Sunday evening the Azzurri took on Croatia at the San Siro in a qualifying match for the 2016 UEFA European Championships. The match was interesting, to say the least. The hosts started out well but gradually slipped in both concentration and work ethic after Candreva’s early goal, and a quick Croatia side ran laps around the Italy defense. A draw was not an accurate reflection of the complete imbalance of play on the pitch, which noticeably anger the travelling Croatia fans. However, their anger turned into misguided hooliganism and flare-throwing which ultimately forced a 15 minute stop in the match and a call to the Carabinieri to make sure it would be safe for the two sides to resume play. Beyond the obvious takeaway that flares and football do not mix, the performance of the Azzurri both left a lot to be desired and a lot to be discussed.
3-5-2 will not work. Current Italy coach Antonio Conte heavily favored a three-man defensive line when he was at Juventus, and he attempted to transfer the Old Lady’s formation to the national team. It went poorly, to say the least. The center-backs were often isolated and forced into making makeshift clearances and tackles in order to prevent Croatia from pouncing on a scoring chance. The gap between the midfielders and the defenders was huge, and the Vatreni took advantage of the space that was practically handed to them on a silver platter. The wing-backs rarely tracked back and when they did it failed to accomplish much, and Perisic & Olic were offered an unprecedented amount of room to work their magic. The forwards were isolated without a playmaker like Bonaventura or Montolivo providing them with accurate passes. Bottom line, the formation in the style it is now cannot and will not be an effective one for the Azzurri.
Dynamic presence on the wings is crucial. For once, Italy’s forward line is seemingly better equipped than its defense. Oddly enough though this abundance of dynamic attackers is not being properly used. Players like Candreva and Darmian are being played out of position, and this failure to field some of the country’s best wing-based players is hurting the performances of the Azzurri. Instead of opting for wingbacks in a 3-5-2, a 4-3-3 utilizing both wingers and fullbacks is likely Italy’s best bet for a successful formation under Antonio Conte. With players like Abate, De Sciglio, Darmian, Zappacosta, Criscito, De Silvestri, and Murru all options at fullback and Bonaventura, El Shaarawy, Berardi, Candreva, Gabbiadini, and Cerci available on the wings, not utilizing this available quality is questionable, to say the least. An increased presence on the wings could not only create more issues for opposition players opting to force play down the sides of the pitch but add in players that can provide for the centre forward as well as cut in and get goals themselves on quick counter attacks.
Is it time for Buffon to step down? A sentence that would have seemed ridiculous not one year ago, now it seems that the sun is setting on the legendary keeper’s career with his national team. Buffon has been steadily making more and more errors between the sticks, and one such blunder cost the Azzurri three points against Croatia. With Sirigu & Perin waiting in the wings and Bardi, Leali, and even Scuffet additional possibilities for the #1 shirt in the near future, Gigi retiring would not only pave the way for a new generation of keepers to fight for the gloves, but provide the opportunity for whoever gets chosen to start to hone their skills ahead of Euro 2016. The competition will be Italy’s revenge for their abysmal 2014 World Cup performance, and an ageing, increasingly error-prone shot-stopper is not exactly what the Azzurri need.