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Hakuna Matata #12: Italy-France ’98 – Di Biagio and the trembling crossbar

On 3rd July 1998 in Stade de France in Saint Denis, the first World Cup ’98 quarter final was played between the hosts, France, and Italy. It was an encounter that would be ultimately be remembered for the Luigi Di Biagio penalty that smashed against the bar to end Italy’s campaign.

World Cup '98 Di Biagio v Barthez

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Hakuna Matata #5: A VHS tale – Play, Pause, Rewind, Repeat

George Ogier recognises that for many of us discovering our enduring love of football is difficult to attribute to a single moment, football is a far more insidious affliction. In his Hakuna Matata contribution he describes how he became an acolyte of the game.

People often speak about the defining moments of their lives. The events that would be in super-slo-mo, high-definition, 3D magnificence were you to put together a highlight reel of your time on earth. I have had plenty in my life. The first time I met my wife, the birth of our daughter, the time my Mum found out I’d been smoking cannabis. You know, the usual suspects. However, when I consider how big a part football plays in my life there isn’t one particular moment where it all fell into place. There wasn’t a goal that I was mesmerised by or a game that I was taken to that really cemented my love of the sport. My obsession with football was a more gradual affair and it owes a huge debt of gratitude to VHS and one particular video, 20 Golden Years Of The World Cup.

Italia ’90 was the first World Cup I really cared about. It was the first time I had watched football regularly and it had given me a potent sense of excitement about the coming season. The team I supported, Tottenham, had Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne coming back from Italy as undoubted stars of the competition and I could not wait for it all to get going again. Except I had to.
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Edgar Davids – A tribute

Today – Monday 8th November 2010 – the career of a very good player came to what appears to all to be a very quiet end, for now at least. At the age of 37, Edgar Davids announced that he would be leaving Championship side Crystal Palace after 6 league appearances and an outing in the League Cup for the club playing as an auxiliary left back.

Edgar Davids

Dreaded Edgar

Davids began his career at Ajax in 1991 like most of the stars Ajax has given to the world he graduated from De Toekomst and was thrust into an Ajax side entering into the autumn of it’s years at the top of the European game. What followed however was an incredibly successful 4 season spell at the Amsterdam club winning a UEFA cup, 3 successive Eredivisie titles and a Champions League by beating defending champions, the club he would soon join, A.C. Milan.

In 1996, his first big chance to shine on the International stage at the European Championships being held in England and going into the tournament it looked like they would truly entertain. Sadly, incidents of political in-fighting and accusations of racism within the Dutch camp led to coach Guus Hiddink sending Davids home and into the International wilderness.

“In what was intended as a piece of firm leadership, Hiddink kicked Davids out of the squad, a move that didn’t address the black players’ grievances and left the team even more divided than before.”

Brilliant Orange, David Winner

A year after the Bosman ruling came into effect, this Champions League winning Ajax side was ripped to shreds and with it Ajax’s hopes of success. Davids was one of the first players to take advantage of the ruling, securing a move to A.C. Milan. His first taste of Italian football was to leave a taste of indifference in Davids’ mouth, failing to make an impact at A.C. Milan, he didn’t stick around for long.

The following summer he would join Juventus, this was to commence 6 successful season in Italy that saw Davids return to his form before his move to Italy. At Juventus he would win 3 titles, all under the stewardship of Marcello Lippi, and we would also see the fruition of his most recognisable features – his long dreadlocks and his tinted goggles (which he needs because he has glaucoma). Nicknamed “The Pitbull” early on in his career by Louis Van Gaal at Ajax, he showed exactly why when he played for Juve. Davids would charge about the centre of the pitch making sure that every other midfielder knew that the centre circle was his, they would have to go the long way round!

Edgar Davids' Goggles and Dreadlocks

Unforgettable set of goggles and dreadlocks

He would play in a grand total of 243 games in League, Cup and Champions League for La Vecchia Signora during some of the most important years of his career, the only great shame is that he could not crown them with a Champions League – Juventus were runners up twice during his stay. His years at Juventus were not to pass entirely trouble-free off the field though, in 2001 Davids (together with Fernando Couto) was suspended from football by the FIGC as well as FIFA after testing positive for Nandrolone would land him with a 2 year suspension causing him to miss the World Cup in Japan and S. Korea.

After leaving Juventus he was never to bed down as well as he had in Turin; he had spells at Barcelona (on-loan), Inter and Tottenham before moving back to Ajax, presumably to see out his playing career. Sadly, he broke his leg in a pre-season friendly before his 2nd season in Amsterdam and failed to get into the first team, he left the club at the end of the 2007-08 season. Since that point in time he has been involved in an exhibition match as part of an Oceania XI, some fairly bland TV punditry for ITV’s World Cup panel and his main area of interest has been travelling around the world skilling up kids as part of his street soccer tour.

Davids brought a bit of sparkle to the Championship this season when he joined financial strugglers Crystal Palace in August on a pay as you play deal but today decided that his time with the South London club had come to an end. He hasn’t made it clear if he is hanging up his boots, but whatever he does next.. good luck Edgar!

Mexico defeated, but did they expect too much?

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.

Italy's W-W used in the 1930s

Italy's W-W (2-3-2-3)

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.

Mexico 2-3-2-3 / 3-4-3

Mexico's formation looks quite similar to the W-W

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…

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.


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.


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.

Guest article: How are Italy planning to defend their title?

Why not head over to Back Page Football to see my guest article where I discuss how Italy will approach the World Cup? What formation are they likely to field in the tournament?

You can see the article here.

Leave me a comment too, if you like.

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