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The problem with Wesley Sneijder

“Inter collapse, now it’s a real crisis” reads the headline in La Repubblica over the match report from the San Siro on Friday night, with Diego Costa beginning the piece saying “Inter are a side who are lost”. Fabrizio Bocca, also La Rep, allowed himself a single word to describe the result, “Amen”. That is to say, that while the current run is shocking it is completely believable and somewhat unsurprising. The root causes of the problems affecting the Milan club are numerous, and well documented elsewhere, but throughout this season and more specifically the recent poor run one aspect of the Inter team has been particularly interesting to follow: the deployment of Wesley Sneijder.

It's been a while since the San Siro held a party in black and blue
It’s been a while since the San Siro held a party in black and blue (Image via Flickr)


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A new face in Serie A – Giuseppe Sannino

“to win, you need to be angry”
Giuseppe Sannino

At the end of every Serie A season, the arguments between managers and chairman reach their peak. Changes are swiftly made due to the alarming rise in the the number of untenable positions. Then the pack is shuffled; Malesani goes to Genoa and Bisoli to Bologna, Stefano Pioli moves to Palermo and Mimmo Di Carlo heads back to Chievo. The constant recycling of coaches in Serie A can be a rather dull and repetitive procedure, but occasionally a joker is dealt from the pack, inducing a strange sensation. In Rome, Luis Enrique has led to outbursts of joy relating to a new direction. But Siena, too, have appointed in Giuseppe Sannino a manager previously untried in Serie A who has done some remarkable things at lower levels in Italy.

The 54 year old, born in Ottaviano just east of Naples, irked out a 13 year career as a journeyman midfielder in the lower reaches of the Italian football pyramid, most notably with Vogherese and A.C. Fanfulla – winning the Serie C Coppa Italia. After retiring from playing he took up youth coaching for a number of years before taking a first team coaching role at Eccelenza – Italian 6th tier – club, Oltrepo in 1996. From here on in it was a similar story to his playing days, moving from club to club in the Italian third tier and below, rarely staying for more than a season.
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Blast from the past: 1999 Cup Winners Cup Final – Lazio v Mallorca

In 1999 Villa Park hosted the 39th Cup Winners Cup final, it was to be the final edition of the European knockout tournament before it was consumed into the UEFA cup. The final final was contested by Lazio and R.C.D. Mallorca, the two sides had battled their way through four rounds of two legged ties before reaching the final. Lazio beating Lausanne (3-3 away goals), FK Partizan (3-2 agg), Panionios (7-0) and Lokomotiv Moscow (1-1 away goals). Mallorca stopped Chelsea reaching the final, beating the blues 0-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Cup Winners Cup Final 1999 Formations - Lazio v Mallorca

Formations - both sides playing 4-4-2. Mallorca using a diamond in midfield

Lazio won the game 2-1 and took the trophy but anyone who saw the game would have been forgiven for thinking that Mallorca had been mugged. Lazio’s style of play was very stereotypical of their manager. Sven-Goran Eriksson favoured a very rigid 4-4-2, the emphasis was on maintaining shape defensively looking to break as quickly as possible to catch teams on the counter attack. The first goal was indicative of this tactic, the ball was simply played long toward Vieri and Salas who were stationed some 40-50 yards up the pitch from the central midfielders. Christian Vieri used all of his strength to rise above Siviero and put a looping header in at the far post.

The constant distance between the strikers and midfielders remained 40-50 yards whenever Lazio had the ball, this was indicative of how the game was panning out in the first half and how Lazio were setting their stall out. The vast majority of their link up play was left to the central midfield pairing to produce. Roberto Mancini and Hugo Almeyda spent their time on the pitch with a 10 yard piece of elastic between them. They shuffled up and down the pitch as a unit to attempt to get to the strikers, Almeyda was a shade more defensive than Mancini. Link up play with the wingers was very rare, it was all about straight line play.

Mallorca on the other hand were the complete anti-thesis of straight line play, they were holding possession and playing triangles around the Lazio players. This was facilitated by the midfield diamond deployed by coach, Hector Cuper. Engonga sat at the base of the diamond and swept up any second balls that came from the Lazio counter attacks. Whilst Lauren and Stankovic went from inside to out and provided plenty of width, constantly finding themselves in plenty of space to run at the Lazio full backs or link up with Ibagaza in the hole or the strikers, Dani and Biagini. Mallorca were playing better football for the first hour of the match but were struggling to break through Nesta and Mihajlovic at the heart of the Lazio defence.

The game changed when Eriksson brought on right winger Sergio Conceicao for Stankovic. Within 10 minutes of being on the pitch the Lazio players had finally worked out how to get the ball out to their wingers who were finding space to cut inside as well as go to the by line and deliver crosses across the box. The winning goal came in the 81st minute when Vieri and Siviero went up for a 50-50 header and the ball dropped to the young Pavel Nedved, the Czech winger had cut inside and found himself at the right place at the right time to deliver a roundhouse kick that would see the ball nestling into the bottom corner of the net.

