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Schoolboy mistakes from Italian managers

The 2nd round of group games have been concluded now in the World Cup and the two games which I saw the most of this weekend featured two Italian managers, Capello and Lippi. Both of whom carry a great deal of experience on their shoulders and yet they both made a shocking tactical faux pas against their respective oppositions, while it was not the only reason that they failed to take the points it was certainly a major contributing factor.

Taking a look at England first, they took on an Algeria side noted for being one of the few sides at the World Cup who would be playing a 3-5-2 formation. England had prepared for this prospect, or so we thought, by playing a friendly against Egypt in March. On Friday night however, it appeared that Fabio Capello had been struck down by a severe bout of amnesia. The lessons that were learnt in the first half against Egypt were jettisoned by the England management and put out the side that had taken them through qualification, he had decided to play 2 out and out strikers in Heskey and Rooney against a 3 man defence.

Marcello Lippi also decided to start with a 4-4-2, he had announced this the day before his game against New Zealand. Lippi had some reason to pursue this route with the players ending the game very much on the front foot against Paraguay using this formation. They appeared to be a far more comfortable side but going into the game I felt that too much importance was being placed on individual battles being won, particularly in the midfield where the players would be matched man for man.

A problem of numbers

The problem with playing 2 out and out strikers against a 3 man defence is that the strikers are constantly out numbered. The defenders are able to man mark each striker while keeping a man free to sweep up and knock ons and second balls, if any of the strikers is able to lose their marker they would be faced with another defender to get past. A good explanation of 3 man defences can be found here at Zonal Marking. It is fine to play 2 strikers if they provide plenty of movement and are able to pull the defence out of shape by dropping deep and making runs into the channels.

England fans may be thinking that this was fine because Wayne Rooney has always been the type of striker who likes to drop deep and link up with the midfield but with the English midfield not wanting to play in this way Rooney was left short of options. England resorted to sending long passes up towards Heskey and trying to get Rooney and Gerrard to try and pick up any knock ons.

Italy’s two strikers were Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino, neither of which are noted for their link up play nor are they particularly good in the air which meant that any balls that were delivered to the 2 front men were swept up with ease by Ryan Nelsen who put in a man of the match performance. Italy have been stereotyped as the tacticians of the modern game, however on Sunday afternoon they were thoroughly out thought.


While it is important to try and play your players in the positions you think will suit them best, there has to be some consideration for the shape and style of play that the opposition will bring. The deployment of these formations smacks in some sense of pure arrogance from managers who should’ve had enough experience to think through this decision. Hopefully both sides can learn from this experience and take more care in preparing a side that will be able to maximise it’s strengths against other opposition.

I must point out that I realise there were many many other points that could be made about both games, I just found it very surprising that both managers had made this very basic mistake at the pinnacle of International football.

Italy will need a new plan to beat New Zealand

On Monday Italy began their World Cup campaign against the second strongest side in the group, Paraguay. A tentative 1-1 draw was an acceptable result, but the shift in performance between halves was a positive to take forward into the next game. Lippi started the game with a 4-2-3-1 formation in which Marchisio was instructed to play as the man in the hole. Sadly he was unable to break past the Paraguayan midfield to get up and join Gilardino in attack. Lippi went to a 4-4-2 in the second half by replacing Marchisio with Camoranesi and putting Pepe on the left wing, this seemed to spark some life into the side and they created a few more chances than they had done in the first half.

Italy-New Zealand Probable 4-4-2

Italy-New Zealand Probable 4-4-2

Italy’s next group game will be against New Zealand on Sunday, a team who have been put in the ‘just happy to be here’ category along with North Korea and Honduras. However against Slovakia they showed that they are able to provide some shocks going forward. Will the All Whites be satisfied to take just one point away from the World Cup? I don’t think so.

The press are reporting that the probable formation will be a similar 4-4-2 to the one that played that second half against Paraguay (disregarding substitutions), this could be a problem against New Zealand’s very narrow 3-4-3. Slovakia played  a 4-4-2 against New Zealand in their first game and while it was only with a last gasp equaliser that New Zealand took anything away from the game they kept Slovakia very quiet in the first half restricting them to a few shots from 25-30 yards out from goal.

