Confederations Cup: What Went Wrong for Italy's Defense in the Group Stage?
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When someone says "Italy" and "soccer" in the same sentence, a third word springs to mind: defense.
The Italians are renowned for their organization and excellent play at the back. When you speak of the best players in their history, you list some of football's most accomplished defenders and goalkeepers—men like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Dino Zoff, Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon.
While the days of catenaccio have passed since Cesare Prandelli took the reins of the Azzurri after the 2010 World Cup, the Italians are still known as one of the best defensive teams in the world.
So what went wrong in the group stage of the Confederations Cup, where the Italians allowed an uncharacteristic eight goals in three games?
The answer is not as dire as some doom-and-gloom fans or critics might think.
First off, two of the eight goals can be disregarded from this analysis since they came from the penalty spot. One of the two spot kicks was also awarded following an egregious error from Argentine referee Diego Abal in the second game against Japan.
A third, in Saturday's game, came from a remarkable free kick by Brazilian starlet Neymar. While the foul that led to the goal was unnecessary and may speak to the discipline of the offending player, Christian Maggio, the goal wasn't the result of a defensive breakdown.
Two other goals from Saturday came in the face of questionable offside situations.
Dante scored the game's first goal on a rebound in the dying seconds of the first half—but the goal should never have counted. ESPN replays show the center-back to be fractionally but clearly offside when Fred put his head to the free kick for the initial shot.
Fred's second goal of the game was also questionable for offside—so much so that Buffon and the Italian defense stopped playing the rebound of Marcelo Vieira's shot, allowing the Brazilian striker an easy tap-in.
This play was far closer. It does look as though Mattia De Sciglio tracked back just enough to put Fred back onside before Marcelo connected for his shot, but it's so close that it could have gone either way.
This leaves us with with three goals that can be looked on as the responsibility of the entire defense.
The first, Shinji Kagawa's 33rd-minute strike for Japan, was the result of sloppy clearance work by Giorgio Chiellini, who mistimed a ball in the air and failed to head the ball away. He left Buffon stranded and gave Kagawa an easy finish.
Shinji Okazaki's equalizer in the second half was a true failure of team defense. It did come on a set piece, but the defense of it was awful. Okazaki got position on Riccardo Montolivo, beat Daniele De Rossi to the point of attack and headed the ball past Buffon.
Fred's first goal on Saturday was likely the one where the Italian defense was most culpable. Chiellini was caught badly out of position when a ball over the top found Fred, who powered the ball in from an angled shot.
Two errors were made on this play. The first was the bad positioning of both Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, which allowed Fred to get in behind them and put Chiellini in a bad spot to mop up. The second was allowing acres of space for Marcelo to deliver the long pass over the top that sprang the Brazil No. 9.
While there were errors on a few goals, the majority of them were freak occurrences of penalties and free kicks, and at least one—possibly two—of them came with opponents having the advantage of being in an offside position when they scored.
To sum up, Italy's organization has largely been good through the group games.
They dominated Mexico with the exception of the penalty conceded by Andrea Barzagli. They struggled to gain possession against Japan, but it took a wrongly awarded penalty and a set piece for the Blue Samurai to score two of their three goals. Against Brazil, two goals were questionable for offside, and one was off a direct free kick.
Italy has done a solid job of shutting down opponents in open play. While they likely face the daunting task of Spain in the semifinals, they have shown over the last three years that they have the ability to cause Spain trouble.
If Italy can eliminate a few simple mistakes and avoid giving La Roja the set-piece chances that Japan and Brazil capitalized on, the defense has what it takes to pull off an upset.
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