Vincenzo Montella experienced his first taste of Serie A management last season when he took charge of Roma after the downfall of Claudio Ranieri, things didn’t quite go to plan though. His record at the club was just about positive, but not enough to convince the new ownership of the former youth coach’s credentials and he was left looking for a new flame in June.
Montella turned up at Catania with positive ideas and, despite his experience being called into question before he’d had a chance to do anything, he has had a relatively positive start to the season so far. However, at one point it looked like the side may have had the carpet swept from beneath their feet before they could even start the season. A disagreement between president Nino Pulvirenti and sporting director Pietro Lo Monaco saw the talent finder, Lo Monaco, attempt to resign before being persuaded to return.
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On 30 May 2010, Pierpaolo Bisoli led his Cesena side out in Piacenza for the final game of the 2009/10 Serie B league season. The air was tense with the possibility of achieving top flight football through automatic that day.
Cesena sat in third place, one point behind an experienced Brescia, so a win against Piacenza was necessary if Bisoli wanted to stand a chance of going up. A mighty seven thousand away fans travelled to see Marco Parolo’s strike decide the match, but fate would decide the day.
After the final whistle silence fell upon the stadium. The players and staff remained on the pitch, huddled around a small radio, and the crowd sat tensely awaiting the final whistle in Padova. When it finally came, the ground erupted. Brescia had lost.
Cesena had achieved successive promotions, and were now heading to the promised land for the first time since Marcello Lippi had managed the club in the 1990/91 season. The euphoria from both the players and fans was uplifting, scenes that make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.
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At the turn of the year, last season’s champions, Inter, had been considered by many to be all but out of the title race. When Leonardo was appointed, he vowed to turn things around with love and hugs rather than a cold and heartless iron fist. Since his appointment Inter have played 9, Winning 8 with just the 1 loss against a currently impressive Udinese side. This represents a marked change of form and they are beginning to pick up momentum.
Momentum is something that other sides at the top of the table have lacked in the past few weeks, on Tuesday and Wednesday night Inter’s title rivals provided the perfect platform for them to catch up a pack trying their hardest to fall over themselves. With Milan, Lazio and Roma all drawing and Napoli and Juventus both losing, the top 5 or 6 are very tightly crammed together and Inter had the chance to leap into 3rd place by winning at the Stadio San Nicola.
In Serie A all eyes were on Milan following the international break, Inter started round 2 of the weekend games with a 2-1 win at home to Udinese. The talk all week had revolved around new Milan signings Ibrahimovic and Robinho, observers and fans all wanting to know if we’d see some form of ‘fab four’ front line (Ibra, Pato, Robinho & Ronaldinho) particularly against a Cesena side who’s wage expenditure is 15-20 times less than the Milanese club. Coach Max Allegri was quick to cool any notion of all four starting the game claiming that 1 week together was not enough time to gel and insisting the key was to find stability and balance between attack and defence, smart comments but he did not appear to have mastered the balance he was looking for just yet.
Milan started with Allegri’s favoured 4-3-3 with a front line of Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic and Pato and Andrea Pirlo playing the deepest of the midfield three despite being the youngest at 30. Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini in the middle to be enforcers and do some of the donkey work.
Cesena are showing they are no mugs in the top flight this season (they snatched a draw away to Roma on , they took the lead through Bogdani. Luca Antonini had shown 2 or 3 times in the first half hour that he was not having the best of games at left back, he had allowed Luca Ceccarelli and Matias Schelotto to get past him twice already and create two chances for Cesena. Ceccaarelli receives a cross field ball in the air and Antonini fails to close down and stop the cross. Ceccarelli puts a ball into the near post where a similarly nonchalant Papastathopoulos is beaten to it by Bogdani despite a 3 yard head start.
At the 35 minute mark Milan had had 75% of possession, Pato was dropping deep to link up with the Milan midfield and Ibrahimovic was performing the target man role very well. The discarded Barcelona striker showed that with his gentle touch he could take in long balls and delicately lay them off for his team mates.
On 44 minutes Milan were put to the sword once more, a Milan attack is cleared and Papastathopoulos allows Bogdani to get goal side of him again. Once the striker was through Thiago Silva was forced into making a decision, whether to allow him to run at him or to attempt to win the ball high up the pitch. Silva went for the ball and Bogdani played the ball into an open quarter of the pitch for Emmanuele Giaccherini to stroll across and place the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal.
