Following the conclusion of the 2013 Confederations Cup, we took a look the state of Cesare Prandelli's Azzurri remodel and found that, while it as filled with intrigue and slightly more piqued with offense than his predecessors, it still very much hinged upon the performance of a few key players, none more so than Daniele De Rossi, the lynchpin in Prandelli's Italian remodel; the man whose mere existence allows the Azzurri attack to flow seamlessly from back to front.
While the issues surrounding De Rossi's disparate performances for club and country disappeared in one fell French-inspired swoop, there are still plenty of concerns about the men surrounding Italy's number 16.
Unlike yesterday's discussion of the back line, this one will have a decidedly more Roman flavor, so thanks for sticking with us as we preview Prandelli's possible selections in midfield and attack.
Aquilani (Fiorentina), Baselli (Atalanta), Bernardeschi (Crotone), Bertolacci (Genoa), Bonaventura (Atalanta), Candreva (Lazio), De Rossi (Roma), Florenzi (Roma), Marchisio (Juventus), Montolivo (Milan), Parolo (Parma), Pirlo (Juventus), Poli (Milan),Romulo (Verona).
For the sake of this experiment, we'll presume a three man midfield. With that in mind, we'll start our discussion with the first among equals.
Brazil 2014 should be the international send off for the inimitable Andrea Pirlo, so expect the Metronome to be front and center in Prandelli's midfield. Fortunately for fans of the Azzurri, and, really, anyone who can appreciate a remarkably well quaffed hair/beard combo, Pirlo is as effective and as fabulous as ever, ranking in Serie A's top five in average passes per match, key passes per match, crosses per match and long balls per match, all while completing 89% of his nearly 70 passes per match.
Point being, Pirlo is as efficient and effective from the deepest reaches as ever, so don't expect a reduced role for him come June, though if Italy can establish any early leads in group play, Prandelli might be well advised to grant the Metronome some relief from the humidity.
As a Roma fan, international competitions are really the only arena in which I can root for Pirlo and not feel dirty, so yours truly will be following #21 with the utmost enthusiasm and respect, hoping the man with the most resplendent hair in the game can go out on top.
Of course, if the Prandelli regime has shown us anything it's that he loves him some Juve players. At least with the defense, its justified--Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini are simply the cream of Italy's central defending crops-but when it comes to his constant selection of Claudio Marchisio, well, that's when heads become scratched.
Don't mistake me here, Marchisio is a talented player, but his appearance in the starting XI might simply be due to a lack of better options. Certainly he's a better selection that Riccardo Montolivo, right? And beyond those two, many of the other choices--Parolo, Poli or Candreva in particular--aren't the best option on the left side of the midfield, so Marchisio is the winner by default.
Florenzi in Blue
Florenzi in Blue
However, as we mentioned at the outset, the man who makes it all work is none other than Roma's second son, Daniele De Rossi. Following the Confederation Cup last summer, the question facing the Azzurri was the performance of De Rossi, who had an up and down season under Zdenek Zeman and Aurelio Andreazzoli, to put it kindly. Fortunately for the city and the nation, DDR has turned things around this year and has re-established himself as the world's most unique midfielder, possessing an unrivaled amalgam of offensive acuity and defensive expertise.
DDR leads the league with nearly 74 passes per match, while his 9.4 accurate long balls per match are a fraction behind Pirlo himself, and he does all this while completing nearly 90% of his passes. So, as far as the offensive aspects of the game are concerned, De Rossi's role will be to distribute from deep, starting the chain reaction that ultimately leads to Mario Balotelli.
Defensively speaking, De Rossi is nearly unparalleled among is midfield cohorts, falling in the top ten, and in some instances top three, in interceptions, tackles and blocked shots for players at that position.
With De Rossi, Pirlo and Marchisio as the nominal starters, Italy should have no problem holding possession and moving the ball swiftly and decisively. If Prandelli does indeed select these three to start against England on the 14th of June, the only concern would be the lack of an advanced playmaker, though that can be mitigated if he opts for a 4-3-1-2, as was often the case throughout qualification.
However, if recent history is true to form, and we do see that starting trio, that still leaves five midfield slots up for grabs. Right off the bat, we can probably pencil in Montolivo's name in there. He's been a mainstay in Prandelli's Azzurri for many reasons, chief among them, he provides Cesare with an incredible amount of tactical flexibility, as he can cover four, and possibly five, positions on the pitch. Beyond the Milan midfielder, however, it gets a bit trickier.
