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.

Friendly Matches: Italy probably played the fewest matches of any team participating in the World Cup whether in terms of the friendly games before the event or even throughout the year. Lippi needed more matches to test his system instead of implementing it in a couple of games. This had an adverse effect on the team in terms of performances and familiarity with the system. The Mexicans beat the Azzurri in a friendly prior to the event and are now doing well in the tournament having played more matches than the Italians in preparation for the World Cup.

Teams Using Italian Strategy: While some might give Jose Mourinho a lot of credit for winning the Champions League, he really did not invent the wheel and actually relied on a trusted system which evolved from the Italian strategy: defend well, pressure the ball and have talent up front to make the difference. This is what won the Champions League for Inter with Julio Cesar, Lucio and Maicon a key component of the Nerazzurri success and even Brazil’s Carlos Dunga admitted he will be relying on the trio to guide the Selecao to success. Thus, the top teams and even the weaker ones are using an Italian strategy to achieve success. Only the Dutch, Spain and Argentina do not implement the Italian method. Brazil is one of the teams depending on the system and many of the average and weaker teams have relied on the Italian strategy to earn a draw or even snatch a surprising win.

Simply put, all is not lost for the Azzurri but Lippi must give Di Natale a chance to start while Gilardino and Marchisio ought to be benched. One change would make the transition to the new-look Italy even smoother and that would be to bench Cannavaro which is obviously not going to happen under Lippi. Regardless, The key is to defeat Slovakia and then face either the Dutch (if Paraguay finish first) or take the easier route which will still see Italy face Spain in the quarter-final (If Spain can bounce back to win Group H) and then Argentina in the semi-final. Either way, Italy must focus on defeating the Slovaks first and then turn attention to the knockout stages. On a match by match basis anything can happen as long as the Italians play as one unit, defend better against set-pieces and the strikers begin to pose a threat and score goals.

For further comments and other discussions please feel free to contact  @RamiSoufi on Twitter.

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