Monday June 6 2011
Prandelli's progress

As Italy drew comparisons in playing style with the mighty Barcelona, Rob Paton looks at Cesare Prandelli's progress so far

"Italy's comfortable 3-0 win over Estonia on Friday night left both fans and media eulogising with a performance that even brought comparisons in style to Barcelona, current darlings of European football. Cesare Prandelli's philosophy and message since taking the helm have been of developing a more technically expressive style of play, and nowhere has it come closest to fruition during his spell than in Modena.

The win stretched la Nazionale's unbeaten run to nine matches under Prandelli, whilst competitively it is five consecutive clean sheets, with just one goal conceded in Euro 2012 qualifying so far. Leading second place Slovenia by five points with a game in hand too, Italy have all but guaranteed qualification for next summer's tournament.

However, beyond a positive set of statistics and the standing in the table, it has been the players' progress under Prandelli that is responsible for returning optimism to the Press. Results have been achieved off the back of good performances and these have interestingly also come with different elements of tactical definition on show, highlighting a capacity for adaptation that is on occasion needed, but not always achievable in tournament football.

Against Estonia the ball retention, chance creation and movement were certainly comparable in approach to the likes of Barcelona, particularly within a strikerless version of the 4-3-1-2 with non-traditional prima puntas Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi leading the front-line with licence to drop deep. The performance was perhaps best reflected in the fact three of the four midfielders - Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Alberto Aquilani - are creatives comfortable on the ball.

Conversely, other results in qualifying and February's friendly 1-1 draw with Germany have been built from a sound defensive display where Prandelli has ensured the centre of the pitch was protected. Against Germany's deployment of three men in the trequarti for instance, Italy were largely untroubled when using a midfield with three workmanlike players of Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi and Stefano Mauri.

Crucially, where some games have been offensively sharp and others defensively solid, Prandelli's reluctance to acknowledge the comparisons with tactical units such as Barcelona perhaps stems from the fact we have not yet seen Italy's defence and attack perform to such high levels in the same game.

The choice has generally been to either provide defensive assuredness with ball-winners in midfield, or attacking options with ball-players in their place. With two or three defensive-minded players in the middle, the main outlets for attack have then become the full-backs and whoever is leading the front line.

Friday's dominance - weak opposition aside - with three directors in midfield saw Italy's creative streak released, but the defensive security was bypassed, with a couple of moments when Tarmo Rüütli's men briefly threatened on the counter, suggestive of minimal cover at the back that stronger teams could exploit.

In Prandelli's short year in charge, Italy have already delivered technical, defensive and attacking brilliance. Whilst statistics and results fall onside, Prandelli will be most aware that his task going forward is to take these different aspects of his Azzurri and, ideally without having to compromise, bring them all together. The sooner he can achieve this, the sooner we can see the full potential of his new Italy unleashed, and indeed how worthy they are of comparisons with Barcelona.

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