Italy vs. Ireland: Film-Focus Preview of the Azzurri Spine

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistMay 30, 2014

Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi, right, celebrates with his teammate Andrea Pirlo after scoring, during a World Cup Group B qualifying soccer match between Italy and Denmark, in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Oct.16, 2012. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Luca Bruno/Associated Press

Italy head to Craven Cottage this weekend, facing off in a friendly against Ireland; a match which is clearly a warm up for their World Cup meeting with England. Martin O'Neill’s men provide the ideal test before that Group D opener, possessing similar attributes to those of Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions.

In both cases, the Azzurri can expect to enjoy the majority of possession, and the qualities within Cesare Prandelli’s squad allow the 2006 champions to benefit from the increased time on the ball. With players such as Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo, Daniele De Rossi and Thiago Motta at his disposal, the Italy coach has a plethora of intelligent passers to choose from in midfield.

Indeed, narrowing down his decision in that area could be Prandelli’s toughest task, but it may well be that his selections in other departments make it much more straightforward. Earlier this week, the virtues of Italy employing a three-man defence rather than a traditional back four were extolled (read it here), and doing so would create room for an extra ball player.

In dropping De Rossi into the centre of defence, the coach would make space for an extra midfielder while employing a player who has proven he can marshal the back line against the very best on the international stage. The 30-year-old was first pressed into service there due to a number of injuries in the build up to Euro 2012 and shone there in Italy’s opening match against Spain.

He took to the role perfectly, organising the defence well and turning in a superb performance, which meant he would be kept there as the Azzurri progressed. Quicker than those around him, he was ready to snuff out dangerous Furia Roja attacks, such as the one pictured above where he chased down Cesc Fabregas after he appeared to be through on goal.

With Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini either side of him, the Roma man swept up any mistakes and read the game well, despite Spain’s best efforts to drag him out of position. With their constant off-the-ball running and probing, it required a high level of concentration throughout, and De Rossi did well there too, keeping his focus amid the constant tiki-taka probing of Vincente Del Bosque’s men.

Despite the eventual winners of the tournament enjoying the majority of possession (65 per cent), Italy were able to take the lead, with a move started at the back by De Rossi (see above image). A patient attack began when Spain sat off him, allowing him the time and space to move the ball forward, resulting in Antonio Di Natale’s strike.

It was, according to the image below (courtesy of’s StatsZone app) one of 45 passes he completed in the match, coming from just 53 attempts. Ahead of him, Pirlo managed to connect with 32 of his 39 attempts, proving Prandelli had made a good decision to make room for both men.

The system should also benefit from the presence of Mattia De Sciglio, a player who provides Prandelli with a quality option on the left flank. Against Spain two years ago, the Azzurri coach was forced to deploy Emanuele Giaccherini there and, despite his solid performance, the Milan youngster is a much more natural player in that role.

The 21-year-old—analysed in greater detail here—has averaged 2 tackles, 0.9 interceptions and 2.6 clearances (via in an injury-hit campaign. His passing ability dovetails well with this Italy side, completing 82.1 per cent of his attempts according to the same source.

With these slight tweaks and improvements, the Azzurri should benefit from the experience of this encounter with Ireland, giving them time to build a style of play which will serve them well when their World Cup campaign begins. None of their Group D opponents play with high-quality wide players, meaning the congestion this formation creates in the central area should benefit Italy.