For a Coach who started out surrounded by so much scepticism, Giampiero Ventura sure seems to be enjoying a smooth ride these days. There are some naysayers, as always, but his project seems to have met the favour of the fans and the Press alike.
Nor could it be otherwise, as the man is fully delivering on the promise of a young and attacking Italian team, which is exactly what everybody likes to see. With 11 goals in the last two games, including a resounding 3-0 against heavy-hitters Uruguay (debilitated, true, but still a force), Ventura's track record is turning into a violin symphony.
I am anything but a naysayer, but personally this success story fills me with more doubts than certainties. After one year at the helm of the Nazionale, most CTs have imprinted their style: the project may not be complete – it may not even be strong – but you can see what kind of team will ideally emerge.
This is not the case for Italy, at least not yet. The team we've seen in the last few outings looks very different from the one that will go to Russia in 2018.
We say this with confidence because despite the positive results garnered thus far, the current 4-2-4 deployed by Ventura has too many weaknesses to be retained in its current form. Moreover, these weaknesses are far too glaring for an experienced Italian strategist like the former Torino man not to have noticed them, which means that he is allowing them only in the name of experimentation.
The 4-2-4 is a tricky formation to use, which accounts for its rarity. The seductive notion of replacing the two wingers with two extra strikers requires very careful balancing, lest the midfield be too easily overwhelmed. Brazil learned that the tough way in the 2006 World Cup, and they had a much more talented squad than Italy do today.
It seems perplexing, then, that Ventura's team don't have anything in line to address that danger. There is no point in having a regista like Marco Verratti if he isn't in a condition to receive the ball, which is exactly what’s going to happen as soon as an opponent decides to press high up the pitch. San Marino and Uruguay both chose to keep a low defensive line in the last two friendlies, but not everyone is going to be so generous.
Of the winger-strikers, only Antonio Candreva looks like he has the awareness and ability to support both midfield and offence at the same time. Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Stephan El Shaarawy, Domenico Berardi, even Sebastian Giovinco and the rest of this surprisingly populous bunch are too offensively slanted. Some of them are pretty short too, which is bad news for a player expected to track back into defence.
One helpful outlet in case of pressure in the midfield is provided by Leonardo Bonucci, who can push up and turn into an auxiliary regista himself. He already covered this role in Euro 2016, and we saw him doing it a little against Uruguay this past week (he and Daniele De Rossi were in a constant dialogue).
This, however, is far too risky to be the only solution envisaged by Ventura. It would leave the Azzurri exposed should Bonucci get dispossessed. More importantly, they would have no back-up if the central defender is injured or suspended, opening the door to a major tactical paralysis.
Lack of depth is an issue exacerbated by the 4-2-4 not just in defence, but in the offence too. Fielding Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile together means that Italy have virtually zero quality replacements should either of them become unavailable (as painfully highlighted when Eder came onto the pitch against the Uruguayans).
Unless a proper centre-forward like Mario Balotelli or Mattia Destro enjoy a spectacular return to prominence next season, it's fair to say that the Belotti-Immobile pair is not a dependable solution in the long term.
In fact, the more I look at Italy's squad, the more it seems to me that four strikers are a waste. Taking one out in favour of a midfielder, and turning to a 4-3-3, would plug many of the potential holes seen in the last two games.
I'm not suggesting ditching the current formation, only that the advantages to be found in alternative set-ups are blindingly obvious, and this must provide food for thought.
Ventura, who already tried other formations, is certainly aware of these problems. His beloved 4-2-4 can be turned into a mean machine in one-off games, and on this account it may prove useful against Spain in the decisive qualifier game come September.
It does not, however, look like a team that can work for a seven-game tournament like the 2018 World Cup. Success in these competitions demands no small measure of flexibility, with the winning teams those that can absorb the shock of unexpected events and/or unpredictable opponents, and change their set-up accordingly.
Such flexibility is exactly what is (still) missing from Ventura's young and beautiful Italy. His 4-2-4 is shockingly fragile, at risk of crumbling due to its own lack of alternatives, and vulnerable to a number of possible strategies. If this formation is to be employed, then it must be both modified and reinforced, as well as backed up with a Plan B. If we already know this, then so does Ventura.
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