Matched and outnumbered

The problem with playing a 4-4-2 against a 3-4-3 is that it is difficult to obtain a man advantange for overlaps without leaving yourself dangerously short elsewhere on the pitch. In the attacking third of the field 2 strikers will have to manouvre past a man marker each and a sweeper, being outnumbered by 3 big centre halves will make it difficult to get decent shots on target.

In the midfield it is a straight 4v4 so it will be down to individual performances to be able to beat their respective opposition men. You could argue that Italy should have the technical and physical ability to beat New Zealand man for man but this is a cup competition and poorer teams often play well above themselves.

In situations where the midfield is matched you want the full backs to come out and provide an extra man in attack. The problem with this is that New Zealand will leave 3 strikers high up the pitch as much as possible. The prospect of Zambrotta or Criscito pushing up the pitch to help with numbers on the open flanks will leave the Italian defence susceptible to 3v3 counter attacks.

New Zealand will look to play the ball up to their 3 big strong forwards who will have been told to hold the ball up and they’ll try to win as many free kicks as possible to give them a platform to play high balls into the Italian box and put Italy’s new keeper, Federico Marchetti, and the centre backs under pressure.

Winning strategy

If we see a stifled and edgy first half where Italy fail to create sufficient chances I think Lippi will need to move to a 4-3-3 similar to the formation used in the first few rounds of qualification. This will force New Zealand to change their shape or be left 3v3 at the back. This hypothetical Italian front 3 will need to play with plenty of width to stretch the New Zealand defence and create enough gaps for oncoming midfielders (Marchisio/Palombo/Camoranesi) to run into.

How I expect Italy to look at the end of the game.

How I expect Italy to look at the end of the game (sorry about no names)

Italy leave spaces between their lines (Italy v Mexico 03-06-2010)

It’s difficult to pay any kind of lip service to pre-tournament friendlies; France lost 1-0 against China on Friday, Serbia lost 1-0 to New Zealand last week and England achieved uninspiring and undeserved victories against Mexico and Japan. Except for ensuring that plenty of big name stars will not be appearing at this Summers tournament and giving journalists a look at the new rounder, better, faster, stronger Adidas ball so that they can publish their concerns and condemnations. What have we learnt from these friendlies?

Italy v Mexico first half formation 4-3-3

First half: 4-3-3

Italy boss Marcelo Lippi sent out his side for their first International friendly on Thursday evening, they had played some practice games against local Serie D sides near their training base in Sestriere, Turin. Italy are one of the only sides to have waiting until after the June 1 squad deadline before unveiling any sort of team. Italy lined up in a 4-3-3 formation similar to the one which had taken them through the early rounds of qualification. Di Natale and Iaquinta were to provide with as well as support with Andrea Pirlo playing from deep to try and create.

This plan to wait for any kind of competition appeared to have backfired though, with Italy starting very slowly and conceding a poor goal in the 11th minute to Arsenal’s young striker, Carlos Vela (he didn’t try and chip it this time). The goal came from a communication error between the two Italian centre backs, Bonucci and Cannavaro, Cannavaro was looking to step up to play the Mexican runners offside but Bonucci follows his man into the box after having already lost him.

Italy were unable to keep up with the Mexican full backs, I really hope Mexico continue to play like this when the World Cup starts. Whenever Mexico had won the ball back the full backs bombed up the flanks, Salcido on the left and Aguilar on the right. Marquez sat in front of the two centre backs as a sweeper, yet another attempt to resurrect the role of sweeper.

Italy against Mexico - Second half formation 4-2-3-1

Second half: 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-2-1

To try and counter this Italy were defending very deep as soon as they lost the ball. Forcing Iaquinta and Di Natale to try and pursue the fullbacks, a task that Iaquinta was openly refusing to do stating “He [Lippi] asked me to follow the full back. But if I did this I didn’t have the energy to join the attacks.” Asking his wide men to track back meant that Alberto Gilardino was isolated against 2, or at times 3, centre backs high up the pitch. It was difficult for Italy to maintain possession in any attacking areas and they struggled to put any kind of threatening passing moves together.

In the second half Lippi changed the system around to what looked more like a 4-2-3-1, bringing on Simone Pepe to play on the right wing, moved Iaquinta further infield towards his favoured left hand side and Maggio came on at right back for Zambrotta. Marchisio was playing from a bit deeper than the other two players attacking players. This change did have the desired effect in the attacking third of the field, Pepe and Iaquinta were able to provide better support for the lone Gilardino. But Mexico dealth with the Italian attacks very well.

