Cesare Prandelli’s new Azzurri squad has been a breath of fresh air to Calcio fans and the new coach deserves all the plaudits for it. Unlike the previous Marcello Lippi era, Italy’s play has been more positive, more inventive, and less geared towards absorbing pressure and counter-attacking. The best way to describe the two regimes would be to simply say that Prandelli’s Azzurri is the more progressive of the two. Prandelli’s last two fixtures have done well to show this. In their European qualifier away to Slovenia, the Azzurri thoroughly dominated the play, with the 1-0 scoreline not at all reflecting the performance. In an international friendly four days later, Italy held their nerve following the 73rd minute expulsion of Davide Astori to win 2-0 away to Ukraine. Giuseppe Rossi had opened the scoring before Alessandro Matri settled the tie with his 81st minute strike.
Given the Azzurri’s recent form compared to the team under Lippi, it indeed becomes very easy to praise Prandelli and laud him for ringing the changes. After all, one of the many criticism levelled against Lippi was his refusal to integrate the youth. Indeed Lippi’s Italy squad was heavily composed of his 2006 World Cup winning team, an experienced but very old group of players. In addition, he allowed personal differences to hinder his squad selection, with the most notable incident being his blatant snub of Antonio Cassano when the team was crying for a trequartista (playmaker). Instead, Lippi flirted with other aging stars such as Alessandro Del Piero or attempting to coax Francesco Totti out of international retirement. Finally, Lippi’s predisposition to compose his squad based mostly on the Peninsula’s top clubs (Juventus, AC Milan, Internazionale, and AS Roma) also played against him and did nothing to endear him to the public
Thus we see that the biggest change implemented by Prandelli was the lowering of Italy’s average age through the introduction of new and young players. The likes of Cassano has also been made a key member of the squad while also adding youth around the team in the form of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Ranocchia, Giuseppe Rossi, Domenico Criscito, and Mario Balotelli to name a few.
Beyond it’s composition however, Prandelli has also changed the team’s philosophy. The team plays in a far more pro-active manner, looking to bring the game to the opposition. This is of course made possible by a much more dynamic set of players who possess the athleticism and stamina that the aging old guard was so sorely lacking in. In addition, Prandelli seems to have settled on a general team shape, in knowing that he wants to play with a trequartista and two strikers, which is starkly different from Lippi (post-2006) who seemed to constantly change the team’s formation. Finally, and most importantly, in changing the crop of players Prandelli has instilled a spirit of unity and hunger to do well and excel in the players he’s brought in. After all, the players Lippi relied on were World Cup winners and in the latter stages of their careers. This is not to say that they lacked the hunger to play for the shirt, but could not have boasted the kind of motivation Prandelli’s young Azzurri possess.
Despite all the good, we must recognize that the Azzurri is far from the finished article. Just as much as we praised Prandelli’s new attacking Azzurri style, we must admit that it is the product of a much less reliable defensive unit, which makes the counter-attacking option inadvisable. Indeed the defense is still not settled as the perfect partner to Giorgio Chiellini has yet to be decided. This fight is now between his teammate at club level, Bonucci, and Inter’s Andrea Ranocchia. The left-back spot is another position that has yet to be cemented, with Prandelli hesitant between Federico Balzaretti and Criscito. Thiago Motta has all but claimed his status as a permanent fixture in midfield while a host of players have been used to flank the midfield anchor. The trequartista position is still a question mark, with Prandelli favoring the unconvincing Lazio midfielder, Stefano Mauri, in recent outings.
Finally it is the attack that seems most settled, in the fact that Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini seem permanent fixtures. Surely however, accommodations for Rossi’s blistering form this year and possibly even the mercurial talent that is Balotelli will surely have to be considered. It should also be said that Prandelli’s Azzurri, although burgeoning with options, is a good one but not one boasting real international pedigree. Through no fault of his own however, as Prandelli has to now take up the task od bleeding these youngster into international class players; something his predecessor failed to address.
In a way however, the foundations being laid down by Prandelli could become a defining moment for the history of the Azzurri. The Prandelli revolution is [to me at least]oddly reminiscent to Argentina’s under César Luis Menotti. Menotti was one of the greatest Argentine coaches, and indeed it should probably be said one of the greatest in the game altogether. It was Menotti in 1978 who changed the course of Argentine football and provided the tools for La Albiceleste to combat and break up Northern Europe’s (especially Holland) hegemony in world football. What Menotti managed to do is instill a new philosophy of football, which was geared towards the retention of the traditional South American style of play but a quicker tempo. Indeed what caught out the South American teams during this era was the frantic pace of the Northern European teams in terms of their ability to close down the ball. Holland was the apex of this new shift in style, and indeed the greatest aspect of the Dutch’s Totaalcoetbal (Total Football) was not the passing movement or the interchangeability of positions but instead its ability to close down space at a frenetic pace and the athleticism to do so throughout an entire game. If this sounds familiar to a certain Spanish team from Cataluña than it might be because these same traditions have been so thoroughly instilled within the Barcelona ethos from the years when Johan Cruyff coached the club.
Yes Menotti changed the philosophy of play of Argentina in 1978 and yes Prandelli did as well. But it was Menotti’s second and most significant change that Prandelli’s revolution seems so similar to. Unlike most of the coaches who had preceded Menotti, he was not from Buenos Aires but instead from Rosario. The consequence of this is that, unlike his predecessors, Menotti did not exclusively pick his team from Buenos Aires, that is to say from the Boca Juniors or River Plate clubs. If we mean to be cynics, we could say that the Argentina national side, pre-Menotti, was very much a Buenos Aires side. What Menotti did was decentralize the team and transformed it into a veritable national side, within which the likes of Osvaldo Ardiles (a player from provincial side Instituto de Córdoba) became the lynchpin of his side. Therein lies the similarity. Unlike Lippi who mainly picked from the top four clubs in Italy, Prandelli has also decentralized the national team and thus instilled a sense of meritocracy, fostered a real team spirit as well as zeal to perform for the shirt; that alone must be applauded.