Thiago Silva was substituted at half time with Ignazio Abate coming on at right back, Daniele Bonera partnered Papastathopoulos and the Milanese back four looked even shakier than it had done in the first half. But Cesena were playing a waiting game once they had the 2 goal lead, kept their shape very well and looked to get the ball forward quickly on the counter attack.
Allegri threw on a fourth forward on 65 minutes, sadly we were not to see the all new fab four Robinho had replaced Ronaldinho 10 minutes earlier. Pippo Inzaghi came on for Gattuso and Milan shifted to a 4-2-4/4-2-2-2, none of the forward players were doing any defensive work, though not much was required with Cesena entrenched in their own half soaking up the pressure.
In the end Cesena deserved the victory because they showed incredible discipline and determination not to succumb to the pressure they were under for the majority of the game, they had less than 30% possession for the majority of the game. Milan were unlucky to have two legitimate goals chalked off when the scores were 0-0 and 2-0, it could have been different if Ibrahimovic had put away the penalty 4 minutes from time with Cesena under so much pressure.
Tactically Milan look a shambles, their backline leaves a lot to be desired and even when they only play 3 of their star forwards they are terribly disjointed, there was far too much work for the aging Gattuso, Ambrosini and Pirlo to carry out as well as finding the energy to be creative. The dependence on the full backs for width without cover from the midfield also left Milan threadbare on the break, they’ll face bigger thrashings in the Champions League when they play the likes of Real Madrid if they continue to leave the back door open.
On Sunday evening my favourite side at this edition of the World Cup were eliminated. Mexico had shown in pre-tournament friendlies against England and Italy that they were a young side full of players who were all very comfortable on the ball. Javier Aguirre took over from Sven Goran Eriksson last April after the swede’s terribly inconsistent run of form left the Mexican FA in a tiff over their qualification to the tournament. Incidentally, this was the second time that Aguirre had been rushed in to rescue a faltering qualification campaign. He was also installed in 2001 to try and steer them toward the finals in Japan and South Korea.
Mexico set out their stall to play a very fluid style of football, there would be no thought of shutting down games after getting a goal or two. This was evident given their ability to keep a clean sheet in only 1 of their last 8 fixtures, their second group game win against France. The most interesting feature of Mexico’s play was that they were setup in a formation which was similar to the W-W used by Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy, winners in 1934 and 1938.
Pozzo in the 1930s felt that he didn’t have the adequate players to play the standard 2-3-5, Pozzo lacked a centre half who had the physical and technical abilities to get around the pitch. He modified the formation by pulling back the inside-forwards and at played Ricardo Monti, one of the many Oriundi in Italy’s history. Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ says of Monti:
“[Pozzo] used him as a centro mediano, a halfway house. He would drop when the other team had possesssion and mark the opposing centre forward, but would advance and become an attacking fulcrum when his side had the ball“
Italy’s wing-halves had support from the retreated centre forwards, making the W-W.
The similarity with Mexico’s shape in 2010 is quite uncanny but the styles differ dramatically, Italy were a brutally pragmatic side noted for their inability to play the ball well on the floor. Mexico have played some of the most attractive at this World Cup able to keep the ball well and pass and move with terrifying speed and accuracy.
In the modern game full backs have become some of the most important players on the field, they are usually the players who have the most space to operate in. Their full backs were outstanding throughout the competition, flying up and down the flanks and offering options to pass and cross as well as shoot on goal themselves. Salcido’s efforts against Argentina epitomised this hunger to get forward and produce.
The two advanced midfielders, Torrado and one of Juarez or Guardado, acted is Carilleros (shuttlers) moving up and down the pitch as a unit to provide options inside for the advancing wing backs, playing balls through to the strikers and putting lots of pressure on the opposition’s midfielders as soon as they had the ball.
Barcelona centre back, Rafael Marquez undertook a very important role in the side as a sweeper sitting in front of the defence. This type of sweeper is becoming more prevalent in the modern game, it gives ample cover against 2 man attacks, playmakers between the lines as well as indirectly making the side much more attacking at the other end of the field. Marquez has been one of the few sweepers at this World Cup, is he the blueprint for the next few seasons of football tactics? His assist for the Javier Hernandez goal against France summed up his ability to influence the attack despite lying exceptionally deep.
