Italy 0 Costa Rica 1: 5 Things to Take Away from Italy's Performance
Italy was stunned Friday afternoon in Recife by Costa Rica. After an encouraging performance in their opener against England, they blew the opportunity to win the group and now go into their final match against Uruguay staring their destiny in the face.
There was little to defend about the Azzurri's performance, but much to praise for Costa Rica, who thwarted the Italians tactically at every turn and proved that their victory against Uruguay was no fluke. They will be a formidable opponent in the knockout stages.
What can we take away from this game, and how can Italy rebound to put themselves through to the group stage? Let's take a look at five big things to point to.
The Game Was Lost in the Midfield
The reason for Italy's loss can be pinpointed to one place—the midfield.
The five midfielders the Azzurri trotted out today came up absolutely limp. Costa Rica did what England couldn't and man-marked Andrea Pirlo out of the game. Antonio Candreva was unable to replicate his sparkling performance against England down the right side, and Claudio Marchisio was unable to do anything in the hole behind Mario Balotelli. Daniele De Rossi was tasked with a defensive assignment and never got forward until late on. Thiago Motta was, as he often is for Italy, a non-factor.
It's interesting to note that all five of those men played against England and three—De Rossi, Marchisio and Pirlo—played all 90 minutes in the oppressive conditions of Manaus.
It has to wondered just how much that game in the Amazon cauldron took out of Italy's legs. It obviously took a huge toll the day of the match. Marchisio even claimed that he thought he was hallucinating towards the end of the contest.
Regardless of any of that, the midfield's performance was miserable. They gave the ball away freely in the first half, both with wayward passes and by showing too much of the ball and getting dispossessed.
This played right into Costa Rica's hands. Los Ticos were able to play much of the first half on the run—their greatest strength and the Italian defense's biggest weakness.
Italy needs the midfield to be much more solid on Tuesday in order to ensure their passage to the knockout stages.
Italy Needs Mattia De Sciglio Back
Italy's full-backs were unable to get into the game. Matteo Darmian, so good on the right against England, had one inspirational moment on the left when he cut inside and forced Keylor Navas into a smart save but was anonymous after that.
Ignazio Abate, inserted to allow Giorgio Chiellini to slide back to his traditional center-back spot, didn't defend badly but offered nothing in the attack. The lowest point was in the 79th minute, when Abate tried twice to send in a cross but somehow managed to earn nothing but a goal kick.
The muscle injury suffered by Mattia De Sciglio in the run-up to the England game now looms large. De Sciglio is, like Darmian, able to play both on flanks and contributes much more than Abate going forward. His crossing is particularly excellent—he can pick out a zit on his striker's forehead if he has the time.
Prandelli almost always relies on his full-backs for attacking width. Friday the full-backs were unable to provide it and forced Italy to try to force their way through the middle of Costa Rica's five-man back line.
The unit will have their hands full with the likes of Martin Caceres against Uruguay. De Sciglio faces a race to be fit by Tuesday. If he gets back, Italy's full-backs will be much more dynamic and stand a much better chance of winning that battle and going through.
The Forwards Must Focus
Given the number of times Italy was caught offside in this match you would be forgiven for thinking that Filippo Inzaghi was on the field.
Italy was flagged offside 11 times, the most for any team so far in the competition. Mario Balotelli was the biggest offender with three transgressions, although he also successfully rode the Costa Rican trap in the first half to latch onto two elegant long balls from Pirlo, only to fluff the first and be denied the second.
Most disappointing were substitutes Lorenzo Insigne and Alessio Cerci. Tasked with injecting life into the team, they combined for four offside infractions—at least two of which stopped the Azzurri in their tracks just as it looked like they were going to find an effective breakaway.
Uruguay is not likely to play as high a line as Los Ticos, but Italy can't keep shooting themselves in the foot in attack. If they play with this lack of focus, Uruguay will be taking a lot of free-kicks on Tuesday.
Cesare Prandelli Was Outcoached
For the first time since the final of Euro 2012 Cesare Prandelli was seriously outcoached.
Two years ago in Kiev Prandelli erred by shifting from the 3-5-2 that was so effective against Spain in the group stage to his base 4-3-1-2. The decision gifted Spain the advantage on the wings by letting their full-backs rampage forward, depriving Italy of width and overrunning them.
Much has been made of the 4-1-3-1-1 formation that Prandelli has been trotting out recently. I myself was impressed with the tactic—but only under certain circumstances.
The success of the 4-1-3-1-1 is dependent on Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti being on the field at the same time. When the two are together and in sync, opponents lose the ability to man-mark Pirlo because it would simply open the field up for Verratti to carve holes in the defense.
That was well evident against England, where Verratti's presence clearly made Roy Hodgson shy away from putting a man on Pirlo the entire match.
Thiago Motta replaced Verratti in the starting XI and that advantage was totally lost. Costa Rica tasked Yeltsin Tejeda with dogging Pirlo and it worked. L'architetto never had the space to work his masterful passing. No one on the field could pick up the slack.
If Prandelli continues to use this formation against Uruguay Verratti must return to the field. If the PSG man doesn't play, Prandelli needs to adjust his tactics to give Pirlo more cover and allow him to dictate to a weak Uruguayan defense.
It was also a big mistake to leave Mario Balotelli alone at the top of the formation against a five-man defensive line. In the first half when Balotelli was able to get the ball in decent position in the first half he was swarmed by white shirts before any midfielder was able to come up in support. Balotelli's confidence visibly eroded as the game wore on because he had no help up top.
Another forward should have been playing with Balotelli from the beginning of the match to stretch the Costa Rican line a bit and leave more space to punch holes. He should be given a strike partner from the opening whistle on Tuesday to ensure that he doesn't check out again.
Italy Still Control Their Own Destiny
This result was disappointing for Italy. Had they won they would have been through with a game to spare and almost certainly won the group. Instead, the Italians will need a point against Uruguay in order to get to the Round of 16 for the first time since 2006.
The good thing is it's only a single point that they need. Goal difference being how it is after two rounds—Italy even, Uruguay -1—the Azzurri can draw in Natal on Tuesday and still go through as group runners- up.
Ironically they have Costa Rica—and substitute Marcos Urena's stoppage-time goal against Uruguay—to thank for that.
This game was severely disappointing for Italy, but it was not fatal by any stretch. They will be in the driver's seat on Tuesday. Uruguay must win and therefore must chase the game, and they have looked uninspiring in their first two group games. Against England they only really generated two real goal-scoring opportunities. That Luis Suarez cashed in on both of them is just move evidence of the fact that the striker is worth his weight in gold.
This game may have been the reality check that Italy needed. They must refocus, and they must be ready to contain Suarez, but if the Uruguay attack continues to falter they should be able to get the point they need.
This World Cup is not over for Italy. Not by a long shot.