'Illusionists' Italy Bucking All Stereotypes...

Traditionally, Italy have been characterised by their defensive strengths. But Cesare Prandelli has adopted a new approach which could please the neutrals, says Daniel Storey.

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The defensive culture of Italian football has been set in stone over the course of World Cup history. Italy and Brazil, two countries with the more World Cup successes than any other, have acted at opposite ends of the footballing spectrum. Whilst Brazil typically attacked, Italy typically defended, and these became universal truths, the ying and yang of the sport's showpiece occasion.

Italy's defensive institution effectively began in the 1930s,, with Nereo Rocco the first exponent in Serie A with Triestina in the late 1940s, and was made famous by Helenio Herrera whilst at Inter Milan in the 1960s. Catenaccio literally means 'door-bolt', hinting at the mindset intended, four defenders and a sweeper used to nullify the attacking threat of the opposition.

Such a strategy inevitably lauded defenders as the most celebrated performers within Italian football. Luigi Riva, Giuseppe Meazza, Silvio Piola and Roberto Baggio are obviously famous forwards, but it is the likes of Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta that are the true icons of the Azzurri's history, with Dino Zoff and Gianluigi Buffon in goal as feted as any striker.

It may surprise many to learn, however, that Italy have kept just two clean sheets in their previous 13 matches. Despite comfortably winning their qualifying group (although the presence of the fading 90s lights of Denmark, Czech Republic and Bulgaria certainly assisted that effort), Italy conceded at a rate of almost a goal per game, and only one other UEFA group winner conceded more. In the last twelve months alone Italy have allowed Nigeria, Germany, Armenia, Denmark, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Japan, Mexico and Haiti to all score two or more goals in a match - that's 70% of their fixtures.

One could be forgiven, therefore, for assuming that the knives would be out for manager Cesare Prandelli, but that could not be further from the truth. It was expected that he would step down after the World Cup, presumably to move back into Italian club football, but such has been the increased performance and improved results during his time in charge, the Italian Football Federation (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio) is attempting to negotiate an extension to his contract.

Furthermore, Prandelli has also changed the opinion of the Italian public and the wider world regarding the Italian team. The longest reign as the manager of the Azzurri since the great Arrigo Sacchi, this has truly been the Prandelli revolution.

It is difficult to imagine the nadir into which Italian football had sunk following the disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup. To fail to qualify from a group that contained Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand was utterly unthinkable, but to finish bottom and winless was perhaps the most obvious humbling of football's last decade. It was Italy's worst showing since the defeat to North Korea in 1966.

From that trough, Prandelli has created a resurgent side, and done so at speed. To have taken Italy to the final of Euro 2012 just two years following the debacle in South Africa is an astonishing achievement - Prandelli has returned a long-lost pride in their team to the Italian public. Despite the aforementioned defensive record, Italy have lost just one competitive fixture in the last two years, a Confederations Cup match against Brazil. Most importantly, they now possess enough quality (or perhaps belief) to operate on the front foot against the strongest sides in world football.

The coach's most impressive feat has been to create a side that is both fluent and flexible, demonstrated perfectly by their ability (and propensity) to change formation, sometimes even mid-match. During Euro 2012, Prandelli chose to switch between a 3-5-2 with Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini as wing-backs, but also operated a 4-1-3-2, utilising Andrea Pirlo in front of the defence in a position from which he could begin moves with his passing distinction. Fast forward a year to the Confederations Cup, and Italy used three different formations in five matches, with 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 all employed depending on the opposition faced. A semi-final and final appearance were the rewards for such flexibility. Spain were their conquerors on both occasions, and there is little shame to be taken from that.

Speaking last November, Germany coach Joachim Low praised Italy for their ability to change style. "They come as a wolf in sheep's clothing as you never know what to expect from this team. They can adjust their game like no other team in the world, they are illusionists." These are not compliments that Italy have traditionally grown accustomed to receiving.

Such fluidity is reflected in Italy's increased attacking prowess, a complete shunning of the famed catenaccio resolve. Whereas previous Italian teams' principal aim would be to keep a clean sheet and build from that, that default attitude has shifted markedly. After the group stage draw against Spain in Euro 2012, Vincent Del Bosque praised the Italians for "playing us face to face," but it was the quarter-final against England that redemption was confirmed. 35 shots and 68% possession reflected the Italians' complete domination - England had not been outfought or outmuscled, but outclassed.

Prandelli understood the necessity to change Italy's outlook. Speaking after the Euro 2012 victory over England, he fell short of apologising for the past, but was insistent on the future: "Did we manage a tactical revolution? We're just beginning. But we have the responsibility to try, if we don't want to get stuck watching the World Cup and the Euros on TV then we have to be proactive. Without thinking of the result from the first minute."

In addition, Prandelli has aimed to dilute slightly Italy's customary reliance on aging players. The World Cup squad for 2010 failed to contain a single player under 23 years of age, and the only other major countries to match that (France, England and Brazil) all also fell short of pre-tournament aspirations.

The evident conclusion is that an international team performs best when it contains a blend of tournament experience with a freshness, hunger and excitement associated with younger, less-experienced players. This was exemplified by the performances of Mario Balotelli at Euro 2012 and, following the retiring of Fabio Cannovaro and Gennaro Gattuso, amongst others, Prandelli has been able to call up the likes of Marco Verratti, Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia De Sciglio, Alessandro Florenzi and Lorenzo Insigne.

Prandelli's task has not been made easy, given the rapid rise in foreign imports into Italy of late. 156 of the 278 players involved in the first weekend of last season's Serie A were foreigners, and of the last 26-man Italy Under-21 squad, none have made an appearance for a team in the top half of Italy's top flight, a hugely worrying statistic. Serie A clubs have used just 41 Italian players under the age of 25 this season, a figure dwarfed by the Bundesliga and La Liga.

"The problem isn't mine, but of Italian football," claims Prandelli. "If you can't afford to buy champions, then you need to create them in-house. This is why I constantly urge development of youth academies. That is where we must invest." The responsibility for guiding through those talents will fall to someone other than Prandelli, but his words are wise.

Managing Italy past Germany and into the final of Euro 2012 would have been hugely impressive as a standalone accomplishment, but to do so from the ashes of a disastrous World Cup two years previously represents a remarkable achievement from Prandelli. When the additional changes of style and ethos are factored in, particularly given the basis of defensive solidity on which Italian sides are traditionally built, there are few bosses in international football that deserve more praise.

Italy may have been handed a tough test in a group containing England and Uruguay, but don't rule out more pleasant surprises in Brazil. In Cesare Prandelli, they have a manager who is both tactically adept, flexible and ready to demonstrate that the Azzurri can once again be an exciting side to watch.

Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter

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