Italy suffered historic failure to qualify for World Cup… How it happened?

Match Analysis
Michele Tossani

Michele Tossani


FIGC’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, compared to apocalypse the prospect of Azzurri missing out the 2018 World Cup. It happened after losing their play-off with Sweden with the Azzurri failing to qualify to the most important football tournament for the first time since 1958 when they have been knocked out by Northern Ireland. In some case, you can bounce back as Germany did after 2002 World Cup or Brazil after the Maracanazo…but you need have learned the lesson. Instantly, media and pundits started to analyse what went wrong.

People started pointing fingers against the high numbers of foreign players in Serie A, the low level of Serie A matches, the dysfunction of Calcio under Tavecchio’s regime… Head coach Gian Piero Ventura’s appointment too has been highly criticised. But this latest point wasn’t appropriately examined yet. So, let take a closer look to what didn’t work under Ventura’s regime.

First and foremost, the choice of former Torino’s boos to replace the departing Antonio Conte following Euro 2014 was a mistake from the begin.

The then 68-years old gaffer represented, in Tavecchio’s opinion, the better choice to replace current Chelsea’s manager largely due to fact he was a less polarising and also cheaper figure. Ventura also has been regarded as a fine tactician and a particular able manager when it came to handle players. Both of these claims proved to be false.

Regarding to his ability on handling footballers, Ventura showed a lack of man-management skills with big egos. That’s hardly a surprise since he never coached big clubs with his experience with Napoli lasted just 19 games and with the club languish in Serie C, Italian third division, at that time.

Ventura reached his high with Torino, when he turned the Granata in an Europe League’s worthy side four seasons ago. That said, this is not a question of experience or lack of. Not at all. Rather, is Ventura’s lack of ability to lead Azzurri to be in question here. That’s especially true coming to his tactical acumen. And this appears even more surprising as the same Ventura showed to be tactically smart in his club experience with Bari and Torino. Unfortunately, this smartness abruptly vanished under the pressure to be the national team gaffer.

The beginning of the end has been last September in Madrid, when Azzurri faced Spain in a must-win qualifying game.

Putting too much faith into his well-know 4-2-4 – the system that made him a praised coach at Bari, where he also resurrected Leonardo Bonucci’s career – Ventura sent his team out this way in Santiago Bernabéu just to see Azzurri trashed 3-0 by the home side.

Spain’s positional play brought them success in the midfield battle with Italian central duo of Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi. It has been a particularly interesting game with media and fans that questioned Ventura’s lack of humility in terms of face Spain. This were particularly true as Italy easily defeated Spain at Euro 2016, just one year before. But it happened under another manager and running a different patch. In fact, the then coach Conte, more aware of Italy’s weakness and lack of true attacking weapons, built his side around aggressiveness, pride and a collectively compact and organised positional structure.

Since the start of his spell as national team head coach, former Juventus’ boss implemented a 3-5-2 formation built around goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and central defenders Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini.

Without some of his top midfielders, Conte line up a physically strong central midfield featuring De Rossi as holding midfielder with Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini – a former winger turned box-to-box midfielder – on his sides.

Up front, Conte lined up two between Simone Zaza, Eder and Graziano Pellè, none of which knew as a scoring threat at international level. Under Conte’s game plan, Italy defended with both vertically and horizontally compactness, with manager’s focus being on closing down central passing lines to force rivals in wider zones where the pressure started.

While Giaccherini and Parolo sorted out in order to press the opposite full-back, they were also wise on their positioning in the way to cover the passing-line through the near half-space. The whole team shuffled where the ball was with the Italian full-back on the strong side that remained lower the pitch to from a five-man backline to defend depth.

These guidelines have been generally followed also in the game against Spain – although sometimes Parolo or Giaccherini moved forward to disturb Spain’s building from the back whilst the strong side Italian full-back pushed high up the field to press his Spanish counterpart. In those situations, both Chiellini and Barzagli were able to cover their own half-spaces when the ball where on their side – with the Spaniards unable to get the ball progressing through Italy’s midfield.

To add more discomfort to Vicente del Bosque’s side, Conte asked Pellè to main mark Segio Busquets, tacking him out from Spain’s buildup. Conte’s man-marking system worked through the whole tournament as a direct attacking approach also did with Italy dangerous every time they gained ball possession. Closing the centre and the half-spaces and exploit the counter were simply guidelines Conte’s side well-executed and that Ventura wasn’t able to reply some months after despite having a better roster at his disposal.

