“The technical project failed and it’s only right I take responsibility.”
These may prove to be Cesare Prandelli’s last words as Italy boss, four years after taking the reins in the wake of the Azzurri’s capitulation at South Africa 2010. The simultaneous resignation of Giancarlo Abete, President of the Italian Football Federation, underlines just how damaging the defeat to Uruguay and subsequent elimination from the 2014 World Cup is for Italian football.
It is the first time in 48 years Italy have fallen in consecutive World Cup first-rounds. Gianluigi Buffon, the Azzurri’s talismanic captain, was fully aware of the scale of disappointment being felt at home” “It’s a very sad day for Italy as a nation. It’s a day of failure, there is no point denying it.”
Debate will rage as to whether or not Prandelli was right to resign in such a way, before the strong emotions of injustice over Claudio Marchisio’s expulsion and Luis Suarez’s cannibalistic attack on Giorgio Chiellini have subsided. When looking at the 56-year-old’s competitive record with the Azzurri before Brazil 2014 kicked off, it would have been hard not to be impressed - W20, D6, L3. Prandelli’s Italy never lost a qualification match and the only sides to beat his Azzurri in a competitive match were Spain and Brazil.
The run to the final of Euro 2012 will be considered Prandelli’s greatest achievement as Italy boss. The Azzurri entered the tournament unfancied, but the Andrea Pirlo-inspired side will be fondly remembered for Mario Balotelli’s blistering semi-final strike, and celebration, against Germany and Pirlo’s perfectly executed Panenka penalty against England.
With the backdrop of this surprising success, a third-place finish at last summer’s Confederations Cup and another unbeaten qualifying campaign, many fans of the Azzurri were quietly confident this summer, despite the difficult group they had been drawn in.
An opening day victory over England was the perfect start. Prandelli got his tactics spot on and Pirlo again ran the show as La Nazionale opened their account in style. With Costa Rica shocking the watching world with a 3-1 win over Uruguay, the odds seemed to be stacked in Italy’s favour not only to progress, but to win the group.
What happened next is harder to comprehend. Prandelli is known as a Coach who is very tactically astute and rarely gets things wrong, but his approach against Costa Rica left many observers scratching their heads.
Everybody agreed that Los Ticos should not be underestimated, but replacing Marco Verratti with Thiago Motta in the centre of midfield was a decision that in hindsight gave far too much respect to an opponent Italy should have dominated. Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva, so impressive against England, could not get into the game and Balotelli was left completely isolated. Prandelli did not have any answer to the defensive organisation of his opponents and resorted to throwing on all his attackers - Lorenzo Insigne, Alessio Cerci and Antonio Cassano - none of whom could even come close to altering the outcome.
After this defeat, though, Prandelli‘s team only needed a draw in order to progress. In Natal against Uruguay, he set the team out in a completely different shape, inspired by Juventus in a 3-5-2 formation that featured Bianconeri Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini at the back. However, as predicted, Ciro Immobile and Balotelli looked utterly confused playing alongside each other and again the wide players struggled to make an impact. Although Prandelli will feel hard done by the Marchisio and Suarez controversies, he has looked in his resignation to shoulder the blame for fielding a team that had looked utterly impotent going forward prior to Marchisio’s expulsion in any case.
A feature of Prandelli’s Italy has been their comfort on the ball and ability to dictate the pace of a game. However, a constant criticism levelled at the Azzurri is that their possession does not lead to the creation of goalscoring opportunities regularly enough, all too often reliant upon the occasional brilliant pass from Pirlo releasing Balotelli.
The statistics back this up. Italy had more of the ball in all their World Cup games – 53 per cent against England, 55 per cent against Costa Rica and 52 per cent against Uruguay – yet in each of their games it was the opposition who had more shots on goal. The Azzurri managed 10 to England’s 16, eight to Costa Rica’s 10 and four to Uruguay’s 10. Two goals in three games is perhaps the most telling statistic of Italy’s problems as an international side.
Prandelli’s tactical tinkering may have also been unsettling for the team. As well as choosing a different shape to face Uruguay, the former Fiorentina boss used 21 of his 23 squad members in only three matches. It could be argued that this would benefit players struggling in challenging weather conditions, but it cannot have helped the team settle into a rhythm with the personnel changing so regularly. After such a promising start to the World Cup, Prandelli seemed to finally run out of ideas and, despite the injustice of Suarez staying on the pitch, Italy ultimately paid the price for not being good enough when it mattered most.