Following Italy’s 3-0 defeat to Spain that all but sets up the foregone conclusion that Italy would need to navigate a World Cup play-off, Giampiero Ventura was on the defensive when questioned on his tactics.
Supposedly, he was ‘testing things out’, though the now-infamous 4-2-4 style of play is becoming more of a recurring theme.
How are players in Serie A, where no team plays the 4-2-4, meant to simply succeed in such a formation?
The recent announcement of the Azzurri team that will play against both Macedonia and Albania spelled out more panic for the tifosi. Ventura’s sheer reluctance to alter his formation has seen his squad selections made on his tactics, not on recent form or ability.
The main absentee from the upcoming matches is Napoli’s Jorginho. Little needs to be said of the 25-year-old these days. A big cog in the working wheels of the Partenopei’s brilliant start to the season, if performances alone got a player a call-up, he would be one of the first on the list.
It is not as though Ventura has a lack of midfielders to pick from – he selected nine in total – so the CT is picking on preference for his system alone.
The absence of Riccardo Montolivo due to a thigh injury meant a space was open for Jorginho in the centre of midfield, but instead Ventura opened to select Bologna winger Simone Verdi. When Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini also pulled out, the Coach turned to Cagliari’s Nicolò Barella.
A choice based solely on the 4-2-4 formation, Jorginho could have been one of a number of options for the midfield pairing, yet the focal point remains on the wingers.
To argue for the inclusion of Verdi over Jorginho, it would only make sense if one of the usual members of the wide-men weren’t available or weren’t performing well.
One of those, Federico Bernardeschi, seems to be included just on the fact he’s been part of the team for the last few international matches. The new Juventus youngster has featured just 55 minutes in total thus far for the Bianconeri, that is just double the number of minutes he has made for the national team in September (23).
Surely the impressive performances of Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa were worthy of a call-up, but again the same old faces are present. Ventura’s counter-intuitive method of sticking with the same players in the same formation is not working.
If the players cannot adapt to the style, which so far they haven’t, then Ventura must make alterations either in personnel or formation. Preferably both.
Another who seemed certain to make the squad was Nice’s Mario Balotelli – scorer of five in five games including most recently at home to Marseille - though his exclusion appears somewhat down to the fact he has recently become a father. And is still Balotelli, with all the baggage that goes with it.
Referring to the other forwards in question only two – Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile – are there both on ability and goal-scoring form. The former has now been ruled out for four weeks with a knee ligament injury and was replaced by, of all people, Chievo’s Roberto Inglese, who has just one goal this season.
Even so, the most questionable selection was Eder yet again. The Brazilian-born forward has donned the Nerazzurri shirt for 78 average minutes, without one goal to his name.
Simone Zaza, regardless of ‘that’ penalty miss, netted a hat-trick for Valencia against Malaga and seemed odds-on to be selected, but was not. The 26-year-old has six goals in seven Liga appearances this season, and on that form, is bettering both the aforementioned Eder and also Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini. He is also far more of a centre-forward in the Belotti style than either of those two.
The continued selection of players either not performing well for their club, or even not playing at all, is not how Italy should be going about their business.
It is almost reminiscent of when Captain Fabio Cannavaro came back for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and flopped massively.
In reference to Cannavaro, the defence seems to also remain somewhat in the past. The improved performances of Andrea Barzagli may merit a place for the Juventus man, but Milan centre-half Alessio Romagnoli is still wondering how much more he has to do to be included since returning to the Rossoneri starting XI. Davide Astori would be the right man to make way for the younger, and frankly better, defender in the shape of Romagnoli.
No matter how good Italy have been on the main stage when the expectation is down, Ventura’s squad does not feel like they could muster up performances such as Antonio Conte’s side did in Euro 2016.
These matches against Macedonia and Albania, prior to a seemingly inevitable World Cup play-off, is the most perfect time to try out new players, new styles and see what works best.
Should Italy qualify and continue to play the 4-2-4 with the current team, their 2018 World Cup experience could be over before it has properly begun.