Whilst Mallorca started the game as the stronger of the two sides, dominating for the greater portion of the playing time, their inability to find a breakthrough and their lack of concentration in the final 15 minutes cost them. There is also the question of whether the Spaniards had run out of steam and the Romans superior fitness had carried them through to win the trophy.

For Lazio this was in many ways the beginning of the end, they would go on to win the 1999-00 Scudetto but they soon were on the brink of being wound up after running up over €100m of debt under Eriksson, many of the players bought for huge sums, such as Hernan Crespo, were released for peanuts just a few years later.

Preview: Slovakia vs Italy – Champions on the brink of doom

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.

Opposition worries

Italy v Slovakia - probable 4-3-3

Italy v Slovakia - probable 4-3-3

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.

Italian line-up

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.

Conclusion

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.

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.

Conclusion

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)

Inept England disappoint and frustrate again

England once again played very poorly, yet somehow came away with a win against a much more sprightly Japan side. They’ll probably still top Group C just by virtue of the fact that, man for man, they are comfortably the best team in the group. This was also true of the qualification process and will continue, for the time being, to mask problems the team have.

To put it bluntly, the 4-4-2 (or slight variant thereof) does not work very well. They may have cruised through qualification, but didn’t play outstandingly at any point, except ruthlessly exploiting a poor Croatia side. I just feel that when they come up against a stronger nation, one that most likely won’t be playing a 4-4-2, they will be defeated. The friendly against Japan just proved one last time that the system is not functioning very effectively at all. I am surprised that Fabio did not take the opportunity in one of the friendlies to try out a 4-3-3. Granted, in the past England don’t seem to have taken to playing in this manner, with Wayne Rooney as the lone striker, but he’s performed fantastically for Man Utd there this season; the majority of the other players in the side are accustomed to playing in this format at club level too. With the longer training camp in which to practice, they could have got it working.

Steven Gerrard cutting in from the left unbalances the side; it provides space for Ashley Cole to attack, but it leads to someone (Gareth Barry) needing to cover the left flank, which creates space in the middle of the field. With three in the middle of the park becoming the norm nowadays, England will lose the midfield battle against better teams if they persist with just the central midfield pair (recent evidence of this from the friendly against Brazil in November- they had no control of the midfield at all).

Wayne Rooney seems exasperated at almost all times when playing for England; he will drop off deep to get the ball, but ends up going nowhere with it because he has no decent option available to him. He’s just not getting the movement and support he’s used to from his midfield, partly because with two in the centre they need to be more cautious about going forward. What doesn’t help is that whoever Rooney’s strike partner will be (Heskey, Crouch or Defoe), they are just not of the same calibre; none of them are top-class players.

Unless the long balls are going to be pinged to Crouch or Heskey with absolute pinpoint accuracy, then England should abandon playing with a second striker- all of the potentials are limited in their physical or mental capacities of the game. Of course, if we had two Wayne Rooneys, playing two up front would probably be the way to go.

I have little faith in England’s ability to progress past any of their major competitors at the tournament (Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, Italy), chiefly because they seem to lack potency going forward (without Rooney firing on all cylinders it’s a struggle to see them breaking through the better defences) and they’ll be fighting a man short in midfield against most of those sides. A bit late in the day, but after the disastrous warm-up games, I would advocate a switch to 4-3-3:

4-3-3 with Rooney up top alone

4-3-3 with Rooney up top alone

Of course, Lady Luck could keep smiling on England just as she did against Japan last Sunday, and that would be just fine with me.

Capello’s Final 23

Unsurprisingly, I am disappointed with his final selection. Not in respect of Theo Walcott’s omission, however – he has the potential to be a far more dangerous player than Shaun Wright-Phillips, but he very rarely produces it. Fabio has clearly decided that it’s not worth risking one of his 23 spots on  a player who will only produce once every 10 or so times he has the ball in his possession. And by produce, I don’t even necessarily mean do something amazing – just doing the correct, simple things. I think the Japan game was the final nail in his coffin; my main gripe with Walcott is that his mental game is not up to scratch (although I think his technique at times leaves a fair bit to be desired as well), but he had impressed me with Arsenal this season by, slowly, becoming more sensible when in possession of the ball. This went completely out of the window when playing against Japan; it was just head down and run. Although I would have taken him instead of SWP for the impact he could have, I don’t really have any gripes with him being left at home.

I’m more disappointed with the inclusions of Matthew Upson and Michael Carrick and the omissions of Scott Parker and Michael Dawson, who were sent packing without even being given a chance to show what they can do. Why include them in the provisional squad if they’re not going to be used? Upson is not international quality; do a quick survey of 20 football fans down your local pub, I’d guess maybe two would be in favour of Upson going to the World Cup. Dawson is a better defender and has had a much better season. Scott Parker has had a very good season and is exactly the sort of ball-winning midfielder England need in the absence of Owen Hargreaves; Gareth Barry does a very competent job of mopping up, but Parker has that verve and workmanlike energy that I think the midfield is missing. At the very least, the option should be there. Carrick doesn’t bring much to the table- he can pass the ball around nicely, when he’s got time, but has little else going for him apart from that; he featured far less during United’s run-in than he would have liked, but I find it telling that at the crucial moments Sir Alex did not turn to him.

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