What have the Azzurri learned from their fourth consecutive friendly defeat? Quite a lot, argues David Swan.
Italy’s record in August friendlies is not the best – only three wins in 11 games since this fixture was introduced as a regular on the international calendar in 2002 – so the 2-1 defeat to England should not surprise anyone. Even more so when they are a week ahead in pre-season preparations.
So it becomes about performances and positives to take from the game. Coach Cesare Prandelli started with a 4-3-3 – a system he has been desperate to implement ever since he took charge, but that has not been possible given the players at his disposal.
The issue has always been the lack of wide players, but the new crop of Italians encouraged Prandelli to try it again. Stephan El Shaarawy is one of the new breed and he was given his chance in Switzerland on the left hand side, a position he took up for Padova during the second half of the 2010-11 Serie B season.
Unfortunately he was pretty anonymous throughout his time on the pitch, with Alessandro Diamanti, who was playing on the right, only marginally better. As a result quality attacking play from Italy was sporadic.
Neither offered a great deal of width – that the full-backs were the best source of wide options when the team was playing a 4-3-3 tells you all you need to know about their effectiveness at stretching England. They did not receive the ball to feet a great deal and were forced to cut in to look for it, getting lost in the process.
Prandelli recognised it was not working and wasted no time in switching back to the more familiar 4-3-1-2 for the second half. The group of players that started did not get much time to impose themselves post-switch before the standard flurry of changes halted progress somewhat.
It is not the first time Prandelli has tried to force the 4-3-3 through – it was only November last year when he was toying with the idea as first option after a reasonable 45-minute showing against Poland, before a much poorer effort in the second half against Uruguay a few days later convinced him otherwise.
If he wants it to work he must get a handle on the situation with the wide positions. The struggles against England can be put down to many reasons, with not much game time in 4-3-3 being one of them, but the lack of players is still a thorn that has not gone away.
The two options that can fill these places long-term, and fill them well – El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne – are likely to be hampered by too many minutes on the bench at their respective clubs this season. Beyond that he is still waiting for others to develop and does not have a lot of choice. There are guys like Simone Pepe, but he is far too deficient in the requisite quality for international football. Mario Balotelli can do it, though he seems destined to play centrally and it would be silly to move him for the sake of filling a hole.
Thankfully Prandelli does not have the same problems in the centre of defence. It was only a couple of years ago that people were wondering where the next set of central defenders was coming from. With his display on Wednesday evening, Angelo Ogbonna cemented his name on the growing list.
Unfussy, dominant and with a superb individual piece of defending from a James Milner cutback towards the end of the game, his presence gives the Coach genuine depth in that area. Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia were both missing from the squad – the other two outstanding young options – and that is ignoring Bonucci’s two Juventus teammates that bring the total up to five.
Davide Astori could make it six. He was not as good as Ogbonna – one or two mistimed tackles that probably would have led to cards in competitive games blotted his copybook, but the ability is clearly there. At 25, he now needs to push on, which means showing the Coach he is worth another shot.
If he is on the list of options for Prandelli, then he is probably sitting in sixth place right now due to superior performances from his competition. But talking about the future of the sixth best central defender for Italy is not a bad scenario given the situation two years ago.