Euro 2012 finalists Italy defeated CONCACAF Gold Cup holders Mexico 2-1 in their opening match at the Confederations Cup at the Maracana on Sunday. Andrea Pirlo scored a magnificent free kick in his 100th appearance for the Azzurri before Javier Hernandez leveled it through a penalty. Mario Balotelli eventually got the winner late in the match to claim all three points for the Italians. Despite coach Cesare Prandelli claims of mental and physical fatigue within the squad, there were a lot of positives in Italy’s performance.
There were a lot of doubts over Prandelli’s 4-3-1-2 system, especially at the back. Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli looked uncomfortable in a back four, a system they haven’t been familiar with since the 2011/12 season when Antonio Conte used 4-3-3 for half of the year. The fullback depth was also quite limited due to Domenico Criscito’s knee injury. Giorgio Chiellini was deployed at left back, his original position, but prefers to play centrally, a statement that he’s reiterated several times in his career.
The recent defensive lapses coupled with purports on Stephan El Shaarawy’s mentality (he’s reportedly distracted due to the recent transfer rumours), forced Prandelli to tinker his formation prior to the Mexico game. He instead dropped a striker into an advanced role, creating a 4-3-2-1 with Balotelli up front as the lone forward. Chiellini was then moved to the centre, replacing Bonucci.
Mattia De Sciglio started at left back, and in just his fifth cap for the Azzurri, he impressed. For AC Milan this past season, De Sciglio was a revelation when going forward, but was often irresponsible when defending. That wasn’t the case against Mexico. When he lost possession, he’d try to win the ball back, and when that didn’t work, he’d hustle back into position to shut down El Tri’s pacey attack.
Chiellini was also brilliant at centre back. Chiellini has past experience playing in a back four and it showed on Sunday. He made several crucial tackles in his penalty area on Hernandez and the onrushing Andres Guardado. Bonucci has slowly adapted in becoming one of the most in-form defenders in Europe, but will get more chances as Italy plays more matches leading up to next summer’s World Cup.
The Italian midfield was criticized after their matches against the Czech Republic and Haiti as being too static, but Pirlo was given a lot of space and utilized it well. He was closed down in the second half, but still managed to create a few quality scoring chances. Daniele De Rossi acted as an anchor, tackling the Mexican ball carriers, then transitioning the play forward, just as he does at Roma. Riccardo Montolivo continued his progression in an Italy shirt with another fine display and contributed to what was a fine display by the Azzurri midfield.
Balotelli was wasteful when getting chances and seemingly operated on a “shoot on sight” policy. The Milan forward recorded seven shots, more than any individual player has managed thus far at the Confederations Cup. On the flip side, he was also marked by two, sometimes three defenders at a time. The service he got for parts of the first half was underwhelming, meaning he slowly got more frustrated. Balotelli even lashed out by kicking his shoe, slowly putting it back on, and gingerly tying each of his boots as his team attacked. He negated all of those actions by getting on the end of an Emanuele Giaccherini assist, shrugging off Francisco Rodriguez’s challenge, then avoiding two more attempted tackles before finishing. “Super Mario” is an enigma and can frustrate fans, but there’s no denying his strength and composure in the box.
Claudio Marchisio, Ignazio Abate, and Barzagli didn’t light the world on fire on Sunday. In fact, many people on Twitter claim they first noticed Marchisio when he was substituted in the 68th minute by Alessio Cerci. The latter botched a backpass to Gianluigi Buffon then clumsily challenged Giovani Dos Santos in the box and conceded a penalty. Abate also demonstrated why he is a converted right back. He struggles at crossing and often gave away possession.
However those last two negatives are mental errors and can be fixed. Marchisio, meanwhile, was played out of position. He started in the hole at the 2010 World Cup and was invisible. Ever since Conte was appointed coach at Juve, the homegrown midfielder has earned more minutes playing in his regular central midfielder position. His runs aren’t as easily tracked when he plays deeper and is a tireless worker. It may benefit the Azzurri if Prandelli has Marchisio featuring elsewhere.
Considering the circumstances, Italy has a lot to be optimistic about. Their cons can be fixed easily and the bright performances will only get better and that can only lead to glory at the World Cup next year.