By Mark Doyle & Tom Webber | Italy & Brazil Experts
When Brazil faced Italy in the 1970 World Cup, Pele led the line for the Selecao, while the Azzurri could afford to leave the great Gianni Rivera on the bench as they had the equally gifted Sandro Mazzola to fulfil the role of trequartista. On Saturday afternoon, the two sides will meet in the Confederations Cup. Brazil will start with Fred as their central striker, while Italy, embarrassingly devoid of a classic No.10, will probably deploy Antonio Candreva and Stephan El Shaarawy in behind lone forward Mario Balotelli. What a sad state of affairs.
For years, this most illustrious of fixtures was almost guaranteed to feature an outstanding Brazilian centre-forward and an extravagantly gifted Italian trequartista. However, after Zizinho, Vava, Pele, Careca, Romario and Ronaldo, we now have the fittingly mundanely-named Fred - a competent but unspectacular striker. Meanwhile, the proud history of the Italian trequartista has not just been tarnished, it has been consigned to the past. We’ve gone from Rivera, Mazzola, Giancarlo Antognoni, Giuseppe Giannini and Francesco Totti to ... well, nothing.
|ITALY'S TREQUARTISTAS OPTIONS
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Consequently, trequartistas are a dying breed. Andrea Pirlo is a throwback to a different age but even he had to adapt. The Azzurri ace began his footballing life as a classic No.10 but it was only after being converted into a deep-lying playmaker that he began to thrive. It had to be so; there would have been no other way for such a talent to excel in the modern game.
Nowadays, coaches are no longer willing to build their sides around players of Pirlo’s ilk. Former Argentina playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme is a case in point. He was one of the most divisive players of his generation: revered by the purists but rejected by the pragmatists. Louis van Gaal had no use for him at Barcelona but Riquelme was a revelation in a Villarreal team constructed around him.
Luciano Spalletti, meanwhile, famously had to select a side without any strikers in order to make the most of Francesco Totti’s considerable abilities. That was a revolutionary move, but it did not catch on. Players today must have a work ethic to match their talent, as so perfectly embodied by both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. They are, quite sensibly, driven by the fear that hard work can triumph over talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
Of course, trequartistas have always been viewed with suspicion, even during their heyday, in the 1960s. The legendary Italian journalist Gianni Brera labelled Rivera an abatino (young priest). The implication was that the AC Milan legend was weak, a luxury player. It was a tag that dogged Rivera, arguably the greatest of all trequaristas, for the duration of his career.
|BRAZIL'S STRIKING OPTIONS
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Azzurri boss Cesare Prandelli has tried Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio in the position, but to no great success. The cold, harsh truth is that there is no 'new Totti'. And potentially never will be.
Still, at least Brazil could yet produce another Ronaldo. Indeed, Adriano looked like o Fenomeno’s heir but his personal problems got the better of him. However, nobody has stepped up to fill the void in the interim.
Admittedly, Brazil are presently deprived of Leandro Damiao through injury, but he is not that much of an improvement upon either Fred or Jo. These forwards score goals, but they do not take the breath away, like Romario and Ronaldo did with such regularity in their heyday.
Part of the problem is that in the Brasileirao the most popular formation is the 4-2-2-2. This maximises space and cover for marauding full-backs, which are so prevalent in Brazil. For them to be effective in advanced wide areas they need something to aim at inside the area. Consequently, centre-forwards are more likely to be adept at heading and hold-up play than dribbling, with Neymar a pleasing anomaly. However, in the modern era, players like Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, are predominantly used as 'false nines' or wingers-cum-forwards.
The consequential lack of gifted out-and-out centre-forwards even prompted former Brazil boss Mano Menezes to experiment with 4-6-0 formation towards the end of his reign.
There are those that blame a change in youth development for the lack of stellar strikers, while others believe that this is simply a phase - just like in 1982, when Brazil turned up for the World Cup in Spain with a plethora of playmakers but without an outstanding centre forward.
Whatever the reason, it seems unthinkable that Brazil will never again produce a strike capable of doing it all. Italy, though, may never again produce a true trequartista. The game simply won’t allow it.