World Cup – Cracking the Winning Formula
Germany won the World Cup in 2014 and created history. Not only did they become the first European country to win it on Latin American soil, they also marked the third successive European victory at the world stage after Italy in 2006 and Spain in 2010. But each of these three World Cup winning teams had a very unique approach to the game. From a sturdy defensive organization, to relentless passing to unambiguous direct approach – the three embodied as diverse a genre of football as one can think of. Let us now look deeper to recollect how these champion teams actually conquered the world. First up is Italy- winning it in 2006 in Germany.
V for Voyage
It was a smooth ride for Italy, an unexpected, if not swashbuckling cruise. Marcelo Lippi led Gli Azzurri to their fourth World Cup crown in 2006. A true follower of Arrigo Sacchi’s philosophy, Lippi set up his team on a solid defensive backbone. The Italians played in a fluid 4-4-1-1 formation backed by three Juventus defence stalwarts. Gianluigi Buffon held fort under the bar, while solid centre half and skipper Fabio Cannavaro, was flanked by Gianluca Zambrotta on the right. Along with them stopper Marco Materazzi and Fabio Grosso on the left completed the back four. The fullbacks were more comfortable staying back, but, besides being rock solid in defending, took turns in going forward. Midfield creativity was assigned to the deadly silk-n-steel Milan duo — Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso, who was at his devastating best.. Completing the midfield diamond was Mauro Camoranesi, the converted winger on the right and Simoene Perotta, the shuttler on the opposite side. It was a very modern version of defensive wide men who would track back and tackle, help out their full backs, come inside to reinforce the midfield, but would rarely hug the touchline on the attacking third. Up front Francesco Totti played in the hole behind the lone striker Luca Toni.
It was a refreshing break from the beaten-to-death Italian Catenaccio system. Lippi was a proponent of high intensity game with a high defensive line. This allowed Italy to squeeze the play in the center of the field. In fact, they were so disciplined that the distance between the defensive and the forward lines was never more than 25 metres. With so little space for everyone, players spent more time looking to get the ball back – a feature known these days as natural pressing. We saw it in its primitive form in the 2006 World Cup, that too with unbelievable speed. Lippi ensured that by collapsing the pitch, the opposition needed to go past three lines of players – his forwards, midfielders and defenders – one after the other, that too in quick succession and with utmost precision, to create any goal-scoring opportunity. Naturally, not many managed it. Italy conceded one goal in the group match against United States when right back Cristian Zaccardo put the ball in his own net in the 27th minute – he was later substituted and never ever managed to feature in the first team. Lippi’s side did not concede any more in the competition from open play, the only other goal against them was from a spot kick in the final against France.
The central midfielder, opposite to the side of the attacking half, had the responsibility of slotting in between the centre halfs to create a 3 v 2 situation against the two onrushing forwards. The other midfielder was given the duty of closing in on the opposing central midfielder in that area, and then following him during transitions of opponent attack. Totti, or the shadow striker would then drop to control the other central midfielder.
It was expected that Italy would defend well, but they also launched swift and precise attacks up field whenever possible. Italian domestic football had been changing in the recent past – the last three seasons had seen more goals scored per game in Serie A as compared to those in the Premiership and La Liga. Now it was time for the national team to showcase the change at the grand stage.
Azzurri, however, were not a single trick pony when it came to attacking. There were plenty of variations as chances were created through slow build-up or passing play through the middle, or from crosses coming from wide areas or set plays or long range shots from outside the box or even through trademark fast-paced counter-attacks – and as many as 10 different players found themselves in the scoresheet. Sometimes Toni would deflect the long balls or hold on to it for others to come forward, sometimes Camoranesi and especially Perrotta cut inside – between lines or even behind the opponent defense – with Zambrotta, in particular, and Grosso making runs in the vacated spaces.
Lippi loved to have multidimensional players and that is the reason his teams never had a single playmaker. He was always look-out for a team that will be more than the sum total of its individual players. He opted for players who could carry out multiple roles on the playing field and that is the reason why his 4-4-1-1 system was so fluid. The midfielders were multidimensional and could operate in every area of the pitch, his forwards tracked back while not in possession and his defenders invariably pushed up. They always valued team ethics more than individual glory and went on to become one of the most efficient sides in footballing history.
One of the highlights of Lippi’s coaching style was that he had learnt his lessons from watching his predecessors. The Sacchis, the Trapattonis or the Maldinis were happy to sit back and defend their one goal lead. But sometimes this strategy backfired as the opposition got a foothold on the game and henceforth dictated the terms. Not with Lippi – he never liked the idea of sitting back and ensured his side was not getting overloaded in any position.
Needless to say, Pirlo was involved in everything Italy did on the creative front. His offensive bursts past the opposing midfield line through combinations with Totti and Camoranesi or Perrotta were a spectacle to behold. Besides, he often started attacks with long balls or switching the play to opposite flank though long diagonal passes. So, controlling Pirlo was the main agenda for opposition in Italy’s build-up phase. Totti also dropped back at times to support Pirlo, which strengthened their midfield hold but in effect, sacrificed numbers up front. Italy lacked a potent striker, a clinical finisher. There was no one to capitalize on the second ball after Toni had taken a defender or two away with him, forcing Pirlo and Totti into a slow and elaborate build-up, which gave the defending teams enough time to shut off the gate. None capitalized on this weakness better than the Aussies who kept Italy at bay deep into injury time of extra time in the round of 16 match, only to suffer a heart break through a controversial penalty. Azzurri suffered but could not find any solution to this problem. It was not only the lack of vision in attacks, the Italian team was also confused with and split on the new approach by Lippi.
Captain Cannavaro declared his inclination towards “return to a more defensive approach” after 1-1 stalemate against United States in the second group stage match. Things could have been much more different if Italy were to face stronger teams than Australia and Ukraine in the knockout rounds. When they eventually faced Germany and France, Italy could not find a way to beat them in the regulation time.
But Italy were brave and ready to force a win. Against Germany in the semi-final, Marcello Lippi’s Azzurri had a pair of full backs who spent most of their time in the opposition half. Lippi was not just done with that, he even introduced a fantasista – ball-playing creative # 10 – Alessandro del Piero, sacrificing Perotta, a ball-winning midfielder towards the end of the game, to successfully force a result. So outrageous were these tactics coming from an Italian manager that even their sternest critics, Diego Maradona also was in awe on Spanish television: “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!”, he said.
To cut the long story short, Italy was the best team in the tournament, even though they were not spectacular. Italy seemed galvanised and motivated by the match-fixing scandal Calciopoli unfolding back home. The team bonded with extra vengeance, 21 of their 23-man squad were utilized during the campaign. And any team with Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Gattuso and Pirlo playing at their peak levels needed to do something radical to squander their chances. Gli Azzurri did not, and went on to lift their fourth World Cup title. This brings us to the end of the first installment of this series. We shall be back soon with the second part featuring Spain, the World Cup 2010 champions.