The midfield and attack were pushing forward together and pressing well when Mexico had the ball in their own half, but the back four were still rooted to the Italian 18 yard line. There was acres of space between the lines for the Mexican midfielders to pass and move into and they were able to hold onto the ball with few objections from the Italians.

Arrigo Sacchi sums up the need for the team to move as a unit with the following quote: -

“I used to tell my players that, if we played with twenty-five metres from the last defender to the centre-forward, given our ability, nobody could beat us. And thus, the team had to move as a unit up and down the pitch, and also from left to right.”

If the defence are close to the attack then it is difficult to put passes together as easily as Mexico did on Thursday evening. My only thought would be that Italy were worried about the attacking speed and guile of the Mexican players, they have 3 very quick talented young strikers in Vela, Hernandez and Dos Santos. The second goal was setup by Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the oldest player going to the World Cup, he was able to drop off 10-15 yards, turn and put a ball in for Medina to rifle into the net. Bonucci was unsure whether to follow his man into the space or remain in the back four and once the ball had been played Cannavaro was caught ball watching and failed to track Medina back into the box.

Italy will certainly need to work on their passing as well as defensive movement before their first game against Paraguay on June 14. After the game they received a further piece of bad news with Andrea Pirlo likely to miss at least the first two games because of a calf injury, Ricardo Montolivo is the most similar replacement otherwise Lippi will need to redesign his Italy side.

Ireland flattered by poor Paraguayan marking : 2-1

That makes 2 in 2 now. I’m not talking about wins for England and Ireland, I mean games where the South or Central American team has dominated possession, completely played a team off the park but still come off the pitch on the losing side. On Monday night it was Mexico who were slain by a completely unimpressive England side who lacked any semblance of cohesiveness. Yesterday evening Paraguay lost 2-1 to a Republic of Ireland team who were simply parking the bus.

We were expecting to see Paraguay line up in their favoured 4-4-2 formation. They had fielded the 4-4-2 throughout the majority of their qualifying campaign, in 12 out of 18 matches. So it was a bit of a surprise to see them playing in a 3-4-3. Another surprise was the omission of Benfica’s star striker this season, Oscar Cardozo, there has been no news of an injury so we can only assume that head coach Gerrardo Martino wanted to take a look at new boy Lucas Barrios and give Roque Santa Cruz a run out.

While they had used the 4-4-2 more than any other formation during qualification, Martino has a very versatile squad at his disposal. This is demonstrated by the number of different formations he has been able to field over the last few years. He has been able to use a 5-3-2, 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 on a number of different occasions in competitive and friendly matches.

The most notable feature of Paraguay’s tactics last night was that when they had the ball their midfield was a flat four with a bias toward the left wing. Morel was overlapping Barrios again and again, able to double up with the Argentine and find plenty of space in the channel. This caused Liam Lawrence and Stephen Kelly no end of problems throughout the course of the 90 minutes.

Paraguay without the ballOn the opposite flank Vera was doing the opposite, cutting into the middle of the park and pulling men away from Gamarra who was providing width on the right wing. Roque Santa Cruz was playing a false-9 role, dropping very deep to link up with Vera and Riveros. This meant that Lucas Barrios was in fact the target man for Paraguay moving into the space which Santa Cruz had vacated. In general they held on to the ball well and were very patient in the build up but unable to provide the final killer ball to open up the Irish defence.

Without the ball Paraguay were a completely different proposition. The back 3 appeared to be marking totally zonally or not at all, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane able to get amongst them far too easily and their wide midfielders failed to track the Irish wide men back effectively. This being the root cause for Ireland’s second goal. They played a very wide diamond in midfield with Riveros dropping back to attempt to provide a screen in front of the defence and the wide players Vera and Morel dropping slightly deeper to help cover the wings.

Short at the back

I think Paraguay’s biggest problem will come from crosses and high balls. They have some very good centre backs when the ball is on the floor, able to get to the ball quickly and deal with the situation efficiently. However their height stops them competing properly against some of the better headers of the ball.

