Enigmatic defender Paolo Maldini is heralded as one of Italy's greatest: Could he be the last of his kind?
It is no coincidence that when, through the ages, the Italian team have ascended to their zenith—as they have done on multiple occasions—a world-class defender has been the cornerstone of that success. Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti, Aristide Guarnieri, Fabio Cannavaro, Gaetano Scirea, Giacinto Facchetti, Paolo Maldini, as well as his father, Cesare, before him. The list is extensive.
Whilst it is undeniable that they have also produced their lion’s share of prolific and iconic strikers—step up Messrs. Christian Vieri, Roberto Baggio and Paolo Rossi—it is the consistent production of domineering defenders that is most symptomatic of Serie A.
Famed for their meticulous approach to tactics, Italian teams and their charges have garnered extensive plaudits on the back of such an ethos.
But as a growing thirst—originating predominantly in the terraces—begins for more goals, more entertainment and more drama, is the assertion still correct that Italy and its national league still has that most remarkable hallmark of being preoccupied with a defensive mindset?
To begin with, this season’s Serie A, after 22 games, is one of the most hard-fought in recent history.
After their formidable season last year—when they remained unbeaten throughout and romped to the title—Juventus have now lost three times this campaign and are only three points ahead of second-placed Napoli.
In addition, just behind the Partenopei, Lazio and Inter Milan are all within touching distance. If AC Milan can get the newly acquired prodigal Mario Balotelli hitting scoring form—and it’s a big "if"—they may also be able to trouble the top spot.
Considering la Vecchia Signora cantered to the title last season, why is it that this season is so close?
If we take statistics into account, it would appear that during this campaign, teams are now less profligate and more prolific than recent years: With an average of 2.7 goals per game, this season is due to be more goal-laden than the previous five years (it’s worth bearing in mind that with only 220 of the 380 games played, that figure may yet fluctuate).
In addition, the most common scoreline this season, so far, has been 2-1: Over 10% (24 to be exact) of games have finished in such a manner. Last season the most fashionable scoreline was 0-0 (11.6%), the year before that it was 1-0 (13.2%) and then it was 1-1 (13.2%) during the 2009/10 campaign.
In 2008/09, it was again a miserly 1-0, with a whopping 15.5% of games ending in such a way.
So as the goals-per-game ratio surpasses 2.6 for the first time in the last five years, it’s clear that Serie A teams are throwing caution to the wind and shaking off their defence-centric heritage.
Furthermore, it is eye-catching that during this transfer window, purchasing a striker was the really kitsch thing to do. The oft goal-shy Juventus had a much-publicised hunt for a front-man to help the misfiring Fabio Quagliarella, the beleaguered Alessandro Matri and the injury-plagued Mirko Vucinic.
In Nicolas Anelka, they have a striker who is proven but will only be an interim measure before the coveted Fernando Llorente joins in the summer.
Those looking to close the gap on Juve have also used the midseason transfer window to purchase strikers. Following a successful three-year stint in southern Italy from 2005 to 2008, Napoli have re-recruited Emanuele Calaio who they will hope can maintain his one-in-three strike-rate. With Edinson Cavani in free-scoring form, Calaio could be the perfect foil for the Uruguayan.
Internazionale have signed up Lazio hitman Tommaso Rocchi for a knockdown price of €300,000, a sum that may prove a drop in the ocean if they can keep him fit.
It is at AC Milan, however, where the most notable purchase has been made. As famed for his off-pitch hijinks as he is for his prodigious talent, Mario Balotelli needs no introduction.
As he slots straight into an already-potent attack—Stephan El Shaarawy and Giampaolo Pazzini have 25 goals between them, not to mention the danger of Robinho—the Milan strikeforce looks formidable. To have the four of them barreling down on a back four is a scary prospect.
With Fiorentina signing Italy international Giuseppe Rossi for €10 million—with fans of La Viola hoping he can make a full recovery from a bad knee injury—the entire top six, bar Lazio, have invested in a striker.
One would hope this results in a barrage of goals.
So with Serie A now past the halfway point, it remains to be seen whether the Italian mindset has truly shifted away from staunch defending and more to “outscoring the opposition.”
The statistics support the assertion that more goals are being scored, but whether that is because of a greater quality of attacking or a different tactical approach will become increasingly clear.
Whilst the form of the national team has, occasionally, been turbulent, their bedrock of a solid defence has bamboozled and frustrated the opposition on numerous occasions.
If the mindset within Serie A was to shift, there may be a chance that this could have a knock-on effect for the Azzurri and any future glory days.