Friday night's 1-0 win over the Faroe Islands has left Cesare Prandelli in a curious paradox. On the verge of qualifying for Poland-Ukraine 2012 after Italy's most successful start to a European Championship or World Cup qualifying campaign ever, the 54-year-old admitted he is losing sleep over tactics.
Prandelli confirmed over the weekend that he is concerned by problems the Faroe Islands raised, problems that he admitted to having also encountered with the Italian team in other games – even those such as training matches against amateur sides.
Specifically these are elements of his team over-playing in and around the penalty area, and then otherwise struggling to break through against sides set up in narrow and deep-laying banks of defence and midfield. His players are comfortable in the now-preferred 4-3-1-2 system, but at times can be seen to rely too regularly on either the deeper playmaking of Andrea Pirlo or the width provided from the full-backs.
There is less evidence to suggest the same consistent presence, energy or decision-making is developing in the final third from the front-men, where it was otherwise expected to emerge from Antonio Cassano's re-introduction alongside former club cohort Giampaolo Pazzini and also La Liga star Giuseppe Rossi. Where the team have found a working front-line against Estonia and Spain for example, they have not against most recently both the Republic of Ireland and Faroe Islands.
Friday's performance could be explained away by the players' lack of game-time, or as Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini signposted, their lack of experience. However, the concern is that where plan A is showing signs of work in midfield and on the flanks, and is admittedly still a work in progress, that Prandelli may not have the tools to develop the team's forward line in the same way, or create a plan B when plan A finds itself effectively countered by the opposition.
The front-line is likely to pull focus in the forthcoming calendar year because of circumstances that surround his preferred players. These are circumstances that have so far yielded intermittent responses from otherwise highly-capable front-line talent in his first 12 months, that could again influence their preparedness, and Prandelli's ability to get the best out of them in his next 12 months.
Of the five strikers in the squad at the moment, Alberto Gilardino's role looks to be predominantly from the bench, whilst three others ahead of him – Cassano, Pazzini and Mario Balotelli – face seasons that will question more so than previous their ability to hold a first-team shirt at club level. Prandelli has tellingly already made it clear of his concern that the likes of Cassano see regular playing time.
Meanwhile, Italy's most-promising recent Under-21 strikers – Robert Acquafresca and Alberto Paloschi – now find themselves a little out of contention at Bologna and Chievo respectively.
Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella are other current viable options, but looking ahead to next summer's international tournament, Matri has just two caps to his name and Quagliarella's greater experience of 25 caps is matched with just six goals.
Prandelli has on more than one occasion explained that where he is happy to involve new players, it cannot be at the expense of unbalancing the starting XI with inexperience. Matri may score more than Cassano and Pazzini in 2011-12 – as he did last term – and find he is still not held in the same contention for a squad place with such philosophy. Prandelli may find his most in-form options to give the Azzurri a greater consistent presence in attack are his least-accomplished at international level.
For now, the CT has hinted at making just subtle changes to face Slovenia and possibly only personnel changes in the full-back positions. However, even as qualification could be secured, and even with an improved performance, focus is likely to remain on the Italy we have seen in games like Friday's. What holds most interest going forward is how and where Prandelli develops his attacking options to avoid those sort of performances becoming defining aspects of his reign.