Dismal Italy tactically lacking
Perhaps the virtues of altitude training finally kicked in for the last 15 minutes against Slovakia, when Italy displayed more attacking options and flair than in the previous 255, but it would be a gross misreading of the game, and of the Azzurri's tournament, to believe this was the way the side should have played all along.
Desperate times called for desperate measures and Italy's 4-2-4 second-half formation had to produce something - especially as Slovakia only made minor tactical adjustments to counter the danger. In fact, by keeping more players closer to their penalty area, they allowed Italy too much space on the flanks and in their own final third, highlighting the kind of threat Fabio Quagliarella, that scorer of great goals rather than great goalscorer, poses in spurts.
But in regular situations, when the game and passage to the next round could still be achieved without sending in the equivalent of pocket-sized nuclear warheads, Italy were as poor as they had been in the previous two matches, or perhaps even worse.
Once again, and we can say it with the kind of hindsight coaches are obviously not allowed to have, Marcello Lippi got his starting XI wrong. And he said so right after the game, while admitting his full responsibility in sending out a side that was, in his words, unprepared both on a tactical and psychological level.
Italy started with 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 in successive matches, changing tactics in the second half each time when things turned ugly. It may be the sign of genius if you win, but it immediately turns into evidence of utter confusion when things go wrong.
The Azzurri wasted too much time in trying to find out what their tactical identity was, and ultimately they never found it: using a 4-2-4 in the last 30 minutes cannot be duplicated in long stretches, and we're left wondering what Italy would have been in the next round had they somehow managed to push the ball over the goal-line in those frantic, long-ball-ridden final minutes.
Was Andrea Pirlo's absence felt so deeply? You bet, which is a dire indictment on the dearth of talent coming through the junior ranks. No one else in Serie A, at least among those carrying an Italian passport, has the skills that were on show, in a limited timeframe and with less than full fitness, against Slovakia. Pirlo - who, it must be said, has not been brilliant for Milan for the past couple of years - shields the ball, turns effectively, invites - in fact relishes - pressure like quarterback Payton Manning and, when it's close, releases a pass in space that suddenly speeds up play, sometimes creating one-on-ones as he did on Thursday.
When Pirlo is out, and of course one can wonder whether he will be part of incoming coach Cesare Prandelli's squads, no one else can set the tempo and spray precise passes with the same easy demeanour. Riccardo Montolivo showed promise but faded after a good game against Paraguay, and played out of position against Slovakia, either on the left or right of the three-man midfield.
Lacking this sort of contribution, Italy had to resort to other ways of creating goal-scoring chances, which is what at least 50% of football is all about. Unfortunately for the Azzurri, they never found them this time.
Giorgio Chiellini was the best Italian defender again, but he was at fault on two of the three goals the Azzurri conceded and received little help again from Fabio Cannavaro, which added to some anxious moments that had largely been avoided in the previous matches, except on set-pieces.
Lippi's personnel choices must also be questioned. I do not mean his refusal to consider Antonio Cassano - who, remember, had failed to shine in the 2008 European Championships and whose reputation grows bigger the longer he does not wear Italy's shirt - or Mario Balotelli, but the coach's decision to hand a starting spot against Slovakia to Rino Gattuso, who could not carve out a role for himself in the first half as much as he did Zdeno Strba's left knee with an inadvertent kick. Even as he was moved to the left side to cover for Antonio Di Natale's forays infield, he did little to interrupt Slovakia's passing flow - which had been almost non-existent in the previous two matches - and his removal at half time was further evidence that Lippi had made a mistake.
What will be the worst effect of Italy's failure to advance? One thing comes to mind: the media will devote less time and space to real football and dive headfirst into the calciomercato, the festival of lies, speculation and hollow hype on unknown players that, er, enlivens each Italian off-season. Oh dear.