From that list of 42, one can presume Antonio Candreva and Alberto Aquiliani will continue their international careers under Prandelli, as they each can fill a variety of roles across the midfield. Strong arguments can also be made for Marco Parolo, Rômulo and, of course, Alessandro Florenzi, for much the same reason.
Omissions & Intrigue
I'll refer you to the sidebar for a more detailed look at what Florenzi could bring to this squad, but suffice it to say, his value rests in his pace and versatility; as he could conceivably play four positions on this squad. Additionally, Florenzi's pace and endurance will be a tremendous asset in the Brazilian heat.
Beyond our dear Ale, perhaps the most surprising and intriguing name is that of Crotone's Federico Bernardeschi. The 20-year-old Serie B midfielder's 11 goals and 5 assists in all competitions this season was apparently enough to catch Prandelli's eye, leading to his call up for this testing phase, but he is probably a long shot at best, but certainly one to watch out for in the coming years.
In terms of omissions, once again, it seems to be purely a matter of geography, as two more PSG products, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta didn't make the initial cut, ditto for Sunderland's Emanuele Giaccherini, while West Ham's Antonio Nocerino harbored some lingering ambitions for a World Cup trip. And, let us not forget, Alessandro Diamanti; everyone's favorite collector of arm ink, though currently in the midst of a Chinese adventure, racked up 25 goals and 22 assists through parts of four seasons in Italy, so he's certainly a name worth considering and was even part of last summer's Confederations Cup squad.
Once the foreign born players have their own training, we should have a better picture of where Prandelli's head is at, though Motta seems the safest bet among that group.
Pirlo, Marchisio and De Rossi should see the lion's share of minutes during this tournament, while Candreva, Montolivo and Aquilani's collective experience should make them the first names off the bench, depending on the game state, of course.
We may have buried this in the lead somewhat, but the climactic conditions of the Amazon during June, particularly in equatorial adjacent Manaus, will be killer; shirts will be soaked, players will be slumped over their knees, and copious amounts of Gatorade will be consumed, or whoever FIFA has deemed worthy of becoming the official thirst quencher of this summer's money grab.
Quite simply, the manner in which the 32 managers rotate their squads will be more important than any recent world cup, to say nothing of how early they press their luck and "go for it" in any given match. Of those reserves, none are more important and none will cover more miles than the midfielders, making the final two selections the most important of all.
Given their versatility and their endurance, were I Signore Prandelli, I'd be taking Florenzi and Rômulo along with me, the latter of whom as even played in defense during the league season and has the benefit of actually being Brazilian, so maybe he won't be fazed by the conditions?
Balotelli (Milan), Berardi (Sassuolo), Cassano (Parma), Cerci (Torino), Gabbiadini (Sampdoria), Gilardino (Genoa), El Shaarawy (Milan), Immobile (Torino), Insigne (Napoli), Osvaldo (Juventus), Rossi (Fiorentina), Zaza (Sassuolo)
Now, this is where things get truly interesting. Between Immobile, Rossi, Cerci, Gilardino, Balotelli, Berardi and Cassano, we're talking about 96 Serie A goals through 33 weeks, so Prandelli has a plethora of options at his disposal.
Although he leaned upon Pablo Osvaldo quite a bit during qualification, if Prandelli utilizes a lone striker, odds are the combustible Mario Balotelli will get the nod. He may be a tad unhinged, but he is hellaciously talented; on this there can be no debate. Balotelli scored two goals in three matches in the Confederations Cup and has 25 goals in his last 38 league appearances. Then there is the simple matter of physics; Balotelli is Italy's finest physical specimen, no player on this squad has the same combination of size and agility.
However, should Cesare rely on a two hit men, matters become more complicated. Both Giuseppe Rossi and Stephan El Shaarawy have what Prandelli craves, speed and an ability to attack from wide positions, but they're both hurt. And, good lord, could you even imagine PDO and Balotelli coexisting? Didn't think so. PDO is very much a last resort.
Barring some last minute miracle, we can probably scrap our dreams of Francesco Totti, Luca Toni or even Antonito Di Natale making a comeback. On the possibility of Totti, Toni or Toto getting the call, Prandelli didn't flat out deny the possibility, but was rather non-committal:
These are the players. If there are any emergencies, we would evaluate others. I have the utmost respect for these great players like Totti, Toni and Antonio Di Natale that they deserve a much longer answer than I can give here. I therefore prefer to say what I said earlier about Francesco: these are the players we have chosen. If there are emergencies, then we will look elsewhere
Given the injuries and inexperience of the remaining choices, in the event Prandelli rolls out a two man attack, one would have to like the chances of Antonio Cassano or Alessio Cerci, the latter bringing speed and width, while the former can drop back, hooking up with the midfield to provide another conduit towards Balotelli.
