Coach Gian Piero Ventura has thus far shown willingness to tinker with player selections, but not his long-cherished 4-2-4 formation.
With their 1-0 win over Albania on Monday, Italy joined Switzerland, Denmark and Croatia as the seeded teams that will face one of Sweden, Northern Ireland, Greece or the Republic of Ireland in a home and away playoff series to determine who will advance to next summer’s World Cup in Russia. While any one of the unseeded teams could conceivably trouble the Italians given their poor form of late, the Azzurri will especially be hoping to avoid Sweden when the playoff matchups are announced on October 17th.
Despite playing with four attacking players, Ventura’s Italy has only managed to score two goals in their last three qualifying matches, versus Albania and Macedonia, respectively. Clearly, this is not the form that will take the Azzurri into the latter stages of the World Cup, which is the expected result for a team that narrowly lost on penalties to Germany in the Quarterfinals of the 2016 UEFA Euro Cup. That Italy squad claimed shutout victories over Belgium and Sweden, while closing out the Group Stage phase with a defeat to Republic of Ireland before beating Spain by a score of 2-0 in the Round of 16.
So what has changed for the Azzurri in the last 15 months? Namely, the coach – with Gian Piero Ventura replacing Antonio Conte after the latter chose to leave the Italian national team in favor of the head coaching position at Chelsea. Since that time, Conte has claimed his first EPL title, while Ventura has overseen the decline of a once-tenacious Italian side that barely managed to scrape past Albania, the 66th ranked team in the world.
While it would perhaps be easy to explain the team’s recent decline due to injuries to Marco Verratti, who had to pull out due to an unspecified injury earlier this month, as well as Andrea Belotti and Claudio Marchisio, who are out with knee injuries, much of the blame must be placed on Ventura’s player selection and his unwillingness to consider alternatives to his favored 4-2-4 formation. With respect to player selection, Ventura has continued to befuddle Azzurri fans with the constant exclusion of in-form players such as Jorginho and Mario Balotelli, while calling up an unproven talent like Bryan Cristante, and Eder, who is currently not even starting for his club team.
All of that aside, even if one were to overlook player selections, the Azzurri coach’s inability or reluctance to even consider alternatives to the 4-2-4 formation must be considered as perplexing as it is a failure of tactical flexibility – with exceptional midfield talents such as Jorginho and Giacomo Bonaventura left at home to presumably make room for more attacking options such as Roberto Inglese and Manolo Gabbiadini. This isn’t to say that these players are untalented, however, given the team’s inability to score, much less, control matches versus inferior opponents, it may be time for a change to how Ventura chooses to lineup his squad.
One possible solution would be to insert more numbers and creativity into the midfield. Though Marco Parolo and Roberto Gagliardini are fine midfielders in their own right, neither possesses the vision or tactical awareness of a Jorginho or Bonaventura – both of whom would fit perfectly in a midfield of three with either of the aforementioned players. Such a move would also have the added benefit of freeing up Lorenzo Insigne to focus on playing further up the wing, as his defensive responsibilities would be greatly diminished. Another possible alternative would be to revert to the three-man backline that proved to be so effective in the Azzurri’s last major tournament – a 3-4-3 lineup would permit the team to maintain solidity at the back while still having the numbers up top to create scoring chances for the only Italian striker to be called up by Ventura with the chops to lead the front line, Ciro Immobile.
Obviously, the injury to Andrea Belotti couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Azzurri’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup. However, the lack of alternatives to Immobile should signal to Ventura that a tactical change must be considered. What Italy currently lack in clinical finishers, it can certainly make up for in creative attacking midfield talents. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of a national team coach to identify the best talents available to him, and strategize a means by which the most amount of talent can extracted out of those players. Until now, arguably, Ventura has been lacking in this regard. It is by no means a surprise that the success of the best coaches in the world, whether they are Conte, Guardiola or Ancelotti, is personified by their propensity for adaptability. If Ventura would like to consider himself amongst this group, he will need to show similar adaptability, or he will certainly suffer the same fate of his lesser-known predecessors, and be relegated to the role of a capable, but mid-level club coach.