Italy's recent friendly against Luxembourg has caused some consternation on the peninsula.
How could Italy fail to defeat a team ranked 120 in the world? How could they fail to score more than once? What does this say about Italy with their World Cup opener then a mere week and a half away?
The most pertinent question of the above three is the last one. What did the Luxembourg game say about Italy going into the World Cup? The answer comes in two parts.
The first part concerns the actual result of the game: It means absolutely nothing. In the run-up to their last two tournaments, Italy has looked terrible in their final warm-up match only to have success in the tournament itself.
Before Euro 2012, the Italians let up three goals in the second half against Russia in a 3-0 loss. A year later, the Azzurri switched off in the final five minutes of their final friendly before the Confederations Cup. They blew a 2-0 lead and drew with lowly Haiti. When the games began to mean something mere days later, the Italians went on to finish second and third, respectively, in those two competitions.
Given Cesare Prandelli's use of friendlies as a tactical laboratory, the final score of any friendly cannot tell you much of anything about the Azzurri. What you need to look for are the results of his experiments. That, friends, is where we come to the true takeaway from the Luxembourg game.
That takeaway is as follows: Prandelli may have discovered a formula that can neutralize the most obvious tactic to counter Italy's attack.
For almost a decade, the scouting report on Italy has read like this: stop Andrea Pirlo, stop Italy.
Nowhere was that exemplified more than at the World Cup four years ago. Injured in a final closed-door friendly, Pirlo had to sit out all but the final 35 minutes of the group stage. In the first 245 minutes of their tournament, Italy scored only two goals—one on a corner and the other on a penalty. In the 35 minutes he played against Slovakia, the Azzurri put the ball into the net three times—one was controversially called back for offside—and all three were from open play.
Pirlo is the most feared player on the field whenever Italy plays. Teams always talk in pregame interviews about the need to stop him.
Man marking has been the prescribed medicine for a team suffering from Pirlo-itis. In 2010, Sir Alex Ferguson famously tasked Park Ji-sung with man-marking Pirlo in the Champions League round of 16 against AC Milan. The South Korean totally neutralized him, and the Red Devils took the tie 7-2 on aggregate. Paul Scholes, who played in that side, was quoted by BBC Sport as saying that England needed an "'English Park Ji-Sung,' one England player designated to man-mark him."
This is where Prandelli's tactical experiments come to fruition.
In the Luxembourg match, we saw Pirlo play significant minutes side-by-side with Marco Verratti for the first time. There had been fears that playing the two "registe" side-by-side would lead to competition for touches, creating a clog in the midfield.
Those fears were entirely unfounded. Pirlo and his heir apparent cycled the attack between each other exquisitely, and Verratti's well-developed defensive game allowed the two to work together without sacrificing defensively. Pirlo was his imperious best, and Verratti put in a second sparkling performance in a row, firing pinpoint passes that pried open the opposing defense.
This is a massive tactical breakthrough. If Prandelli deploys Verratti and Pirlo in the same lineup and they play together the same way they did against Luxembourg, the tactic of man-marking Pirlo becomes utterly useless. Doing so would simply be inviting Verratti to carve the other 10 men on the field to pieces.
Facing an Italy with both Pirlo and Verratti together, an opponent would more than likely be forced to defend straight up. For most teams, that would mean waiting to see which of the two will kill them first.
If Prandelli does indeed use a "dual regista" system, Italy could become nigh-on indefensible. If their strikers fire on all cylinders, goals could come by the bucketful.
It is by no means a guarantee of anything. Some enterprising manager could come up with a way to neutralize such a system. On paper, however, the prospect of facing two of the best passing midfielders in the game at the same time is probably causing a few sleepless nights amongst Italy's group opponents—and any potential knockout stage opponents.
If Italy's defense holds, a dual regista system could just put a fifth star on Italy's crest.
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