We're here at last, the World Cup has finally started, and with it we can officially put the horrors of vuvuzelas and middle of the work day matches from 2010 to rest. Italy's march towards their fifth World Cup title starts on Saturday against England in the oppressive heat and reportedly horrid pitch conditions of Manaus. Despite the climatic conditions and hastily thrown together turf, this promises to be one the marquee matchups of the group stage, as each nation is laden with world class talent.
Despite all the history and all the hype each nation brings to this match, the outcome should hinge upon two things: Can Italy's defense slowdown the attacking trio of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck? After all, the three Englishman accounted for 47 goals in the Premiership this past season, and Italy's defense, as vaunted as it may be, isn't exactly blessed with speed. On the flipside, can England stifle Andrea Pirlo and the rest of the Azzurri midfield?
With several weeks of preparation before this match, you can rest assured that Cesare Prandelli and Roy Hodgson have analyzed every angle and weighed every tactical trick leading up to tomorrow's opener.
So, how exactly will Italy attempt to tame these Lions?
Lessons From Luxembourg?
While international friendlies and tune-ups can sometimes lack excitement and intrigue, they do provide insight for each nations advanced scouts. In order to corral Andrea Pirlo and the rest of the Azzurri, England turned to the tiny nation of Luxembourg for advice on how to defeat the Italians. Luxembourg, ranked 112th in the world, managed to nab a late equalizer against Prandelli's men last week, prompting Luxembourg manager Luc Holtz (not to be confused with Steve Holt!) to proffer this advice:
If Italy have a weakness, it is that they can be hurt on counter-attacks. Under Cesare Prandelli they do not play like the Italy of old, they are much more offensive, they tend to dominate possession and their full-backs can sometimes get caught very high up. We noticed that even before they played against us - they had drawn 0-0 with the Republic of Ireland the week before but the Irish could have scored two or three times on the counter-attack - so we tried to exploit it too.
For England, then, it could be all about the quality of the transition from defence to attack. If that is the way that Roy Hodgson chooses to play, he will need players who are fast and clever in the way they run into spaces. From what I've seen, Sturridge does that very well. That seems to be how to create the most problems for Italy
Between Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and even Rooney, England has enough pace to threaten Italy's defense, particularly on the flanks. In order to avoid this peril, besides maintaining possession, Italy must close down England's attacking midfielders as soon as possible, which puts added defensive pressure on Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio.
Of course, there is another midfielder that might swing this match all by himself, Andrea Pirlo.
The Pirlo Factor
Pirlo's importance to Italy's attacking schemes is no secret; not to me, not to you, and certainly not to Roy Hodgson. England's preferred tactic, according to recent reports, will be to man mark the Metronome. Be it Danny Welbeck, Steven Gerrard or Jordan Henderson, England seems hell bent on harassing Pirlo the moment he touches the ball.
Rafa Benitez, no stranger to English football tactics, chimed in with his own Anti-Pirlo plan, harkening all the way back to 2005 when his Liverpool side faced Pirlo and AC Milan in the Champions League final:
[What] was important about that game was approaching Pirlo with an attacking mentality. We also wanted [Harry] Kewell and Steven Gerrard to make use of the spaces either side of Pirlo - because despite his incredible talent he was not the quickest when acting as a defensive shield.
We also wanted to double up in the wide areas, switching play fast from midfield to isolate one of the full-backs, who in Milan's diamond formation had to do all the work on the wings
If Benitez is correct, this presents two rather large problems for Italy. Daniele De Rossi having to clean up the back of the midfield is nothing new, but with the humidity, lousy pitch conditions and England's pace, Pirlo's usual defensive shortcomings could leave gaping holes in the middle of the park, which could potentially put a lot of miles on DDRs legs. Secondly, if England is able to isolate either of the Azzurri's fullbacks, things could get dicey, particularly if Giorgio Chiellini is used as a makeshift left back now that Mattia De Sciglio has been ruled out of this match.
So how, then, will Prandelli give his maestro the freedom to operate? Through some calculated misdirection and mirroring of Pirlo's presence in the form of Marco Verratti, the poor mans Parisian-based Pirlo, if you will.
Italy has been experimenting with a 4-1-3-1-1 formation, in which Verratti lines up alongside Pirlo and Marchisio. The presence of Verratti, who possesses a remarkably similar skillset to Pirlo, should throw some confusion into the English defense.
We tried this new solution with a midfielder in front of the defence and two directors further forward with more freedom. We like this option, it can give great results and we are working to improve every day.
In truth it's a system that involves rotation, as we go forward and at other times I'd come back into the more classic position. We aim to rotate the midfield positions to keep our opponents guessing.
The midfielder in front of the defense is, of course, De Rossi, while Pirlo, Verratti and Marchisio will be seen swapping roles and positions in an effort to keep England from keying in on Pirlo, with Antonio Candreva and Mario Balotelli providing the spark up front, though Alessio Cerci or Lorenzo Insigne could be thrown into the mix.
Will this sleight of hand be enough to carve out a sphere of influence for Andrea Pirlo? Can Italy snatch three points without an effective Pirlo? And, more importantly, how will his hair handled the humidity?
Given the conditions on the pitch and in the atmosphere, coupled with the De Sciglio injury, don't be surprised if Italy attempts to wring a draw out of this match. Although, with players as electric as Cerci, Balotelli and even Insigne, if the Azzurri can catch England on their backheels, if only for a moment, they might soon find themselves top of the group.
Dov'è la Vittoria? Take it away, Gigi!