As we gear up for the World Cup 2014, the Prawn Sandwich Brigade will be looking at this year’s favorites to win it all in Brazil. These articles highlight the differences from four years ago, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each team. This is Part 5 in a 6-part series on the bookmakers’ favorites. Articles on Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany, and Belgium can be found here
In World Cup years, we usually attempt to base how good a team will be based on where most of their players play their club football. It’s a pretty good strategy for broadly assessing the favorites; however, it would be a mistake to do this for Italy since all their likely starters come from the Serie A which has been roundly criticized for being on the decline, yet this is a solid group of players that will be very difficult to beat.
I said it before with Argentina, the best teams are not formed with the best 11 players you’ve got. Team cohesion matters almost as much and Italy have it.
Where they Were In 2010
Entering South Africa as defending Champions, hopes were reasonably high for Italy to retain the title. When they were drawn into Group F with Paraguay, and tournament debutantes Slovakia and New Zealand, Italy were expected to cruise even if they weren’t at 100%.
However things slowly went from bad to worse and Italy shockingly bottomed their group with some truly miserable performances. A draw with Paraguay wasn’t ideal but not as shocking as a draw with New Zealand. That definitely sounded the alarms and shit finally hit the fan when they crashed out to Slovakia….They finished below New Zealand (aren’t they a 2 star team on FIFA?)
2014 Differences and Improvements
After such a shockingly bad World Cup, The Italian football federation reacted pretty typically and ordered a massive clear out. Marcelo Lippi, the coach who won the 2006 World Cup, was sacked and most of the players from 2010 have not returned to feature for their country since. They appointed bright young boss from Fiorentina at the time Cesare Prandelli.
Prandelli looks more like an orchestra conductor, but since that’s a fairly common metaphor in soccer, it works out well pretty well for him. He made a name for himself with his tactical nous and daily work with young Italian players. So his task was to rebrand Italian football by getting rid of the cynical tendencies and the negative stigma surrounding it.
Prandelli can set his teams up to stifle opponents but in a proactive manner. He’s built a team that is confident in retaining the ball and creating chances in the Final third consistently, while maintaining defensive solidity. He uses too many systems to point out one consistent go-to, but based on the squad he has picked this year, he probably will go with a back 4 most of the time. The one concern might be the lack of natural width
- Gianluigi Buffon plays the ball out of the back a lot and having Juventus CB pairing Bonucci and Chiellini in the squad is useful for that level of understanding.
- Mattia de Sciglio and Christian Maggio would provide most of the width in any system
- Andrea Pirlo sits deep to link play and pass accurately. He’s also a brilliant free kick taker but his defensive work rate is pretty low.
- Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele de Rossi can carry the ball forward well but Montolivo can also spread play around similar to Pirlo. Claudio Marchisio or the highly impressive Marco Verratti could also feature in one of these central roles if Italy were to use a diamond.
- Forward options can widely vary. Prandelli trusts Mario Balotelli and has been rewarded in recent big games. The other two could be any of Alessio Cerci, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, or Antonio Cassano who formed a solid strike partnership with Balotelli.
World Cup chances
Italy were given a very difficult and very evenly matched group with England and Uruguay in the mix. While Italy has superior midfield options, they aren’t as prolific in advanced attacking areas. Uruguay have the likes of Cavani and Suarez, England have Rooney and the in-form Daniel Sturridge, so Italy need to hope that Balotelli can be at his best. If he is, they can win the group and make life easier but if not, they could be in trouble and face a hard draw elsewhere.
The one advantage they have is that they can play and impose their own style of football in Group D. They’re no longer the side looking to con the referee by diving (no more so than any other team), or one that commits blatantly cynical fouls when faced with a breakaway, nor are they overly defensive. A semifinal run would be huge for them and quite achievable if they win Group D, but that entails meeting Spain in the quarterfinals where I think Italy will go out on penalties.