Tuesday 14 November 2017

What Italy's Failure Does NOT Mean

Italian players absorb the blow
Whenever an inquest follows a failure in Italian football, there is a tendency for the examiners to
overreach.  Their dejection permeates everything, and nothing seems right--even the things that did a few months ago.

In the social media debris following Italy's disintegration yesterday, people are desperate to find their footing (including yours, faithfully), some clinching reason or evidence that explains everything.

You can't blame them exactly.  Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958 is a catastrophe.  And that catastrophe, especially for the fans, leaves a void that everyone rushes to fill with theories.

In a perverted way, it is comforting to think, for example, that the Italian national team's failure mirrors the broader shortcomings of the nation, that somehow Italy's high median age has an impact on the FIGC's personnel and outlook, that the federation's administrators are a symptom of the nation's political culture of backroom deals and raccomandazione (influence and backing to secure and stay in key positions).

These ideas are seductive because they allow us to imagine solutions at a more manageable level:  a purge of easily identifiable culprits in football rather than of the whole infected political class of the country.

Predictably, yesterday, there were calls to rid the Italian federation of its "dinosaurs," the 74-year-old president Carlo Tavecchio, and his choice for coach,  Gian Piero Ventura.  They should both go, undoubtedly.  The reprehensible Tavecchio should have been gone soon after his racist outburst in 2014.

But they shouldn't be fired because they are septuagenarians (or in the case of the 69-year-old Ventura, an almost-septuagenerian).  They should be fired because they were not the right men for the job.

Marcello Lippi was almost 60 when Italy won the World Cup in 2006 (incidentally, Franco Carraro, the former president of the FIGC who resigned following revelations of his involvement in Calciopoli, was 67).  It is not as if at 69, a coach automatically becomes incapable of training a group of players to make it past an average Sweden side.  The silver-haired paternal mister is as much part of Italian football's iconography as the fresh-faced Coverciano graduate.

But putting a number on the failure gives contours to it, something to cling to, an outline in a time of darkness. 

4-2-4 was another shape in the dark.   Ventura's preferred formation throughout the qualification campaign was a concave, suffocating jar that didn't allow players to express themselves.  Players like Lorenzo Insigne, who most of Italy (including Daniele De Rossi) has glorified as the saviour who couldn't save the nation yesterday because Ventura didn't play him.

Insigne has played for Italy 21 times since 2012. And he has scored a grand total of 3 goals.  Antonio Conte didn't rely on him either.  For Italy, he provides the illusion of movement, the illusion that there is something happening when he has the ball at his feet.  But seldom anything does.  He has shot or crossed as much into the stands as he has on target.  As much as Candreva. As much as Darmian.

Italy's fate didn't go through the feet of a tiny Neapolitan.  It didn't hinge on a moment, on just a formation.  It was a steady accretion of Venturian incompetence.  A player like Insigne should be an important part of a team that functions; he shouldn't come on as a player to compensate for a lack of functionality.  He's good, but not that good.

In my last post, I wrote of how difficult it is to understand what this Italy side is trying to achieve under Ventura.  After yesterday's debacle, it is even more difficult to understand.  Ventura is spectacularly incompetent, but he has been throughout qualification, not just yesterday, or on Friday.  The only thing he has done methodically in a year and a half is undo Antonio Conte's work.

And he must have undone that work every time the national team met, with every drill that he oversaw, with every formation that he devised in training and the matches.  It feels as if it was more difficult to get this Italian team to unlearn what Conte had managed to instill in the players than it was to get them to continue on the same path, or make slight adjustments for their new coach.  But Ventura has managed that seemingly extraordinary feat with distinction.

The situation is so patently absurd that we are nostalgic for the summer of 2016, when Italy were inches away from ousting Germany in the Euro2016 quarter-final, when Italy were busy swatting away Spain, when Eder curled a winner past Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.

Even allowing for clich├ęs, 18 months is not a lifetime in football.  It is just 18 months sometimes.  Ventura has taken virtually the same raw material that Conte had and fashioned something hideous.  A generation hadn't passed between Euro 2016 and yesterday. 

Gigi Buffon breaks down
But now it has.  Ventura's signal crime is not allowing Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli, and Giorgio Chiellini the send-off they deserved.  It was too much for poor old Gigi, who has shed as many tears as his fans have collectively.  He was a teary mess leaving the field and during the post-match interview.  In recent times we have seen him cry in finals, quarter-finals; Ventura managed to make him cry at the qualification stage.