  • Paulo Caniza – 5’11.5″
  • Julio Cesar Caceres 5’11.5″
  • Denis Caniza 5’9″

This seems very short for centre backs of an International standard and will certainly have worried their coach in the run up to the tournament. If sides can get bodies in the box who are able to challenge for the ball they can get a few goals against them.

You can see the goals from yesterday’s game below:

Paraguay start their World Cup campaign on June 14th against Italy, followed by Slovakia on June 20th and New Zealand on June 24th. They will certainly be fighting it out with Slovakia for the runner up spot in Group F at the very least.

Tactics: The 3 man defence

Over the past decade the 3-man defence has led the life of an endangered species, slowly dying out. The decline has had much to do with the increase in popularity of single point attacks and correlates well with fewer and fewer 2 man attacks. When I began following football at a tactical level the 4-4-2 was the formation of choice and anything other than this was seen as some exotic monster from the continent.

“What are these ‘wing backs’ and ‘trequartistas’?” screamed the plebs “Give us our long ball up to the front man, flick it on, knock it in, repeat! Give it to us!” Perhaps this is a slight over reaction but the subtlety of playing three at the back is being lost as it erodes away, leaving us with nothing more than a memory of Germany triumphing at Italia ‘90 with the 3-5-2 and Euro ‘96 with the 3-4-1-2.

Last week in Serie A 4 teams played with 3 at the back. It has not quite had it’s last showing but it is certainly not favoured. Even in it’s heyday there were a number of teams who used a centre back in midfield as their defensive midfielder and ask him to drop into a back four when the opposition had the ball in their half. Roy Hodgson explains how England used this sort of system at Euro ‘96 here.

So when is a good time to play an extra centre back or a libero? The simple answer is against any 2 pronged attack. Two of your centre backs, usually the left and right centre back, take a man each and man-mark him. The libero will play in between making sure to mop up after the first challenge. The first challenge may not be won by your centre back but your libero will be expected to do his best to win the second ball.


This is the most popular use of a three man defence, it manifests itself under a number of different guises such as the 3-4-1-2. This is a good system to use against a team playing 4-4-2 with 2 quick strikers and 2 skilful central midfielders who are bossing the midfield. This formation will give you lots of width and allow you to outnumber your opponents in the middle of the pitch. You can then take the bull by its horns and play simple passes around them to try and create scoring chances.


When playing against a team who are looking to park the bus and play 8 very defensive players and 2 fast strikers, a team that will look to win the ball and play direct passes up to their 2 front men to try and score on the counter, the 3-4-3 is an good choice of formation. You can look after the 2 strikers with cover at the back but also have as many players as possible attacking the opposition goal.3-4-3

The front 3 can move wide to try and stretch the opposition back line or cut inside to allow the right and left midfielders to overlap and get in behind the opposing team. Your central striker will have to be very versatile, looking to drop off when the wingers cut in but also good in the air when they push wide to put in cross.

This formation is very attacking and requires all of the players on your team to be very skilful, comfortable on the ball so they don’t panic when under pressure. There isn’t as much cover for mistakes in attacking areas as the team is stretched across the whole pitch.

This can also be seen as a 3-6-1 if the two wide players are of the attacking 3 are placed more centrally creating a sort of 3-4-2-1. Australia used this formation at the 2006 World Cup but it is has not had much of an airing following their progression to the 2nd round.

1-4-3-2 ( 5-3-2 with sweeper)

The rarest incarnation of the 3 man defence, it is also the most defensively minded. All of the 5-3-2_Sweeperwidth in this formation has to come from the full backs, if you have defensive full backs it won’t work. At the same time if your full backs are too attack minded from the Dani Alves school of attack you will leave yourself open to being countered with balls into the channels. This formation can work well when you are under lots of pressure.

How to beat a 3 man defence

The best way to beat such a defence is to avoid playing 2 strikers, playing 1 spearhead with very wide wingers or 3 strikers who are able to push wide and pull the centre backs out of place is most effective.

The most recent Rome derby illustrated both the best and worst ways to play against three central defenders. In the first half Rome played with 3 strikers but all of them very centrally placed, the centre backs dealt with this superbly. At half time Roma changed to a wider 4-2-3-1 and pulled Lazio out of position. They scored 2 goals to come from behind and win comfortably.

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