Cesare Prandelli has been experimenting with different selections and formations for the Italian national side recently, still trying to determine how best to integrate the players at his disposal. With so much strength in midfield the coach has been spoiled for choice, trying to move the Azzurri away from the 4-3-1-2, but without yet knowing the best alternative.
His most recent tinkering was evident in Italy's opening Confederations Cup game against Mexico, where he used a Christmas tree formation, or 4-3-2-1, for the first time. Mario Balotelli played at its tip, while Emanuele Giaccherini and Claudio Marchisio played as an attacking midfield duo in support. After a 2-1 victory and a reasonably good performance, there are signs that Prandelli could have made progress in his quest to find the Azzurri's winning formula.
For starters, Italy was able to dominate possession against a Mexico team that had the potential to cause problems. Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi made up a trio of excellent midfield passers, with the sheer weight of numbers in the center of the pitch meaning there were always passing options available. It provided a useful defensive function, too, denying Mexico the ability to find space to pass through the middle. Good support could also be seen out wide, where De Rossi and Montolivo could drift and link with the advancing full-backs.
Ball retention in midfield is something that Prandelli has always emphasized with Italy, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport, "We have players of tremendous quality, especially in midfield, and we've built the side around their movement, around their possession." In this regard, the new formation was unquestionably successful -- though this was never really an issue in the first place. It was adding greater unpredictability and invention further up the field -- rather than having to rely on a single trequartista -- that Italy was really looking for.
The much-maligned Emanuele Giaccherini did a good job in finding space around the Mexico defenders, putting in a surprisingly effective performance to the left of Balotelli. Drifting inside, he left room for Riccardo Montolivo or the increasingly impressive young left-back Mattia De Sciglio to venture forward and fire crosses into the area. There were promising interchanges in attack, with Balotelli always having support and the ability to bring those around him into play.
That isn't to say Italy was perfect, though. Giaccherini's attacking midfield partner Claudio Marchisio was entirely anonymous throughout, touching the ball fewer times than any other outfield starter for the Azzurri. And so starts the selection dilemma. Marchisio's strengths lie in creating space from well-timed runs from deep, meaning that he's never at his effective best when he starts in advanced positions -- also seen when Antonio Conte has started him high up the field at Juventus this season. Also, while Giaccherini played well and is a useful utility player, his lack of technical ability means he's hardly an ideal international starter. Too often against Mexico he wasted space that he did well to find.
But issues with personnel don't mean that the system is flawed per se. The technically skilled Stephan El Shaarawy -- who Prandelli has suggested was left out with fatigue -- could potentially be a perfect player for slotting into the role to the left of the central striker, with his close control, creativity and tendency to cut inside onto his stronger foot making him sound like a good option. Indeed, it's possible that Prandelli has implemented the Christmas tree with this ultimately in mind.
However, there's more of an issue when it comes to the right side of the attacking trident. Antonio Candreva is a fairly one-dimensional right winger, making him a poor choice. Sebastian Giovinco is a good advanced playmaker, though after an unconvincing season domestically he doesn't seem to be in contention either. Second in line to Marchisio for the right-sided role seems to be Alessio Cerci at the moment, though he, like Candreva, would rather play as a natural winger, rather than playmaking from a more central position.
Of the current squad, the best option may well be Alessandro Diamanti, who excelled in this exact role in tandem with Gastón Ramírez domestically a couple of seasons ago. The only thing that seems to be really restricting Diamanti from making a serious claim for a regular first-team position is the fact he plays his club football at Bologna; impressing one of Serie A's smaller clubs rather than proving himself at one of the best. Being 30 years old also isn't a help, though he can comfortably play at his best through to the next World Cup. He's also currently being strongly linked with a move to AC Milan.
Selecting Diamanti and dropping Marchisio would be a bold move, with the latter's excellent season at Juventus making him difficult to exclude. However, his incompatibility with the shape means trying to sandwich him in adds nothing to the overall performance. With the 4-3-2-1 showing promise, now is the time for Prandelli to experiment with personnel over formation, and build on the strong showing vs. Mexico.