced  on both club level (with Juventus) and with the Azzurri, yet his decisions have been poor in terms of excluding players such as Totti and failing to convince Alessandro Nesta to return for the World Cup (Nesta performed much better than Cannavaro this year). Even more troubling is the fact Lippi does not appear to have settled on a strategy to implement which can be attributed to the lack of a creative force capable of integrating the strikers and linking the midfield with the attack.

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Click to comment


  1. Hobayter Tabanji

    June 24, 2010 at 6:48 am

    Good analysis, I must say.

  2. bookmakers

    June 22, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Im glad catenaccio doesnt work anymore…

  3. Niccolo Conte

    June 22, 2010 at 2:52 am

    Agree with MC, but I think that you mentioned Italy’s worst problem, set pieces. And having the midget dinosaur, Cannavaro, back there trying to defend doesn’t help.

    • Rami S.

      June 22, 2010 at 11:21 am

      Hi Niccolo,

      Lippi also relying too much on current and former Juve players such as Cannavaro, Camoranesi, Marchisio, Iaquinta, Buffon, and Chiellini (Zambrotta and Criscito have Juve connection). Some of them like Buffon and Chiellini are good but the rest could have all been excluded (except for Criscito and Zambrotta).

      Cannavaro will be gone after WC2010 so that’s a big plus. I think Bonucci should have been given an opportunity after featuring in the 2 friendlies against the Mexicans and Swiss.

      Yes, set-piece a major point of concern. Slovakia have Hamsik so hopefully the players are careful not to give away silly fouls near the penalty area.

      • Rob McCluskey

        June 22, 2010 at 12:57 pm

        It’s sort of like limbo really, this Italian squad is stuck between an old generation and a new one. You need a balance of youth and experience, but it just seems that there needs to be new faces in the Italian squad. I think once Cannavaro is out the squad and Prandelli is in, hopefully we’ll see changes, theres players like Giovonco, Lanzafame, Santon, abate, Rossi etc who I would like to see break into this squad full time. There are players like De Rossi, Chiellini, Marchisio and Criscito who should be in the next squad, and i’d like to see them along with Buffon lead the line along with a newer generation. Italy have never been short of producing good players and hopefully Prandelli is the right man to take them forward.

        Prandelli could also take the chance to get Cassano and Ballotelli in the team and just say to them that they should forget all the problems and troubles that come with them, say that they can really make a name for themselves, particularly Ballotelli, who has the chance (if he puts his head down) to be a revolutionary player for Italy.

        • Rami S.

          June 22, 2010 at 7:41 pm

          Hi Rob,

          I agree with you. Lippi is a great tactician but his problem is he tends to take things very seriously when it comes to personality clashes and attitude (such as his dislike for Cassano and Balotelli based on their attitude).

          There was enough talent to challenge for a semi-final or perhaps even a final spot against Brazil if Azzurri finished first in their group and went through the knockout stages, but unfortunately the talent is still back in Italy. I cannot name one Italian player who can dribble like R. Baggio (old generation) or do clever moves like Cassano (current player) or even Miccoli. Lippi got lucky because Miccoli got injured and he didn’t have to answer for excluding him. If age is an excuse then why pick Camoranesi and Di Natale? Both over 31.

          If attitude is an issue, why pick Camoranesi who often gets carded in games and is way below his WC2006 levels?

          Lippi basically excluded all the trouble makers and those with an attitude. More importantly, he failed to convince Nesta to make a return and got stuck with the aging Cannavaro.

          I think Lippi’s biggest mistake was excluding Totti because the Roma star was willing to make a return if pushed by Lippi. As for the future, Prandelli is a solid choice and he will introduce new blood and he is not against calling up talented players who have attitude. He tried to sign Cassano for Fiorentina back in January!

          • Rob McCluskey

            June 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm

            I think Camoranesi is just as aged and past it as cannavaro is, he did a few good things towards the end of the new zealand game, but on the whole hes a right winger who has lost his pace, there were other options

            I would have loved to of seen Totti, as he is the sort of player that could really lift the team in a situation like this as he doesnt settle for anything that isn’t 110% from the people around him.

            If Prandelli gets it right (which i’m sure he will) Italy will be serious contenders in 2012 for the euros

        • Rami S.

          June 23, 2010 at 7:15 pm


          I agree with you about Camoranesi and this is how I feel about him: he’s older, slower, and lost much of his game.

          The main concern is his attitude as well since he gets yellow cards for silly fouls and often does not curb his aggressiveness leading him to risk being sent-off.

          Lippi will not start him. It appears Lippi will start Di Natale and Gattuso instead of Pepe and Marchisio respectively. I am not sure it’s the wisest decision. I think Gilardino ought to be benched and then Di Natale starts in his place while Pepe ought to keep playing since he’s done much more than Gilardino.

          Gattuso for Marchisio might be just tactical adjustment to accomodate having Di Natale starting instead of Pepe who played more of a midfielder in some cases.

  4. MC

    June 21, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Sadly, everyone but Lippi can see that changing formations so often and playing players out of position does nothing to help the cause.

    • Rami S.

      June 22, 2010 at 11:12 am

      Hi MC,

      If only Lippi acknowledged he had to pick someone like Totti or Cassano, then much of the tactical and formation changes would not have to be implemented. The strikers have little to feed off and have seen little of the ball. This is why he’s changing the system often because the Azzurri cannot score enough goals to win games!

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