The Problem With The Gruppo: Why Lippi's Approach Is All Wrong For Italy
When Amauri was finally granted Italian citizenship, you can guarantee that Marcello Lippi will have lit one of his trademark cigars in celebration, no doubt commenting like Hannibal in the A Team, "I love it when a plan comes together." Though Lippi played down speculation that Amauri will be called up, the smart money is that the former Brazilian will be on the plane to South Africa as Italy's latest 'oriundo'. The question everyone else is asking is: "WHY?"
Putting aside the question of whether it is right that someone with no Italian heritage whatsoever can now play for the Azzurri (Amauri only gained his citizenship thanks to his Brazilian girlfriend having gained citizenship last year), and also putting aside the fact that Amauri constantly hedged his bets as to which country he would prefer to play for when Brazil seemed interested, the key fact must surely be that he, like many of his fellow Juventini, has had a God-awful season. Five goals in the league (four of which came in a three game spell back in October) and a couple of goals in the Europa League. Is he really one of the best five Italian strikers available? Better than Pazzini or Borriello, one of whom will miss out as a result?
The truth is, of course he isn't. If he played for Lazio, Sampdoria, Napoli or one of the other "smaller" clubs then he wouldn't even be considered. But instead he plays in the black and white of Juve, which to Lippi seems to grant an almost automatic right to be called up for the Azzurri.
Much has already been written about the 'blocco Juve' that Lippi has made the foundation of his Italy team. While there is of course a logic to calling up a group of players who play with each other every week, it helps if that group are actually any good. Lippi unfortunately seems to be blinded by his love for his former side. It is no exaggeration to say that, barring any injury, Lippi will call up at least 8 Juve players when he announces his squad next month: Buffon; Cannavaro; Chiellini; Legrottaglie; Marchisio; Camoranesi; Iaquinta; Amauri. It would be no surprise to also see Grosso there, despite a very poor season at club level. That is over a third of the squad taken up by Juventini who have in general had a pretty poor season. Objectively speaking, surely only Buffon, Chiellini, Marchisio and as an outside shout, Candreva, should be on the plane to South Africa?
Now, Lippi said, when commenting on Amauri, that just because someone has played poorly for their club, that does not mean they will play poorly for the national team. That is of course correct, and Grosso is an example of a player who has always seemed to lift his game for the Azzurri, no matter what his form at club level. The difficulty is that it seems inconceivable that all of these Juve players can do that this time around.
Before I get accused of being anti-Juve (I am not particularly; Juve have produced numerous greats for the Azzurri in the past) I should point out that this is only half the problem with Lippi's approach. Linked to his blinkers for anyone with a Juve shirt is the fact that he seems to have taken no notice of either Euro 2008 or the Confederations Cup debacles. I can almost forgive him the latter one (the Confederations is still little more than a warm up for the World Cup hosts and a money spinner for FIFA), but his attitude about Euro 2008 is bizarre. He acts like it never happened - and to him, it didn't. In fact, the whole two years he walked out on Italy and Donadoni was in charge seem to barely register. Instead, Lippi's starting point has been to go back to the world cup winning heroes of 2006 and rely on as many of them as possible.
All of that squad are of course heroes, as is Lippi himself (I want to make that clear!), but his obsession with the "gruppo" that he created then seems to have blinded him to the fact that we are four years further down the line. Those legs are four years older, and the pace and indeed desire has faded. Meanwhile, teams like Spain have come together, bringing through young skillful players. Where they have the likes of David Silva, we still have a half fit Camoranesi. Where they have David Villa, we have Amauri.
Lippi's reliance on former greats like Zambrotta (who hardly plays for Milan), Cannavaro (made to look a fool by Bobby Zamora of all people), Gattuso (see Zambrotta) etc blocks out the more exciting talent Italy has.
Which brings us to the final problem with Lippi's selection process - his stubborness when it comes to "difficult" players. It would be no exaggeration to say that I have as much chance of playing for Italy under Lippi as Cassano or Balotelli do. And yet they are arguably the two best attacking players Italy have. But because they can be troublesome (and I don't dispute that they can be) Lippi won't even consider them. Instead, he wants workhorses who will be happy to do what he tells them, meaning that the only new players who break in are the likes of the frankly underwhelming Simone Pepe of Udinese. Is it not a manager's job though to be able to, you know, manage difficult players and get them contributing to the team?
The frustrating thing is that Italy could put out a starting XI that might actually scare teams and be capable of playing fast, dynamic football. For example, the Azzurri could line up as follows v Paraguay, if Lippi wasn't so hard-headed:
(4-3-3) Buffon; De Silvestri; Criscito; Chiellini; Bonucci; De Rossi; Pirlo; Montolivo; Cassano; Gilardino; Balotelli
I'm not saying that team would win the World Cup, but I think they would pose any team a problem and they wouldn't be as one-paced and predictable as the Azzurri have been recently. I realise there is some inexperience there, but the point is, there shouldn't be. Lippi should have been trying a team like that out, getting them used to playing with one another; dare I say it, forming a "gruppo".
Instead, I would predict that the starting XI v Paraguay will look something like this:
(4-4-2) Buffon; Zambrotta; Grosso; Cannavaro; Chiellini; De Rossi; Pirlo; Gattuso; Camoranesi; Iaquinta; Gilardino.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will see that with the exception of Chiellini, that is a team that all played in the 2006 edition.
All of this means that Italian hopes for the World Cup have to be pretty low this time around. A quarter final slot looks achievable with the draw, but that would set up a potential match against Spain, which at the moment would seem to be a match too far for the old guard. I have no doubt Lippi will form whatever squad he picks into one that is hard to beat and, at times, capable of brilliance - but unfortunately I don't believe that will be enough this time.
I hope I am wrong - but if not, perhaps we Azzurri fans can hope for change come Euro 2012...
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