Don’t know what you’re missing: Why Italy’s missing players are to blame for poor Euros
It came deep inside the second half. A floated cross from Ivan Strinic sailed over the head of Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of the Italian defence and found Mario Mandzukic who had the time and space to take a touch and rattle a finish past Gianluigi Buffon. The Azzurri’s lead lost, and momentum stunted. Suddenly Italy’s fate lies in hands that aren’t their own, and echoes of Euro 2004 and that result between Denmark and Sweden rankle once again.
And so begins the inevitably premature postmortem. Italy’s “failings” become so widely reported they already border on sporting cliche’. From blame pouring in towards Chiellini, whose mistimed jump has been noted as the reason for the goal, to Mario Balotelli for his profligacy in front of goal so far this tournament, and even some arguably tongue in cheek comments about the large Juventus contingent in the Italy set up, the Bianconeri section of the squad being suggested as the culprits behind successive stalemates in the group thus far this tournament.
However, it can be argued that Italy’s poor progress in Poland and Ukraine can be traced to events before a ball was kicked. The absences of Domencio Criscito, Guiseppe Rossi and perhaps most importantly Andrea Barzagli have dictated how Italy have been set up tactically, and how successfully they have performed.
Guiseppe Rossi’s absence – whilst unsurprising, stripped Italy of not only one half of their first choice striking partnership, but took away a set of characteristics that Italy have in short supply. Rossi’s ability and preference to play as a prima punta and lead the forward line was what allowed him to form a successful partnership with Antonio Cassano before the Villarreal strikers injury. The loss of a striker like Rossi has supremely limited Italy’s forward line, packed to the rafters with seconda punti, “second strikers”, much more comfortable playing behind a target man. The likes of Sebastian Giovinco joining the thus far untrusted Fabio Borini and Antonio Di Natale – whose recurring knee issue that prohibits him from training properly with Udinese also prevents him from playing a game every three days. As a result, Italy’s forward line has an unbalanced feel.
Due to Rossi’s ailments, Cesare Prandelli has had little choice but to depend on Mario Balotelli as his main target man, the enigmatic Manchester City forward still sliding from maverick to misfit with alarming regularity, but remains the only striker Italy have who possesses the physical prowess to consistently play in the role that the Villarreal forward was expected to fill. While SuperMario’s performances have left much to be desired, if Rossi had been around, they would have been less pivotal to the Azzurri’s success.
Domencio Criscito – whose absence is through non-footballing reasons is frustratingly avoidable, would have surely been Prandelli’s first choice left back, and given the width switch to a 3-5-2 a formation dependant on width, the former Genoa defender is the perfect fit on the left side of line-up. The Zenit man’s pace and endeavour going forward combined with a defenders positional sense and a natural left foot has been sorely missed. Instead, through Prandelli’s preference for offensive vigour over defensive security, the former Fiorentina tactician has thus far opted for debutant Emmanuele Giaccherini, a right footed winger – albeit a versatile one.
Although the courage to select a man who while Italy were competing in Euro 2008 was playing in Serie C1 must be applauded, the logic perhaps less so. While the Juventus man offers enthusiasm, heart and 90 minutes of hard running – he lacks the focus required to be a disciplined defender. This was emphasised by his poor positioning on both goals conceded by Italy thus far – notably allowing Strinic time and space to get his cross in for Croatia’s equaliser on Thursday, an occasion that wasn’t a unique moment throughout the match, the Balkans dominating the flank that Giaccherini had been selected to guard.
Despite the inclusion of a Juventus player directly responsible for the goals Italy conceded, it is the absence of another than can be linked to the Azzurri showing over the last two games. Andrea Barzagli, far and away the Italian champions best defender last season was intended to continue his form at the heart of the Italian defence alongside fellow Juventini Giorgio Chiellini, in a back four that suits the characteristics and traits of the the Italian side much better than the three-man equivalent that has been seen so far.
If Barzagli had maintained his fitness, Italy’s defence would have been complete, allowing Daniele De Rossi to play in his natural position in midfield, rather than the pseudo-sweeper role that he has occupied in the last two games, and the Azzurri that we see would’ve looked a lot more like the one Prandelli had planned to take to Poland and Ukraine.
However, the shadows that hang over Coverciano and their Euro base just south of Warsaw do not completely excuse those that have been taken. There has been a noticeable lack of focus and fitness that has tainted the Azzurri this tournament, Prandelli’s men looking lethargic and disillusioned by the hourmark, struggling to contend with the heat and pressure of tournament football. For one of the youngest squads in Italian history, this remains a question that is yet to be answered, and one that no amount of substitutions seems to curb.
If reports are to be believed, Cesare Prandelli will look to ring the changes ahead of the must-win match up against Giovanni Trappatoni’s Republic of Ireland, and will scan the depths of his squad to put together a new look line up for Monday’s game. The fear is that those he requires most, are the ones he cannot call upon.
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