Monday, June 14, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: June 15, 8:46 AM UK
Lippi set for tactical tinkering
Funnily enough for someone who just the other day had told the assembled media they should leave their jobs if they had still not predicted Italy's starting XI, Marcello Lippi will now have to go back to the drawing board and perhaps make some changes. Why, you may ask? Because some of his tactical moves worked better than others, and most of those who turned out to be good were made in the second half.
• Italy 1-1 Paraguay
• Lippi unhappy after draw
• Gupta: Nerves defeat Paraguay
• Photo gallery
Italy's 1-1 draw with Paraguay, arguably Group F's toughest opponents as they had shown throughout their successful South American qualifying phase, will not become an instant classic, but will provide both coaches with interesting tactical considerations. Lippi will have seen his side set the initial tempo then struggle in the first half, wobble after conceding Paraguay a soft goal then come back stronger as the game wore on, and leave the pitch with what appeared at least half of the players still wishing the game has lasted another quarter of an hour, so energetic some of them seemed to be despite the heavy rain.
The Azzurri's move to a 4-4-2 for most of the second half set the tone for the rest of the game, after all: to counter the improved attacking power of their opponents, Paraguay had to move Caceres back as a third central defender, which in turn allowed Italy to exploit some of the space this had created near the flanks; ironically, the exact locations that had been identified as Paraguay's most vulnerable before the match.
There is no doubt Italy's efficiency improved once Vincenzo Iaquinta moved inside to partner Antonio Di Natale, who had replaced lone striker Alberto Gilardino, and Riccardo Montolivo, who had started slowly, began asserting himself with the kind of precise passes and heads-up distribution the man he's replacing, Andrea Pirlo, is known for. On the flanks Simone Pepe, who's sometimes too fast and furious for his own good but enjoyed an encouraging performance, and Mauro Camoranesi played very different roles: both like to drift inside, but Pepe is more likely to shoot using his right foot (one of the reasons he was moved to the left after a while) while Camoranesi, in spite of his diminishing burst of acceleration, still likes to run with the ball at his feet.
The 4-4-2 was also aided by the good performances of the full-backs, who are, career-wise, at the opposite end of the spectrum: Gianluca Zambrotta had a much better showing that his indifferent form with Milan could have led us to believe, while Domenico "Mimmo" Criscito improved as the game progressed. The Genoa player, on loan from Juventus, has been all but banished from the Turin club after he had a torrid first half in Rome in September 2007, at a time when he was playing centre-back. With Genoa, he's played as a defender on the left side of a 4-3-3 or as a midfielder in a 3-4-3, and his familiarity with the position sporadically showed, especially in the second half. In spite of Giorgio Chiellini's unimpressive showing at centre-half, which at times reminded us of Juve's defensive struggles this season, there will be little talk now of him moving to left-back in place of Criscito, which Lippi had hinted might be the case.
What Lippi was wrong about is Claudio Marchisio's ability to play as a trequartista, or the middle man in the trio behind Gilardino. Marchisio, who's mostly played on the left of a midfield trio for Juventus but had also been a nominal left winger in some of Lippi's Italy sides, does not seem to possess the quick turning ability and change of pace required of someone whose first stride with the ball should propel him past a defender in one of those one-on-one situations which help distrupt a defensive set. A good but not defence-splitting passer, he was again found out in an unfamiliar position, which in turn poses another complex question: how can you leave a player of that improving stature out, and since the only other member of the squad who could replace him in the 4-2-3-1 are Camoranesi or perhaps Pirlo, who had started his career there, should Lippi abandon the system and go for a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, which he had banished after bad defeats to Brasil and Egypt last year?
That will be the focal point of debate in the days leading up to the game against New Zealand. Lippi will not blink in the face of doubt. Interestingly enough, it was his plan all along to select a squad which could be shaped into several different formations, and in fact the main reason Marco Borriello and Giuseppe Rossi were left out was their apparent inability to be trusted in different formations. Having then selected players flexible enough to be deployed in different positions in the same game, Lippi will have little trouble making changes over the course of a match, as he did on Monday.
Despite the struggles right before and after Paraguay scored and some anxious moments in central defence, Italy never panicked and kept trying to take the game to their opponents, which is one of the reasons the coaching staff will feel confident ahead of the New Zealand game.
What this game did prove, though, was an old axiom that too many fans and, sadly, sportswriters seem not have picked up yet: apart from the Marchisio situation, whatever happens in pre-World Cup friendlies matters so little it should not even be considered as evidence to build any predictions on. Lippi knows this, and many others do, too, but this simple act of humility and thought seems too hard to be taken up by many, in the media, who should know better (or have too many pages or air time to fill) but instead chose to fuel the public's perception of a side that was destined to fail. It may still happen, but it won't be because Italy struggled against Mexico and were not brilliant against Switzerland. Those were not real football games. Why, there wasn't even a vuvuzuela in sight, or rather in ear-splitting range.