By finally accepting the overtures of Guangzhou Evergrande last week and flying to China to sign a contract worth a reported €10m a year until 2014, Marcello Lippi made his first steps back into coaching after a spectacular fall from grace.


A pair of starkly contrasting La Gazzetta dello Sport front-pages still serve as a reminder of how one of football’s greatest managers scaled the highest heights only to then come crashing back down to earth and touch rock bottom: Tutto Vero! Campioni del Mondo – All True! Champions of the World – in Germany in 2006 and Tutto Nero! Fuori la Peggior Italia di Sempre -All Black! Out the worst Italy of all-time – in South Africa in 2010.


Since then, rather than concentrate on what went wrong, such as his blind loyalty to an aging group of players, Lippi has often preferred to reflect on what might have been instead. To this day his biggest lament is not being able to play three-at-the-back in the build up to their title defence.


“I had something in mind for it, which is one of the reasons why I feel a great regret,” Lippi told Sky Italia. “I was doing the rounds. I went to Milan to speak to Alessandro Nesta. I went to Turin to speak to Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Cannavaro because I’d got it into my head to go to the World Cup with a three-man defence. I liked the idea a lot.”


Yet unfortunately for Lippi circumstances out of his control meant it was wiped off the chalkboard. Nesta refused to come out of international retirement and Chiellini arrived at training camp in Sestriere with a calf strain, requiring two weeks of rehab. Plans to work together on the movement and positioning of the three-man defence with Cannavaro and the young Leonardo Bonucci in place of Nesta were now definitively consigned to history.


“When we got to the World Cup I couldn’t do something that I’d never tried. So I left things as they were,” Lippi explained.


More injuries compromised the existing set-up further. Andrea Pirlo was missing until after the group stages and Gigi Buffon was out of the tournament once it emerged he’d seriously tweaked his back during the warm up of their opening game with Paraguay. He played but limped off at half-time with Italy 1-0 down, adding to the sensation that they were already done for.


Whilst Italy managed to claw themselves back into proceedings and scrape a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, they were then held to the same scoreline by New Zealand and lost to Slovakia, finishing bottom of their group without a win to their name. Not since their defeat to Korea in 1966 had Italy been so humiliated.


Playing three-at-the-back certainly wouldn’t have been enough on its own to have saved Italy – their problems were varied – but if the opportunity had presented itself then it might have balanced the team better and helped spare their blushes.


Lippi’s intuition was good. Nesta apart, they had the personnel and the expertise to make the system work. “We had the wide-players to support this kind of play because they played that way for their clubs,” Lippi explained. “I am referring to Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito.”


Over the past two years this train of thought has gathered yet more momentum in Italy. According to data collected by Opta and Who Scored 17 of its 20 clubs have used it at one stage or another this season and in all it has been deployed 216 times across the league. More can be read about the context and reasons behind its resurgence in an article I wrote for FourFourTwo here.


Aside from it already being the zeitgeist, the clamour for Italy to adopt a three-man defence has only grown following Juventus’s title-winning campaign in Serie A. It became a leitmotif of their unbeaten season from late November onwards when, after surprising many by lining his team up in a 3-5-2 to practically mirror Napoli, Antonio Conte applied it in successful alternation with a 4-3-3 depending of course on the opposition.



There’s a case to be made here for simply transferring their winning formula to the national team. Dino Zoff did something similar ahead of Euro 2000, copying elements of Fabio Capello’s Roma – the last team prior to Juventus to conquer the Scudetto with three-at-the-back in 2001. With it, he managed to reach the final where Italy lost to David Trezeguet’s last gasp goal, as France won in extra-time. It bears remembering that Vicente Del Bosque also incorporated much of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona to his Spain side and to a certain extent followed their recipe for success at the 2010 World Cup too.


In some respects imitation is no-brainer. The reality of international football is that coaches have little time to work with their players. If they do impose a style then the lapse in time between friendlies, qualifiers and major tournaments mean continuity is lost and chemistry hard to find, especially with players dropping in and out of the squad because of injury, suspension or a loss of form.


Italy manager Cesare Prandelli is more aware of this than most.


He fought hard to get a concession from Serie A’s club owners to make their players available for additional midweek training camps in-season. Initially they put their own interests above that of their country, citing Champions League and Coppa Italia commitments but an agreement was eventually reached and dates penciled in the diary for April 23 and 24 at Coverciano.  Tragedy then struck. The death of Livorno midfielder Piermario Morosini and the rescheduling that followed the postponement of the games from that weekend left no option but to cancel.


When a provisional Italy squad finally met up on Monday this week to begin “Operazione Europeo”  – three months after their last get together – not everyone could make it straightaway. Juventus and Napoli players were given time off after the weekend’s Coppa Italia final, so too were Torino’s Angelo Ogbonna and Pescara’s Marco Verratti following their part in earning automatic promotion to Serie A, not forgetting Salvatore Sirigu and Thiago Motta, both of whom were involved in the final day of Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain. Preparation time is of the essence.


