Now in firm control of Group C qualification, recent performances have even surprised the players. Yet to name the same starting line-up in successive qualifiers, four consecutive clean sheets – their best return in Euro qualifying for 36 years – attention turns to a tactical influence on the side.
As has been pointed out, the team looks to be benefiting most at this juncture from Cesare Prandelli's decision to find a formation and stick to it. Initially announcing a 4-3-3 shape in preparation for his first game – the August friendly with Ivory Coast – recent work has seen this shift to the 4-3-1-2 tactic seen against Germany and Slovenia. The former Fiorentina Coach has said a lack of natural wingers, coupled with the expansive list of central-midfield talent at his disposal forced the decision.
It is most promising therefore that since this switch, the success from recent performances can be directly attributed to the midfield's impact. Thiago Motta's work in particular looks to have won over Prandelli's faith, the Coach disregarding Cristian Ledesma from the squad, and talking of the importance Motta's work has for the side's balance. Against Slovenia, his defensive mobility in a system he is familiar with at Inter, ably catered for Alberto Aquilani and Riccardo Montolivo's occasional positional lapses, whilst also allowing the two to shine in more dynamic roles.
Montolivo was able to transfer some of his recent Fiorentina form to the national team, benefiting as much as Motta from the deployment of three central midfielders, as also used by Sinisa Mihajlovic in Florence. Alongside Aquilani, we saw signs of an Italian midfield with more than one creative outlet on the pitch at the same time, and two players more thought of as deep-laying playmakers providing movement forward. Not only were they playing searching balls to full-backs and strikers, but then looking to follow those passages of play up the pitch.
Accommodating Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi back into the first XI looks set to be at the expense of Aquilani and Montolivo however, with Prandelli hinting after Friday's game that the latter duo have roles to play, but that the former duo's return is guaranteed.
Interestingly, amid the ongoing debate over Stefano Mauri's capabilities as a trequartista, Prandelli spoke of Pirlo's versatility, in particular citing his ability as a 'central midfielder who can play alongside Motta, or even as an attacking midfielder'. This, alongside Aquilani's chance in the role on Tuesday, highlights Prandelli's thoughts on Montolivo and Aquilani's good work, and opens up to speculation on the side's future trequartista in order to include the duo.
Struggles in midfield with accommodating first De Rossi and then Montolivo characterised Marcello Lippi's second spell as Commissario Tecnico. What is most encouraging to take from Prandelli's handful of games in charge then is the development of a system that looks to utilise the squad's core strength of midfielders.
Tuesday's friendly in Ukraine provides an ideal follow-up. Starting Montolivo again, Prandelli is thought to be preparing Antonio Nocerino and Claudio Marchisio for midfield roles as part of several changes that could interrupt the team's early momentum. Conversely, another strong performance from another new midfield line-up will go a long way to confirming both Prandelli's and the Azzurri's tactical integrity.