Italy 1 Bulgaria 0 | World Cup Qualifier Tactical Analysis

Italy 1 Bulgaria 0 | World Cup Qualifier Tactical Analysis

Cesare Prandelli isn’t the classic Italian coach. He has brought in a modern, positive style of play suited to modern football, putting emphasis on ball retention and attack. He selected youngsters such as Mario Balotelli, Marco Verratti or Stephan El Shaarawy to re-shape an Italian side that seemed old before he took the job. Prandelli inherited nothing new but simply tried to move Italy away from the classic counter-attacking philosophy, developing a new more attractive brand of football, more similar to what Prandelli sides always played. Dominating the game is Prandelli’s main intention and he has never quit his attacking philosophy.

[quote]Given that I have plenty of quality midfielders, I felt we should play to our strengths and with these players that means a much more attacking game. Cesare Prandelli[/quote]

Italy lacks of wide players to play a four-man midfield so 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1/4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formations are the more suited for its players. Another option is the 3-5-2 Prandelli successfully utilised against Spain in the group stage of Euro 2012 and throughout the semi-final games between the two sides last Confederations Cup.

Prandelli’s commitment to a three-man midfielder is nothing new. The aspect that provide’s particular interest is the fact he lined up a deep-lying playmaker, and two box-to-box midfielders, with not a true holder around. This is not new as Prandelli sometimes lined up a 4-2-3-1 with no holders, such as he did against Brazil during last Confederations Cup when he selected two passers as Riccardo Montolivo and Alberto Aquilani as central midfielders.

Italy had gone into the game against Bulgaria needing two wins out from four scheduled remaining matches to secure a place in the next World Cup next season. Prandelli was without Balotelli, Pablo Osvaldo and Alessio Cerci through various reasons. He selected a 4-3-2-1 with a narrowed shape, using Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Insigne behind lone forward Alberto Gilardino. It’s a Christmas Tree formation playing two attacking midfielders between the lines. This is the same system Carlo Ancelotti utilised during his stint as AC Milan head coach from 2003-07.

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This was a two phases game as Italy dominated the opening, while the second half Bulgaria were the better side. The home side started pressing high up the pitch making Bulgaria’s building from the back ineffective. Italy deservedly opened score with 37 minutes gone when Candreva crossed from the left flank and Gilardino headed in.

In the opening moments Pirlo had a huge role as Bulgarians were unable to chase him appropriately so he had relatively easy time holding the ball. When the away side stayed more compact covering Juventus’ deep-lying playmaker, Prandelli was asking to Thiago Motta and, above all, Daniele De Rossi, to drop back in the way to share playmaking duties with Pirlo.

Midfielders’ distribution and a high defensive line encouraged the Italy full-backs into attacking positions. Playing a 4-3-2-1 system, combinations between interior box-to-box midfielders and attacking midfielders are pivotal. Usually, on the flanks the key concept is that if one cut inside, the other has to play wider and vice versa. Instead, Prandelli utilised combinations between full-backs and attacking midfielders, keeping the midfielders in the middle. So whereas Candreva was cutting inside, Abate stayed wide on the right.

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The two men playing behind Gilardino were different players. Candreva is a technically gifted and tactically smart player, usually lined up as a flanker with Lazio, his club side, while Insigne is more a wide forward who dribbles at speed, usually fielded in wide role at Napoli by his side head coach Rafa Benitez. Insigne was picked by Prandelli instead of Emanuele Giaccherini. Sunderland midfielder is an offensive player but not an attacking one like Insigne and he can be lined up in wide spots or as central midfielder as well. Insigne performed better than Candreva beaming an extremely dangerous attacking force from the left side. By the way, Candreva’s combinations with Ignazio Abate on the right side were good throughout the whole game while Luca Antonelli was a more sporadic attacking threat at left-back. On the defensive phase, both the attacking midfielders were asking to drop back in the way to cover the flanks and keep Italy compact. That switched Italy to a 4-5-1- formation when defending.

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A key factor in Italy play is the role of Gilardino. He’s a target man well suited to play as lone forward and able leading the pressing up front. Gilardino is maybe less talented than Balotelli, the usual starter there, but he gave Italy more pace and movement than former Manchester City forward. Also, he’s more suited to link play cooperating with the rest of the team. As Prandelli pointed out during a pre-game press conference, Gilardino is more a pure striker than Balotelli which has the ability to move away from the box to drop behind.

In the second half Bulgaria forced Italy into its own half of the pitch collecting successive corners and showing how much Gianluigi Buffon is reliable as starting goalkeeper. The momentum shifted as Bulgaria started to press while Italy, seemed out of gas, sensibly dropped back the defensive line, playing into their own third quarter.

At the end, the key factors in Italy’s win were the high pressing in the first moments of the game, Gilardino’s work rate, and the freedom Italy’s midfielders enjoyed in the first half. Italy were good when they attacked and made combinations between interior and attacking midfielders in advanced areas. As the game went on Bulgaria was more consistent and Italy sat too deep into their own half.