When Cesare Prandelli took over as coach of the Italian national team four years ago, the Azzurri had hit rock bottom. By the standards of the four-time world champions, their 2010 performance in South Africa was nothing less than shambolic, finishing last in a group that featured New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay. Taking over from Marcello Lippi, Prandelli vowed to bring in a new generation of players and open up the Italian game to the winds of change wafting over the Mediterranean from the Iberian Peninsula. This summer’s World Cup in Brazil will determine the extent to which the former Fiorentina boss has succeeded in carrying out his revolución.
To be sure, old habits die hard. In a country where everyone’s an armchair commissario tecnico, it’s hardly a surprise that Prandelli’s novel approach is often discounted as little more than window dressing—a stylistic conceit seemingly borrowed from Milan’s fashion runways that will have no practical effect once Italy’s hard men take the pitch in Brazil. “Come on, how do you expect Italy to play?” Roberto De Blasio, an old friend and sports marketing professional from the southern city of Foggia, told me recently. “Italy will keep 10 men behind the ball and then, when the opponent’s dozed off, they’ll boot it forward and steal the result!” he added with a wink.
Still, it would be hard even for fans hardened by years of catenaccio, the chain-bolt defensive tactics, not to recognize the silky edge to Italy’s game that has emerged under Prandelli. While the 2006 triumph was built on tough-as-nails defense from aging veterans such as Fabio Cannavaro (amazing last-second slide tackles) and Marco Materazzi (amazing last-second insults), Prandelli’s squad is built on keeping the ball through the use of technically gifted players. That doesn’t mean giving up on defense. It means building from the back from Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo all the way to the attack, yet remaining tactically flexible enough to keep opponents on their toes.
Indeed, predicting how Italy will line up is no easy task. In an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport on May 16, Prandelli cited Italy’s third-place finish in last year’s Confederations Cup, where the Azzurri lost on penalties after largely outplaying Spain, as proof his chameleon tactics are working. “Being able to change formations is a resource,” the 56-year-old coach said. “That’s why we’re working on two or three formations, like the 4-2-3-1, the 4-5-1 and the 3-5-2. It’s unlikely we’ll use the 4-3-3.”
While some may see the use of three defenders and two wing backs as a throwback to the 1990s, it’s been the formation of choice for many of Italy’s top teams, including Napoli and Serie A champions Juventus, whose players form the spine of Prandelli’s lineup. And in the heat of Brazil, particularly when Italy takes on hard-chugging England in the Amazonian city of Manaus, one could imagine the benefits of playing possession football—of making the ball do most of the running instead of the players. A glimpse of that style was offered in Italy’s opening game of Euro 2012 against Spain. The key feature in the three-man backline was central defender Daniele De Rossi. With the AS Roma midfielder dictating play from the back—usually straight to the velvety feet of Andrea Pirlo—Italy played keep-away for large stretches with Spain, the very masters of that art. In the steamy jungles of South America, that could be a winning formula.
Prandelli’s revolution, besides prettier football, has also brought an ethical outlook to Italian soccer as well as an injection of youth. He has repeatedly denounced racism and cheating, which unfortunately continue to afflict the game in Italy. And in a country where youth is often stifled, Prandelli has opened up the floodgates to younger players, starting with Mario Balotelli in 2010. His preliminary World Cup roster is also full of youth with everything to prove, including Serie A’s surprise leading scorer Ciro Immobile of Torino, his playmaking teammate Alessio Cerci and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, who between them have but a handful of caps.
Prandelli, who as a midfielder at Juventus won the European Cup and three league titles, will still be relying on a core of veterans such as towering Giorgio Chiellini in the back, De Rossi and Pirlo in midfield and in attack perhaps even Antonio Cassano. The mercurial 31-year-old from Bari, with more soccer lives than a cat, enjoyed yet another rebirth at Parma this season where coach Roberto Donadoni refashioned him as a “false nine” in the manner of Lionel Messi—albeit a poor man’s version. “I really like him in that role, but he can also play on the left,” Prandelli told Gazzetta.
Notable absences from the team include Alberto Gilardino, who also enjoyed a fine comeback at Genoa this season. “It’s part of the changing game of soccer, and it’s a principle of which I’m convinced,” Prandelli said of his decision not to bring a prototypical target forward. “We don’t want to give any points of reference [on the pitch], we want to keep changing things up, otherwise I would have brought in Gilardino and [Luca] Toni.”
As fate would have it, Prandelli’s biggest hurdle in completing his Spanish revolución may be Spain itself. Should the Azzurri advance to the quarterfinals in Brazil, they stand a good chance of meeting the defending champions. That’d be their fourth official encounter in two years, having also met in the Euro 2012 final, which Spain won 4-0. Should Prandelli’s decision to shed Italy’s age-old negative tactics in favor of Spanish style finally get Vicente Del Bosque’s number, then neutral fans everywhere of the beautiful game would indeed have a reason to rejoice and scream Olé!