The trip to Spain is more than just another run out against old enemies for la Nazionale. In all likelihood, it holds the key to automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup. However, despite having surpassed the halfway point through Group G’s fixtures, Italy CT Giampiero Ventura is yet to settle on his preferred formation.
Under Ventura’s predecessor, Antonio Conte, the Azzurri earned plaudits for their organisation and tactical nous, which augmented a technically limited squad in the 2016 European Championships. Conte’s system, which he has subsequently unleashed to great effect in the Premier League, was founded on a three-man defence and attacking wing-backs.
At Conte’s previous club, Juventus, he built his team around the BBC: Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. With Gianluigi Buffon behind them, this three-man defence formed one of the strongest and most successful back lines in world football during Conte’s stewardship. Copying and pasting this to the national team was no more than common sense.
However, the Italian football scene has gone through major changes over the last year. The famous Juventus BBC has been dismantled, with Max Allegri preferring a four-man defence. Elsewhere in Piedmont, Torino striker Andrea Belotti has burst on to the scene, whilst former Granata forward Ciro Immobile has rediscovered his form at Lazio. Suddenly, Ventura has found himself with players that can score goals, not just prevent them.
In order to keep pace with these changes, Ventura has attempted to evolve the national team, slowly transforming away from his predecessor’s model. As the World Cup qualifiers progressed, the Coach experimented with both 4-2-4 and 3-4-3 formations, although reverted to Conte’s 3-5-2 for the home clash against Spain. The 1-1 draw, earned with a late Daniele De Rossi penalty, was a vintage example of catenaccio football, a far cry from Ventura’s envisioned style.
Overwhelmingly, the 4-2-4 appears best suited to Ventura’s Italy, and develops a number of strong partnerships across the pitch. Chiellini (injured on the eve of the match) and Bonucci still make for a formidable back line, Immobile and Belotti scored 49 goals between them last season, whilst De Rossi and Marco Verratti should provide an ideal combination of grit and creativity.
On the flanks, Andrea Conti and Leonardo Spinazzola are two of Italy’s biggest upcoming talents, and in front of them Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi are amongst Serie A’s most exciting players. Both the Napoli and Juventus wingers have the ability to play as a second striker, giving Ventura further tactical flexibility.
Unfortunately, and inevitably, the 4-2-4 is not without its disadvantages. By its very nature, the formation is weighted heavily in favour of offensive play, especially when considering Bernardeschi and Insigne’s attacking inclinations. Although fielding Antonio Candreva or even Lorenzo Pellegrini in their stead would help bolster the defence, Ventura’s formation relies heavily on creative wingers to supply the two strikers. Against bigger teams, such as Spain, the 4-2-4 may see the defence exposed, or the strikers isolated.
This may well suggest a return to a three-man defence is on the cards for the Azzurri’s trip to Spain, given that a loss must be avoided at all costs to stay in contention for automatic qualification. Having said this, Ventura will be wary of his team repeating their home performance against La Roja, and may be tempted to tweak his formation, employing the 3-4-3 that earned his side a friendly draw against Germany back in November.
Against the world champions, Italy played with a Conte-esque back three, but balanced out the defence by fielding three out-and-out strikers up front. In this formation, the wide-forwards had the protection of wing-backs behind them, allowing greater offensive freedom, whilst simultaneously putting pressure on Germany’s ball-playing full-backs. Against a Spain side that thrives in possession, this could serve Italy well.
Ventura’s formation at the Bernabeu will provide a strong indication of how he views his Italy. If he fields a 4-2-4, it will suggest that he considers his side strong enough to go toe to toe with a Spain side, weakened without top scorer Diego Costa. If instead he starts three centre-backs, it will appear that neither the Coach, nor his team, are quite ready to step out from under his predecessor’s, admittedly formidable, defensive shadow.