Mexico’s exit was marred by Argentina’s first goal which was offside, it was a terrible decision but the misery was componded by hitting the self destruct button. Javier Aguirre stepped down a few days after their elimination, he was expected to go further in this competition. He initially promised a quarter final berth so many will say that to step down is the respectable thing to do.
But Mexico have performed to their level at this World Cup, they have been eliminated at the 2nd round consistently for 5 World Cups in successions and they are currently ranked 17th in the world according to FIFA. I have to ask the question why do so many countries think they deserve better in these tournaments? It is simple mathematical fact, only 8 countries can make the quarter finals. Obviously I don’t want to stunt any kind of fan ambition, some is always healthy, but I really thought the Mexican FA would give Aguirre to really have a go at a competition such as the 2011 Copa America.
I’ll be keeping an eye on Mexico to see if they maintain this wonderful style of play…
Well, the headline maybe a little apocalyptic but this certainly an important game for the Azzurri but at 3pm on Thursday 24th June 2010 they will play their final group game. For Italy there is the possibility that this will be their final game at this World Cup, drawing to a close an unspectacular tournament for Lippi’s men. When they take the field tomorrow against a Slovakian team representing their country for the first time at the World Cup they will need to show that they truly are as ready as they say.
To top the group Italy will require a favour from New Zealand. If New Zealand are able to acheive a low scoring draw against Paraguay, 0-0 would be preferable, and Italy can somehow beat Slovakia 3-0 they will go through as group leaders. This scenario is highly unlikely and most Italian fans have not even entertained the possibility of such events unfolding. Instead they are simply looking for a win to guarantee qualification. A draw would suffice if Paraguay defeat New Zealand by any margin.
Slovakia have not been a revelation at this World Cup though they were never expected to do anything more than turn up by many. This is no reason to assume that Italy will brush them aside, they have some very good players and will look to be as difficult as possible to beat. They will also be looking at the possibility of qualification in their first World Cup, if they win and Paraguay avoid defeat then they will qualify in second place. I expect them to line up in something resembling a 4-4-2/4-5-1, depending on the starting line-up tomorrow.
Their key man is Marek Hamsik, he will be well known to the Italian players as he plies his trade at Napoli in Serie A. At 22 years of age he is one of the youngest players to be named captain at the World Cup. The flair player is expected to carry his country forward in attack and is the main creative outlet; however he has failed to live up to this billing thus far in the tournament. Fans of the Azzurri will be hoping that he has yet another quiet game. He will most likely start in the centre of a midfield duo, possibly moving to the left wing as as he did during the second half against Paraguay on Sunday.
The Slovaks also have two very quick and nimble wingers in Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch (available after being injured against Paraguay). These two have buckets of pace and energy but like many players at their age in this position, they lack consistency with their final deliveries. Nevertheless the Italian full backs will need to be wary of allowing them too much space to run at them.
The news circulating from journalists who have been allowed to attend Italian training is that Rino Gattuso will be asked to start the game alongside De Rossi and Montolivo. This could be a move to shutdown Hamsik in the Slovak midfield, or simply a chance to give Gattuso some game time in what will be his last International tournament. Personally I would have liked to have seen Camoranesi given the chance to start in a slightly wider central midfield role, he had shown his worth with two substitute appearances so far.
In the past couple of games the Italians have started to put together signs of promising attacking play, despite the efforts of both Paraguay and New Zealand to get 11 men behind the ball and stop the Italians playing through them. The strikers are yet to show up at this tournament but we are hoping that Slovakia’s desire to qualify will open up some space for the attacking players.
Lippi is expected to maintain his faith in Gilardino and Iaquinta as well as partnering them with Serie A top scorer Antonio Di Natale. This will leave Pazzini and Quagliarella as the available substitutes should Lippi wish to change the course of the game.
It has been noted quite stereotypically that Italy are always slow starters, and many journalists have made reference to the disastrous group stage in 1982 when they scraped through with three draws on goal difference alone. But from here on in it is a straight knock out tournament for Italy, win 5 games and they will retain the World Cup.
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’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.
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.