The build-up to Italy's disastrous 2010 World Cup run should have been a massive indicator of the trouble to come. Marcelo Lippi's team was poor in a loss to Mexico, then a draw against Switzerland before heading to South Africa. Most assumed that Italy was just failing to take warm-up games seriously, and that it would be fine when the real competition hit.
Based on what's happened with the current Italy squad, that was probably a reasonable assumption. Italy has gone undefeated en route to a Euro 2012 final appearance after losing friendlies against the United States and Russia in the build-up to the tournament, failing to score in both.
Those friendlies aren't comparable to the 2010 friendlies, though, mostly because the teams made sense. Cesare Prandelli had his best players on the pitch, with none of them playing out of position, in a 4-3-1-2 formation that made sense in both games. The same cannot be said for the pre-World Cup friendlies under Lippi, which featured very odd lineups that indicated a future problem for the Azzurri when real games rolled around.
Italy has plenty of quality central midfielders and forwards, but not much going for it in the way of quality wide players. During the pre-World Cup friendlies, the 2010 World Cup and Prandelli's first three competitive fixtures in charge, they attempted to play a conventional 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation with at least one -- if not two -- players out of position on the wings.
Simone Pepe, a true right winger, usually occupied the right wing role, but the cast of characters that played on the left never fit. During this time period, all of Antonio Di Natale, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Cassano and Fabio Quagliarella did turns on the left. All of them are strikers, and all of them very rarely play wide. The results were poor, as Italy crashed out in the group stage of the World Cup.
Things got off to a good start for Italy in Euro 2012 qualifying, as the team won both of its first two matches with Pepe and Cassano on either wing. Things changed in its third match, a 0-0 draw away to a very average Northern Ireland side. This seemed to be a wake-up call for Prandelli. It would be the last time that Pepe played for Italy.
Italy didn't actually finish its match four days later. It was called off due to fan violence, and Serbia was forced to forfeit, but that doesn't matter for the purposes of looking at when things changed for Italy. Even though no one knows how that game might have panned out if it went for 90 minutes, it was indicative of a change. Italy didn't attempt to play with wingers in that game, and it never looked back.
Its next full competitive game was a match away to 2010 World Cup qualifiers Slovenia, in March of 2011. Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio did not start that game, but the team resembled the Italy that's shown up at Euro 2012. It played a 4-3-1-2 formation with Cassano as a second striker behind a line-leader, and Italy won 1-0. It went on to continue with this formation for the rest of qualifying. In its last six games, it won five, drew one (away to Serbia), and conceded just one goal.
Whether it was due to form, fitness, or purely tactical reasons, Prandelli's decision to drop Pepe and switch to a 4-3-1-2 formation was massive. Not because there's anything inherently good about the formation or playing with no wide men, but because it allowed him to get all of his best players on the pitch without playing anyone out of position.
Playing your best players in a coherent way that suits their strengths is almost certainly more important in football than any formation. There's no formation that is inherently better than all others. Even though most teams in the world are currently using some variation of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, they're only effective with the right personnel, just like any other formation. Both formations require a couple of players who are used to operating in wide areas, which Italy does not have at the moment.
How a nation of 60 million people, containing the fourth best domestic league in the world fails to develop a single international-quality left winger is a mystery, but complaining about how absurd this is won't make a left winger appear out of nowhere. At the same time, Pepe is not a good enough player that he should be forced into a team that doesn't fit him, nor is he good enough that a team should be build around him. Even if he's fit and in good form, he has no business playing for Italy unless the country develops a second wide player to go along with him.
Italy went through qualifying with only two goals conceded and made it to the final of Euro 2012 undefeated because Prandelli realized that it wasn't worth shoving a square peg into a round hole just so that he could play the world's formation de jour. There's no such thing as a one-winger formation, and the one that Lippi and Prandelli tried to use simply didn't work.
The Azzurri are now playing to the strengths of their best players, and it might make them European champions.
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