That game against Spain was a disaster as, since that loss, Ventura lost the dressing room with his footballers starting to question formation and line up. De Rossi’s sideline rebellion during the second leg against Sweden just highlighted players’ growing lack of faith in Ventura.

In the eve of the playoff against Sweden, rumours suggested that Italian more experienced players forced Ventura for a comeback to the 3-5-2 they played under Conte at Euro 2016 when they also beaten right the Swedish in their second game of that tournament.

It has been a tough game in which Italy gained the three points after an individual piece of skill from Eder a weak but well-organised Sweden side. That game resulted in the worst produced by Conte’s team at Euro 2016 but highlighted some features of the Swedish side that Jan Andersson’s men confirmed through their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Once again, Ventura has been unable to learn the lesson during the games that caused Azzurri to miss out Russia 2018.

In the first playoff game between Swedes and Italians, Ventura’s squad undoubtedly had troubles when it came to move the ball forward. Their build-up were complicated as the team’s spacing was largely ineffective ball circulation. For good spells of their possession phase, the ball circulation was fruitless as their passes almost completely consisted of an endless circulation around the Swedish defensive block. The result was that Italy’s offence were ineffective and that was exactly what Sweden wanted. The U-shape circulation prevent Ventura’s men from finding gaps between Sweden’s compact two banks of four as we can see from @11tegen’s accurate passmap.

This issue largely occurred due to the inability of both Verratti and Parolo to gain positional superiority behind Sweden’s midfield. Both Verratti and Parolo’s movements wasn’t up to standards.  But Italy’s buildup too suffered Sweden’s compactness as playmaker De Rossi also wasn’t able to provide positional superiority over Swedish first line of defence, in such situation.

With their positional structure far from perfect, Italy made little impact on a pedantic Swedish 4-4-2 giving Andersson’s side a good chance to exercise their defensive strengths through a great control of central areas.

Instead, Italy faced some troubles defending on their right centre-half against Emil Forsberg who was able to produce something through his moments and technical skills.

@11tegen’s passmap from the fisrt leg shows a compact Swedish side in which Forsberg’s cutting inside movements produced some pain to Italy’s defensive phase.

In general, although they rarely created real scoring chances, when in possession Sweden stay faithful to their plan of looking forward to Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen through direct balls. A deflected shot produced Sweden’s winning goal.

The xG stats, taken from @11tegen, point that the first game between Sweden and Italy was a though one, with not great chances. That was what Sweden looked for.

In the return leg, Italy registered a 75% of ball possession with 23 shots but their game looked predictable and they failed to score again. Italy’s possession still consisted of slow U-shaped circulation with Azzurri that showed their issues when coming to move the ball forward.

This @11tegen’s passmap highlights as  Swedish compactness made tough for Italy to avoid an U-shape circulation. That said, Jorginho still was able to provide some through balls.

True to be told, Italy started the game in a promising matter, putting pressure on Sweden’s defence in order to disrupt Swedish buildup, which mainly consists of long balls. Furthermore, Italians showed an improvement on ball possession in the second part of the first half when Jorginho was better assisted receiving more balls in the buildup. Due to his skills on gain positional superiority behind Swedish first line of defence, the Napoli’s playmaker found himself in front of the opposite’s midfield in a zone from where he was able to provide some through balls.

Jorginho provided positional superiority and, when he get the ball, he has been good with his through balls skills.

Both interior midfielders Parolo and Alessandro Florenzi also made some decent movements towards their respective half-space while, up front, Manolo Gabbiadini – Ventura’s surprising pick in the starting lineup – acted well by dropping off to link with midfield. Italy looked improved form the first leg and, although Azzurri’s talent has eroded since their 2006 triumph, a mix of through balls and nice crosses should have been enough to beat a (presumed) weaker side.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case also because – with ball circulation lacking penetration and being wing-oriented – Italy started to rely just crosses as their offensive weapon. The problem wasn’t just related to the large amount of crosses Ventura’s men produced – with Sweden that largely showed a weakness on defending them on the far post during their qualifying campaign – but also about the low quality of them, with Manchester Utd’s full-back Matto Darmian particularly uncomfortable when it came to put the ball inside the box with his left-foot.

A wrong cross while the Azzurri inadequately occupy the penalty box.

With the score still 0-0 and with the time moving on, Ventura opted to insert Stephan El Shaarawy, Andrea Belotti and Federico Bernardeschi while Lorenzo Insigne languished on the bench. The final whistle certified Italy lost 1-0 on aggregate, losing their place at Russia 2018 and certified that Ventura were not able to reply Conte’s capacity to produce results out from an untalented roster.

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