Italy disappointed by falling to a 3-0 defeat in their crucial World Cup qualifier with Spain on Saturday evening, but by setting his side up in a 4-2-4 formation, Giampiero Ventura sent his players out like lambs to the slaughter.
Opting to play with two central midfielders against Spain was always a high-risk strategy and when those two midfielders are Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti, that risk becomes one that is likely to come back to bite you.
It was never going to be an easy night for Italy. Facing Spain at any time is no mean feat and when La Furia Roja have a point to prove while boasting some of the continent’s most in-form players, that challenge is all the more heightened. Giorgio Chiellini’s absence was felt, as it would always have been, but because of the former Torino coach’s tactics, the Italians never stood a chance.
Spain have never enjoyed facing Italy’s three-man defence and while Chiellini has been an integral part of that, Daniele Rugani or Davide Astori would have been adequate replacements, particularly with Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli to guide them through the game.
Ventura didn’t need to look far for a blueprint. Just last summer Antonio Conte masterminded a demolition of Spain at the European Championship, opting for a 3-1-4-2 formation, providing plenty of protection to the backline and also crowding out any space in midfield, with De Rossi, Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini all patrolling the centre of the pitch in France.
The decision to start Leonardo Spinazzola on the left of a back four was baffling, bearing in mind the Atalanta star has been left out in the cold by La Dea boss Gian Piero Gasperini this season. Matteo Darmian on the right has also seen his minutes limited in 2017/18, with his only appearance for Manchester United coming in their UEFA Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid.
Electing to start players with so few minutes under their belt in a game of this significance would always be an unusual decision. For Ventura, however, it is even more bizarre. In November 2016 the Italy boss made a case for Serie A to start earlier than usual, specifically for his players to have match practice ahead of this exact fixture.
“Everyone [else] starts on August 13,” Ventura said at a press conference before the Azzurri played a friendly with Germany in Milan.
“It’s in the national interest to play on level terms. A request for at least two sets of league fixtures [before the qualifier with Spain] has already been made.”
He wanted his players to be up to speed in order but three of his starting back four – Darmian, Barzagli and Spinazzola – have accumulated just 16 minutes of league football between them this season. All the while Andrea Conti sat watching on from the bench, despite settling in nicely at AC Milan following his €24 million move.
Ventura got it wrong, there is no denying that, but while a poor selection or decision from the start could be forgiven, his apparent inability to spot that the system was not working as Spain continued to overpower and outnumber the Azzurri in the middle of the park leads serious questions to be asked of his suitability to the role.
De Rossi and Verratti were completely overrun in the middle, and Julen Lopetegui’s decision to use a false nine allowed him to overload the midfield. With two Italians left to monitor the middle of the pitch by themselves, they were constantly drowned out by a sea of red shirts. Sergio Busquets, Koke and Andres Iniesta were the nominal midfield three, but David Silva, Isco and even Marco Asensio all, at times, dropped deep to give their teammates options and nullify those of the Azzurri.
But Ventura persisted with the 4-2-4 and even his substitutes failed. Eder – with six Serie A minutes to his name this term – came on with 20 minutes to play and offered nothing. Federico Bernardeschi – with zero – did more or less the same.
If Italy are to reach Russia 2018 it will likely be through a playoff after a 56-match unbeaten run came to a dramatic end in Madrid. And although facing Spain at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was never going to be easy, Ventura’s choices had them on the back foot from kick-off.