Having watched every Italy game during the last 25 years, I can say without any hesitation that last night’s 3-0 defeat to Brazil was by far the worst Azzurri performance during my lifetime. It was 'only' the Confederations Cup, as so many people have referred to it, but the chaotic nature of the first round elimination is something that cannot be shrugged aside.
Every way you look at this current Italy team, you end with the same conclusion: that this is the most dismal crop of players since the 1950s. And at least that generation had the very valid excuse of having lost the Grande Torino during the 1949 Superga tragedy. Individually, collectively, offensively, defensively, technically, tactically, physically – the class of South Africa 2009 are a complete and utter shambles.
Lippi In Denial
The peculiar thing about all of this is that Italy’s early exit, after losing to both Egypt and Brazil, comes as no surprise. Everyone predicted La Nazionale to flop when Marcello Lippi named his horrifically old, slow and predictable 23-man squad. Despite nine months of dire and uninspiring football since returning to the helm, Lippi continues to live in stubborn denial that his 2006 Golden Boys can successfully retain their World Cup crown in South Africa.
Even after last night’s humiliation, Lippi still refused the widespread calls to rejuvenate his oldies with youngsters. “My plan is not going to change,” he angrily insisted. “I am sticking to my plan. You speak about young players. Which young players? Do you just throw young players into these matches?”
Unlike his doppelganger Paul Newman, who made a Hollywood career out of hustling people, Lippi cannot fool us. Newman, nominated for an Oscar for the The Hustler in 1961, famously returned to reprise the same role 25 years later in The Colour of Money to secure the Academy Award. Lippi, having returned to the Italy setup, is not going to win another World Cup with this set of players. In fact, Italy will be extremely lucky to progress out of their group.
Luca Toni, Gianluca Zambrotta and Rino Gattuso no longer have the legs. The former is not even the 20th best Italian forward in current circulation, while the latter pair should be reserves at most. Many other players who travelled to The Rainbow Nation are also not up to par. These include Nicola Legrottaglie, Alessandro Gamberini, Simone Pepe, Alberto Gilardino and Andrea Dossena. There are far worthier alternatives around. Even Riccardo Montolivo, despite showing promise against the US and Egypt, fell desperately short once again as soon as he faced top-quality opposition in Brazil.
As I explained in my post-USA debate last week, the Confederations Cup should have been used to test out and blood youngsters in order to get them ready for next year’s World Cup. Italy have limped out in the first round, but what has Lippi learned? He learned (although he won’t admit it) that his old men can’t cut it any longer. But we knew that already from the February Brazil friendly.
What we didn’t know (and still don’t) is whom out of the likes of Marco Motta, Domenico Criscito, Fabiano Santacroce, Salvatore Bocchetti, Gaetano D’Agostino, Claudio Marchisio, Mario Balotelli, Pasquale Foggia, Giampaolo Pazzini and Sebastian Giovinco are ready for the seniors. So when will we find out? During the ‘Big One’ next summer, when it’s one strike and goodbye? The sole positive to come out of these last seven days has been Giuseppe Rossi.
Lippi took Inter wonderkid Davide Santon from the Italy Under-21s, and did not even offer him a single minute in the three games. Santon could have helped Pierluigi Casiraghi win the European Championships, but instead he was forced to watch and 'learn' as Dossena first played Robinho onside and then scored an own goal within five seconds of the same move. What an education!
Italy are in frantic need of creativity, particularly in attack. It is pointless even discussing Antonio Cassano because Lippi will never call up the Sampdoria fantasista, but what is clear is that the 4-3-3 formation needs to go. It is astonishing just how little the press is saying about this tragic system, but for me this is Italy’s biggest problem.
As has been argued so many times, the Azzurri cannot interpret this configuration. To play a 4-3-3 you need pace in all areas of the pitch. You require midfielders with the stamina to get up and down, wing-backs who can work the flanks for 90 minutes, top class wingers who can terrorise the opposition like Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta. A world class central striker. Italy fulfil none of these requirements. How could Lippi possibly believe that a front-three of Iaquinta-Toni-Camoranesi was going to stretch and hurt the Brazil back line? How were Pirlo and Montolivo – two lazy central midfielders – going to match the work-rate of the likes of Felipe Melo, Ramires and Kaka? For someone as tactically smart as Lippi, he made some stunning strategic gaffes last night.
If Italy had played a 4-3-1-2 during the group stages, they may not have necessarily entertained, but, even with these old bunch of players, they would undoubtedly be in the semi-finals now. Italy’s strength has always been their compactness, guile and tactical know-how. In a 4-3-1-2 everyone is closer together, and it goes without saying that this would benefit the older members of the team. As much as he was criticised, at least Lippi’s predecessor, Roberto Donadoni, recognised following the 3-0 defeat against Holland at Euro 2008 that Italy could not play the 4-3-3. If the Azzurri had used the formation against Spain in the quarter final, they would have lost 5-0, and not scraped to a draw and eventual penalty shootout loss.
Lippi - Genius Fraudster Or Fool?
Donadoni is not Lippi of course, and no one is denying the legendary achievements of the 61-year-old - he did win the World Cup after all - but at least Donadoni was ready to correct his mistakes, while Lippi appears to be stuck in this post-German web of arrogant-superiority and defiance.
Or is there more to all this? Is this some form of genius bait-and-switch technique, whereby Lippi fools the world into believing that Italy are no-hopers? Does he want the Azzurri to turn up at South Africa next year with everyone writing off their chances in order to construct an inner siege mentality? One must remember that Italy have always done best when no one offered them a prayer. They won the World Cup in 1982 and 2006 in such circumstances, and came mightily close to glory at Euro 2000 also. When Italy are favourites, they always fall short.
If this were true, it would make Lippi the biggest fraud since boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. While Prettyboy Floyd fools the world into thinking that he is the greatest by never fighting anyone who isn't small, old or average, Lippi does the opposite by deliberately looking bad against all opposition, only to then turn it on when it really counts in the World Cup.
It's a fascinating theory, and don't forget that Lippi's nickname is 'Paul Newman' - the ultimate hustler - but it would surely be giving the ex-Juventus boss far too much credit.
Italy v Italy U-21s - Who Wins?
The current Italy squad is in need of a facelift if they are to have any hope of defending their World Cup with honour next summer. The chances of winning the trophy are slim, whatever team is selected, as it is clear that this is a transitional period before the next great Italy of 2014 is constructed. But the Azzurri can still definitely achieve a semi-final finish with the numerous talented youngsters at their disposal.
Sadly, based on Lippi’s post-match Brazil interview, the coach has no intention of changing. It looks like 2010 could be a repeat of World Cup 1986, when Enzo Bearzot kept together virtually the same ageing team who won in Spain four years earlier, only to see them limp through the groups before being emphatically dumped out by Michel Platini’s France in the second round.
Who would win now if Italy's senior team played Italy's Under-21s? The answer to this question tells you what Lippi needs to do.
What are your views on this topic? Is this the worst Italy team for 50 years? What changes need to be made? What players should come in, and who should go? What about the formation? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think
Carlo Garganese, Goal.com