‘Only win’ emblazoned the Gazzetta dello Sport on their Thursday morning edition. The message to Cesare Prandelli’s Italy was simple. Follow up the good signs shown against Spain with a win against Croatia, to ensure that passage to the knock-out stages would remain entirely in their own hands. However, they did not win, and it is not entirely in their own hands anymore.
Opponents Croatia went into the game unchanged – like Italy – from their first Group C match, predominantly in mentality as well as in line-up. Slaven Bilic maintained two strikers up top supported by attacking midfielders and sent his players out with a clear directive to press high up the pitch quickly and consistently to stop Italy building play from the back.
Key to their early fluidity in the match was Nikica Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic carrying out this task from the very front, backed up by their midfield colleagues too. Their successful occupation of the Azzurri’s central spine for the first 30 minutes and final 45 kept Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio deep, to try and support each other in passing around their running. This retreat of Italy’s midfield crucially allowed for the Croats to push forward into the subsequent space in the middle of the park, and to really target where Italy have been shown in recent outings against Russia and Spain to be vulnerable, in the full-back positions.
Indeed, notable to Croatia’s early spell of pressure, that returned after a half-time reminder from Bilic for most of the second half too, was the ability for the side to regularly work two-on-one situations around Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini, with the Italians tactically unable to answer it and the result a high number of crosses for Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini to face.
There were the warning signs in the first half, as Croatia missed a couple of good chances and also had a penalty shout turned down from this scenario. However, perhaps in light of a drop in intensity that allowed Italy back into play to finish the first 45, these were largely ignored by the Azzurri, and ultimately to their detriment.
Chiellini will likely shoulder blame for his misjudged positioning for the cross that led to Croatia’s equaliser, but it is an issue reminiscent of Nicola Legrottaglie’s complaints when Catania switched from a back four to a back three during the season – with the extra man in the middle of defence, there is sometimes a tendency to relax and think someone has your back covered. Relevant or not to this case, the Juventus defender’s mistake should only be acknowledged in the context that if the Croats had a pair of full-backs that could cross better, Italy would have lost the game and perhaps by a couple of goals.
Post-match, Prandelli and a couple of his players looked to push attention on to their own poor finishing in front of goal as the difference between the desired result and the actual one. Certainly, the game wasn’t all doom and gloom for Italy, as they demonstrated during Croatia’s first-half ascendancy a very sharp practice on the counter-attack and during Croatia’s first-half lull, an excellent passage of interchange play in the final third. The first 45’s ability to represent a significant danger to the Croats through two completely different routes to goal is both a promising feature to this team and one reflective of Prandelli’s ethos as a Coach.
However, the opportunity for final-third interchange disappeared in the second half as Croatia pinned the midfield back, whilst the Azzurri’s strength on the counter-attack dissipated surprisingly early too, as Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano both lost energy and movement. Indeed, for only seeing second half intensity return once the fresh legs of Sebastian Giovinco and Antonio Di Natale were both on, combined with completely failing to answer Croatia’s very simple targeted play of pressing from the front and testing Maggio and Giaccherini, Prandelli should face questions on the viability of this 3-5-2 formation and on the timing of his substitutions.
Whether or not Italy should have won through converting more of their chances in that final 15 minutes of the first half, as the team and its Coach argues, is a side issue to answering why they faced consistent pressure for almost the entirety of the other 75 minutes.