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Italy and Tactical Flexibility

On the eve of EURO 2012, Italy was an ominous cloud, surrounded by stifling winds of a Serie A match-fixing scandal and a base of supporters still disappointed from the country’s performance in the 2010 World Cup. Going into this summer’s tournament, defensive stalwart Andrea Barzagli had a calf injury, forcing him to miss at least the first two games of the tournament. Manager Cesare Prandelli has handled these issues with great confidence and tactical cognizance. He has been able to instill an unorthodox system with Italy’s squad and advance out of the group stage.

In the opening match against defending EURO and World Cup champion Spain, Prandelli revealed a brave 3-5-2 formation that utilized Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and converted midfielder Daniele De Rossi as a backline. Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini played as wingbacks (very deep midfielders) and motored up and down the right and left flank respectively. Although being outpossessed (expectedly), the defense stood up tremendously, blocking many of Spain’s shots and disrupting passes and dribbles with aggressive tackling. The 1-1 draw was a hard-fought match, and Antonio Di Natale’s goal after coming on as a substitute was the result of a great decision by Prandelli.

The second match against Croatia was another appearance of the 3-5-2 and truly showed both the benefits and drawbacks of the formation. The three-man center midfield, consisting of Claudio Marchisio, Thiago Motta, and the brilliant Andrea Pirlo, dictated the first 45 minutes of the game. However, Croatia changed their own shape to a 4-2-3-1 at halftime, which tested and eventually breached the Italian defense. This exposed the drawback of a three-man defense; a three-man trident of attack (two wide players and a striker) would invariably stretch out the defense due to at least one run from midfield. The equalizing goal resulted in Mario Mandzukic controlling a deep cross from no more than 8 yards from Gianluigi Buffon and smacking the ball off the near post. Mandzukic had the time to trap the ball so close to net because the defense was spread out due to wide play. This 1-1 draw was merely the result of Croatia adjusting to Italy’s formation, whereas Spain did not.

In the final group stage game, Prandelli completely altered Italy’s formation and subsequent shape. A four-man back line featured Federico Balzaretti and the promising Ignazio Abate as fullbacks, with Chiellini being joined at center-back by the returning Barzagli, making his EURO 2012 debut after a calf injury. De Rossi was moved from defense back into the midfield, and Thiago Motta played the role of trequartista. Italy became more narrow with this 4-3-1-2, but more compact on defense. As an added bonus, Italy literally had two-thirds of the possession in this match. The 2-0 win against Ireland, combined with Croatia’s loss to Spain, secured a place for the Italians in the quartfinal.

It will be interesting to see what further adjustments are made to Italy’s starting squad in the quarterfinals; the injury and potential loss of Chiellini could very well force Prandelli to play a 3-5-2 once more, with Barzagli stepping into Chiellini’s position. Moreso, Italy must choose between three forwards (Balotelli, Cassano, Di Natale) to fill two spots in the lineup. These factors are a testament that having options and flexibility in a big tournament is a key to success.