Balotelli and Cassano are virtual locks, while Cerci's case is as strong as any of the remaining candidates, leaving Prandelli with two ostensible openings in attack; two extremely controversial and contentious openings at that.
Between the two of them, Rossi and El Shaarawy have one appearance in all of 2014. One! You didn't misread that, neither man has played in over four months, so their inclusion on this list is indicative of Prandelli's faith in not only their skills, but their recuperative abilities. However, Prandelli is no fool, so I can't imagine he'll take two such fragile players. So if he's gonna shoot for the moon, let's hope he takes the player with the greater upside in Giuseppe Rossi.
So, who gets the last slot? Does he go for age or exuberance? PDO has his faults, but he can find the back of the net, Gilardino isn't terribly exciting, but he's effective, while Berardi and Immobile are as exciting as any attacking prospects Italy has had in some time.
This will be the hot button issue of the selection process, mark my words.
Omissions & Intrigue
Listen, I wanted Totti on Toni on this list as much as anyone, but they were always longshots. So, then, the most glaring of snubs is none other than Mattia Destro, who ran afoul of Prandelli's code of ethics, which seemingly cost him at shot at Brazil 2014...maybe. What Destro does, scoring and moving in space, is precisely what this team craves. Destro would have no problem moving in concert with either Cassano or Balotelli, while the prospect of him getting on the end of a ball from Pirlo is the stuff of dreams.
Destro will have his day in the sun, that's for sure, but his performance the past four months gave us hope that that dawn would come soon. So, we'll see if Prandelli's hardline will hold up in the end. Beyond that, we really just touched upon the only flashpoint in the attack, the inclusion of the injured Rossi and El Shaarawy.
Ciro Immobile, Serie A's current capocannoniere, is perhaps the most intriguing choice in the whole squad. One needn't look any further than the goal he scored against Roma to see what he's capable of, but to this point in his career, Immobile has been known as a big fish in a small pond; succeeding as the offensive focal point for some pretty paltry clubs. But the young man can score and, when paired with Torino teammate Alessio Cerci, he would infuse instant chemistry into Prandelli's attack.
Prandelli's admiration for Giuseppe Rossi is evident, so if he's fit, he gets the call; pencil his name next to Balotelli's on the squad list. Antonio Cassano has seemingly atoned for his recent sins, while his skillset is truly unique among this crowd of Italians, so he should make the cut, leaving us with two further choices.
We just discussed the oppressive humidity that is sure to follow Italy at each step in this contest, so imagine Cerci's pace being injected into the second half of a match, blazing past worn and withered defenders, and his case becomes clear. If I'm Prandelli, the mop top is coming with me for that reason, and that reason alone.
So, what of that last spot, who gets it? If Prandelli is true to his word, steadfastly refusing the legends of 2006 and anyone deemed unethical, then, in my eyes, it boils down to Immobile's prodigious scoring record versus El Shaarawy's tantalizing potential, no disrespect to Gilardino.
Even at his best, which has rarely been seen, El Shaarawy doesn't present anything to this squad that can't be seen in Cerci, or even Rossi for that matter, so give me Immobile's size and nose for goal, making your five forwards: Balotelli, Cassano, Cerci, Immobile and Rossi.
There is certainly a lot of talent from which Prandelli can choose. From the brilliance of Pirlo, to the madness of Balotelli, to the speed of Cerci, to the intensity of De Rossi, Italy really has all their bases covered; they can run with and out muscle any team in their group.
And, much to our delight, two of Rome's best and brightest should figure heavily in Prandelli's squad. As we mentioned, in a cohesive sense, no player on this squad is as important as De Rossi; his knowledge, skills and abilities facilitate his nation's offense and defense to a greater degree than perhaps any player in the World Cup.
For Florenzi's part, this really could be his coming out party, not in terms of putting his face on magazine covers, but for establishing his place on this team for the next ten years. The rest of the world will soon see what we've come to realize, that this young man has an understanding of the game far beyond his years, one which is matched not only with exceptional athleticism, but an earnest appreciation for his place in the game. Florenzi has won Romans over with his flair for the dramatic and his sense of humility, expect him to do the same on the global stage.
So, in a sense, what we're seeing on the national scene is really what we're witnessing in Roma, a passing of the torch. Totti was at his apex in 2006 (not that he's declined all that much), while DDR was an apprentice, albeit an impressive one. Fast forward to 2014, and its De Rossi who's cock of the walk, while Florenzi should be taking the first steps towards an impressive international career of his own, and if Destro can escape his ethics ban, this might be a decidedly Roman summer.