For what it’s worth, Italy have developed a very clear and modern tactical identity under Prandelli. He has sought to replace the tradition of defensive, counter-attacking, opportunistic football with an attractive possession oriented game based around a 4-3-1-2 and a ‘rotating midfield square’ in which players with piedi buoni interchange positions so as not to give their opponents any reference points. It has yielded positive results. Italy held Germany to a draw and beat Spain in friendlies while also qualifying comfortably for Euro 2012.


Since then there’s a sense that they have taken a step back. Consecutive 1-0 defeats to Uruguay last November and the USA in February have provoked concern even if, while the results were bad, the performances were on the whole quite good. Italy dominated possession [64% against Uruguay and 68% against the USA]. They out-shot and out-created their opponents yet ended another game goalless.


Italy haven’t found the back of the net in slightly more than three and a half hours and the fear is that, in the absence of Antonio Cassano and his strike partner Giuseppe Rossi, they resemble a kind of post-Pauleta Portugal: a team that produces a lot, is easy on the eye but doesn’t have a reliable forward at international level. That might change now Cassano has thankfully recovered from a stroke caused by a congenital heart defect. “He’s our top scorer and his numbers mean something,” Prandelli said. “He’s one of the few attacking players who knows how to read the movements of another striker well.”



Aping Juventus might not help Italy improve in the penalty area. Lest we forget they weren’t exactly reliant on any single individual for goals this season. Twenty different players got on the scoresheet and although Alessandro Matri was the only one of their forwards who made it into double figures he faded and lost his place towards the end of the season.


In theory a solution to that problem is to be found in Udinese striker Antonio Di Natale. Capocannoniere in Serie A in 2010 and 2011, he has scored 80 goals in 107 games either in a 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1 and knows the system well. A broader discussion of Italy’s attacking options can be read here in a piece I wrote for the BBC. But for now, let’s focus on answering the question: will Prandelli seriously consider placing his own ideas to one side and follow the path laid out by another?


Asked about the 3-5-2 last week, he said: “We’ll try it, even if I’d like to keep an extra midfielder.” A couple of things were taken from that response. First, the 3-5-2 might be experimented with in training and upcoming friendlies against Luxembourg and Russia. Second, Prandelli is reluctant to play without a trequartista, which up until now has been a position that has featured in all of his 19 games in charge of Italy.


Reviewing it might be worthwhile. Aside from Cassano and Sebastian Giovinco, both of whom can and probably will play as a second striker, the other players tried in the role thusfar – such as Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo – have been unconvincing and out of their comfort zones.


Bologna’s Alessandro Diamanti furnishes Prandelli with another No.10 to run the rule over but truth be told more effective performances have come in Serie A from incursori like Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Nocerino: players capable of breaking from midfield, timing runs into the box and scoring goals. Taken together they got on the scoresheet no fewer than 21 times for Juventus and AC Milan this season. Harnessing that threat to a team which of late has experienced difficulty making the net bulge would be expedient.


Although symbolic, dropping the trequartista wouldn’t necessarily represent a change in style and philosophy either. Conte’s Juventus see football in a very similar way to Prandelli’s Italy – they play the ball out from the back, impose themselves through possession and seek to put on a spectacle for their fans. There’d be no compromise or a contrast in schools of thought just compatibility and the opportunity to channel the winning mentality they have nurtured over the past season.


A block of seven Juventus players has been called up – goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, centre-backs Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini [the best defence in Serie A], then Pirlo, Marchisio and Emanuele Giaccherini. It further reinforces the club’s proud history as the principal supplier to the national team. There were nine Juventini at the 1934 and 1978 World Cups, another seven at Euro 2000, and six and five respectively at the 1982 and 2006 World Cups. A successful Juventus often means a successful Italy.


Prandelli is at least giving himself the option of playing their 3-5-2. Further to Maggio and Criscito, the wing-backs Lippi had available to him in 2010, the emergence and provisional inclusion of other wide players like Atalanta’s Ezequiel Schelotto and Giaccherini gives Italy width that they otherwise don’t have in a 4-3-1-2. If nothing else, it’s a great alternative for Prandelli to have at his disposal. The novelty factor of it might also be turned to Italy’s advantage at Euro 2012 where other nations perhaps won’t have confronted a team comparable in shape and tactical versatility.


“The will to surprise people must be even stronger than all the difficulties [Italy have faced in the last six months],” Prandelli told Il Corriere della Sera. “Without forgetting that it’s in the difficulties that you can also meet some pleasant surprises.”


With that in mind don’t be so shocked if Italy line up in a way different from what’s expected of them and follow the Juventus blueprint ahead of their appearance in Poland and Ukraine this summer.


Possible XI [3-5-2]: Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Maggio, De Rossi, Pirlo, Marchisio, Criscito; Cassano, Di Natale


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