The 2-2 draw with Armenia brought to an end another successful round of tournament qualification for Italy - securing their place in Brazil two games early and going unbeaten through a second campaign. It makes Coach Cesare Prandelli the first since Ferruccio Valcareggi to lead Italy through two qualifying sections unbeaten. To put that into context, Enzo Bearzot, Azeglio Vicini, Arrigo Sacchi, Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi have all had chances to do so since Valcareggi and failed.
That Prandelli has been present for both Euro 2012 and 2014 World Cup qualifiers offers a chance to analyse where his Italy team is now, heading into Brazil, compared to where it was three years ago heading into Poland and Ukraine.
We knew before Euro 2012 how the team was going to play – Prandelli had used 4-3-1-2 for each game leading up to the event. It was only during his first four in charge, where he attempted to play with width, that he used a different system (4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1). Although he threw a curveball by introducing 3-5-2 for the first two games of the tournament proper, he soon changed back to what was then his stock formation. The team was set, they knew what he wanted, and by crunch time he had settled on a combination of players in midfield and attack.
Fast forward a few years and it is all change. He has used five different systems since the 4-0 Final defeat to Spain, a multitude of player combinations, and seems no closer to deciding how he wants his XI players to line up.
It is reminiscent of Lippi’s 2010 World Cup preparations, which also contained a number of system changes. He justified it using the ‘tactical flexibility’ line, but as useful as it was to be able to switch, all it produced was a confused team, albeit one not helped by the lack of talent available at the time.
The reality is that most tournament-winning teams do not win it by being able to change through a plethora of different systems – the majority use two at most, with one of those the alternative for when plan A isn’t working – similar to Lippi’s World Cup winning team in 2006.
The bottom line is that if Italy are to enjoy a successful tournament next year, Prandelli needs to pick a system now and stick with it. The last two qualifying games saw him start the match with two different formations – indicative of the luxury he had to experiment, but also the indecision that has been evident for the last 18 months. He probably has more talent to pick from than he did three years ago, particularly in forward areas, but it seems the options he has are leading to the difficulty in nailing down a choice. Here is a rundown of the five systems he has used since the Euro 2012 finale, and the pros and cons of each.
Pros: It offers the width that most teams desire at the top level, and allows Mario Balotelli – one of the most important players in the team – to be the focal point of the attack. Playing with two wide players also offers the chance to fit Lorenzo Insigne – who so far is playing in such a way that it is difficult to justify leaving him out in the team – in his best position. The Napoli youngster was one of the best players against Armenia and is forcing the 4-3-3 issue with his performances.
Cons: The left side is fine – Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are not a bad duo to have competing for one spot. The problem is finding someone who can have an impact on the right side. The first thing to make clear is that Prandelli does not want to play with three forwards, so this spot has to go to a midfielder. Prandelli obviously likes Antonio Candreva, but it is debatable whether he has the quality to make a dent against the sort of teams Italy will need to beat to win the World Cup. Alessandro Florenzi has been brilliant for Roma at the start of this season, and his efforts in Naples on Tuesday did his chances no harm at all. Matches in which he has tried 4-3-3 have also seen Italy experience a lot of difficulty controlling the game – the midfield has often been overrun, and it has left Prandelli switching in the second half more often than not in an effort to regain control, even if he then returns to it for the next game.
Pros: It works incredibly well against Spain – still the team everyone is measuring themselves against in the international arena, regardless of the Confederations Cup. In the two games where they have played an Italy team lined up this way, they have been arguably second best. It allows the Azzurri to compete with the Spanish in the middle, but offers the width you need to hurt them when their wide midfielders inevitably wander inside to try and create superiority. That a large number of teams in Serie A are playing 3-5-2, including the reigning champions, is also a strong bargaining factor.
Cons: As great as it is against Spain, 3-5-2 doesn’t seem to work against anyone else. Croatia were comfortably the better team at Euro 2012 when Prandelli carried the 3-5-2 into the second group game (so much so that he reverted back for the rest of the tournament), Bulgaria took it apart in Sofia last year on their way to a 2-2 draw in qualifying, and it was so bad against Czech Republic last month that Prandelli switched to a back four after just 20 minutes.
Pros: The players are more than familiar with this, having played it for the best part of two years under the ex-Fiorentina boss. Italy have controlled games the best in this formation – the four central midfielders generally allowing for the lion’s share of ball possession, while also protecting Andrea Pirlo without the ball. Similar to the 4-3-3 and Insigne, the 4-3-1-2 allows another star performer in Serie A so far – Giuseppe Rossi – to play in his favoured position.
Cons: The lack of width is a problem – Spain exposed that in front of millions in Kiev just over 15 months ago, and that game seemed to trigger the experimentation with various shapes. There is also doubt over the trequartista – Riccardo Montolivo has little competition for the role in this system, even though he is not a classic exponent of the position.
Pros: A small variation on the above that sees Prandelli remove a striker and add a midfielder that, in theory, allows greater control of games with the extra man in the middle. It plays to Italy’s strengths in the middle – there is going to be fierce competition for midfield places in the squad next year, and if he picks the right combination this system could prove useful.
Cons: Unfortunately, Prandelli doesn’t usually pick the right combination. Candreva and Emanuele Giaccherini behind a striker are unlikely to concern top opposition. The options are there for the CT – if you assume a standard midfield three of Daniele De Rossi, Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, that still leaves him with Montolivo, Marco Verratti, Alberto Aquilani and Alessandro Florenzi to pick from and move around in the five midfield spaces. But such is the determination to pick other players that it weakens the potential value of the formation. This also suffers with the width issue detailed above for the 4-3-1-2.
Pros: It’s in fashion, to say the least. Width, close support for Balotelli and probably the most opportunity for different player combinations perhaps make it surprising we have not seen this more often under Prandelli. He switched to this during the second half against Armenia, though this is probably because he wanted to chase the win, rather than a desire to test a team with Giuseppe Rossi, Insigne and Balotelli all on the pitch.
Cons: Prandelli has used it twice from the start of matches – most recently was against Brazil in the Confederations Cup group stage, the other was his very first game in charge, all the way back in 2010, against Ivory Coast. Both were defeats, and the Brazil game in particular saw a ludicrous double pivot of Montolivo and Aquilani get overrun – a problem that was repeated on Tuesday night (and against lesser opposition) when the team’s double pivot consisted of Montolivo and Pirlo. That Italy, or indeed many Serie A teams, has not used this too often means we probably won’t see it in Brazil next year.