FIFA World Cup 2010: Campioni No More: What Went Wrong For Italy?
At the start of the month, I wrote an article entitled "More in Hope than Expectation: Italy Fans Prepare for the World Cup". In it, I tried to sound a rallying call to put aside the criticism of Lippi and his players, and to try and focus on the positives for the tournament. In doing so, I was not trying to say the criticisms of Lippi and his choices were wrong - I myself have written articles questioning him and his selections - but was instead putting down in words what I always feel on the eve on a major tournament; the excitement and hope. Today, that lies in tatters, as an Italian squad that could easily be labelled the worst in history crashed out of the tournament in embarrassing style.
Perhaps naively, I almost convinced myself that the stuttering performances since we qualified (and, let's be honest, before) could be written off - come the occasion, our players would rise to the challenge. His choices may seem crazy, I told myself, but this is the man who won us the world cup; he will have a plan that we can't yet see. Sadly I was mistaken.
Almost from the off, it was obvious Lippi was struggling to understand how best to organise his team. First we played 4-1-3-2, then 4-4-2, then 4-3-3, then almost a 4-2-4 at the end of the match today. Marchisio complained that Lippi's constant changing was confusing, and he wasn't the only one who thought so. The fact that Lippi had to make double substitutions at half time in each of the three games shows he didn't have a grip on how best to set his team up.
It was also quickly obvious that Lippi's insistence on the 'gruppo' was all wrong. In striving to create this famous 'gruppo', he relied on two blocks of players that were all wrong - the 2006 winners (who, let me be clear, were fantastic players - four years ago), and a Juventus block who had just completed one of the worst seasons for a Juventus team in years.
If relying on these players was a mistake, the exclusion of others to fit them in was an even greater one. Yes, we don't know if they would have made a difference, but Cassano, Balotelli, Miccoli, even Totti would all have added something this squad sadly lacked - fantasia; creativity. That our only real creative player in Andrea Pirlo was injured was of course not Lippi's fault, but should he not have made contingency plans for his absence? Montolivo performed well in the first couple of games, but he is more of a mediano than a fantasista.
What it meant was we laboured to create a chance from open play against teams who - with all due respect - a team like Italy should not be struggling against (or at least should be creating chances). What has it come to when Vincenzo Iaquinta is leading the line for Italy? He is a mediocre player at this level, and always has been. I know it has been fashionable to blame Gilardino for Italy's woes, but he wasn't given one ball to score from in two matches - and he wasn't on the pitch against Slovakia.
It also seems Lippi didn't know his own squad; to have left a Quagliarella in such form on the bench until the final 45 minutes of the tournament seems incredible. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if it's a choice between Quagliarella and Iaquinta I know who I would be choosing every time. Surely Quagliarella's form should have been noted in training?
It's also not like the signs weren't there - we performed poorly in the Euros with largely this set of players, and even worse last year in the Confederations Cup. Lippi of course acted like the Euros never happened as they were during his two year sabbatical, and wrote off the Confederations Cup as a meaningless tournament. Maybe his assessment of the latter is correct, but the fact that we have struggled to score from open play ever since Totti retired four years ago should have been a sign that something was wrong.
Lippi, and the players of 2006, will always be heroes for what they did then, but unfortunately that is not sufficient to keep on going. It seems nothing was learned from what happened in 1986, when the world champion squad of 1982 crashed out in the second round. Though at least they got to the second round...
The mistakes of course are not just Lippi's - the FIGC has to shoulder some blame as well. Asking Lippi back to manage was, in retrospect, a huge error. Expecting him to build a whole new Italy team was unrealistic given he was only ever going to stay until the World Cup, so he simply did what was easy - relied on the players that had won him it four years ago.
If there is much blame to put around - and it will be, make no mistake - the solutions are not so easy to come by. Germany were in a similar position a decade ago when they crashed out the Euros, but since then they have reconstructed from the ground up, winning the U17, U19 and U21 Euro Championships and producing a good young national team. We can only hope that we learn from our woes as they have - starting with realising that young players can contribute - if they are given the chance to perform.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain - Cesare Prandelli has a whole lot of work ahead of him.
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