Despite all that has happened, Italian football is not in crisis as a whole.   The national team is an expression of a country's football, not the expression.   The clubs are doing well in Europe; Juventus have played two Champions League Finals in three years; the league looks to be the most competitive it has been for many years.  This failure is not due to something rotting at Italian football's core.  This failure is not due to a larger number of foreigners in the league either, despite the xenophobes tripping over themselves to say so.

Italy were good enough to beat Sweden.  Ventura was not.  Tavecchio picked the wrong man.  Tavecchio is the wrong man.  There needs to be a slight adjustment; not root and branch changes.

A little more than fifteen years ago, Italy were similarly brooding over a football crisis.  South Korea had eliminated a team of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Francesco Totti, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero, and Christian Vieri at the 2002 World Cup.  The criticism then, too, spread across the spectrum: some raged at the referee Byron Moreno, some at Giovanni Trapattoni, the coach they denigrated as a relic, some at foreigners in the league, and some at the players who, despite several obstacles, should have taken care of an enterprising but ultimately modest South Korean team. 

It seemed that Italian football was headed into a period of obscurity.  But in the four years that followed, Milan won the Champions League (after an all-Italian Final against Juventus) and Italy the World Cup.  The latter triumph came after the Calciopoli scandal had ripped apart the domestic game.

Nothing needs to be ripped apart now except Ventura's contract.   A coach, a young one or one with a grizzled head like Carlo Ancelotti, just needs to revive the confidence of these young players and figure out a system that allows them to play coherently.  It is not a radical approach, but it was one that eluded the hapless Ventura for many months. 

Thursday 9 November 2017

Italy vs Sweden Thoughts: What is this Italy?

Gian Piero Ventura with his Italy team
Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said this week that he hasn't even considered his team not making the World Cup next summer. But almost a month ago he had.

Italy had just drawn 1-1 against Macedonia in Turin, and Ventura was frank: "If we play like this, we will not qualify for the World Cup."

Three days later, Italy eked out a 1-0 win against Albania in Shkoder, guaranteeing themselves a playoff spot for the World Cup, and Ventura maintained that he had always remained fiducioso (confident) of their progress.

"We made small steps forward," he said. "But I have been and remain confident."

Ahead of Italy's play-off against Sweden tomorrow, many outside the Italian camp seem less confident.  It is not that they believe Italy doesn't have what it takes; it's more that they don't seem to know what this Italy has.

The last time the Azzurri had to negotiate a two-legged play-off to reach the World Cup was against Russia in 1997.  Coach Cesare Maldini could call upon Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, his own son, Paolo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini, Alessandro Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli, and Christian Vieri.   Italy prevailed 2-1 on aggregate and reached the quarter-finals of that World Cup, where they lost out to the hosts and eventual winners, France.

Almost exactly twenty years later--a last-gasp Wiltord goal, a South Korean debacle, a Totti spitting incident, a Grosso World Cup winning penalty, a Pirlo panenka, and a Simone Zaza chicken dance later--Italy are currently a team that could be or could not be Italy. 

Over the past few months, Ventura has methodically dismantled all of Antonio Conte's work.  Ventura's work has almost been a perfect inverse of his predecessor's.  He has almost got it exactly wrong: Italy's 3-0 defeat to Spain in September came a little over a year after Conte led Italy to a commanding 2-0 victory over Spain at Euro 2016.  

That Euro2016 victory against Spain in Paris should have been the reference point.  Since then, however, Ventura has managed nothing of note with virtually the same set of players.  

"I am satisfied with my work," Ventura said this week.  Admittedly, to come second in a group containing Spain is not a catastrophe.  But to capitulate so quietly to that same team just over a year later should not provide satisfaction. 

When Conte achieved that famous win over Spain there was a feeling that he had extracted every last ounce of quality and expression from his players.  He had, as Marcello Lippi once memorably said, managed to do what a good coach should: squeeze the lemons at his disposal.   Where his Italy team were deficient, Conte compensated with a clear method, inculcating tactics and design to the point that Eder's and Graziano Pelle's legs managed magic in spite of themselves--to the point that that pairing could actually work for Italy at a major tournament. 

The gestalt of that Italy team was heartening.  It distracted from some of the individuals, reinforced the belief that even if the players are not outstanding, coaches trained at the renowned Coverciano center in Florence could not just maintain equilibrium, but infuse the team with animus. 

Attacking threat: Belotti and Immobile
But Ventura's Italy side haven't even played within themselves.  The 69-year-old hasn't deployed his main attacking threats of Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, and Lorenzo Insigne convincingly.  They were all on the field against Spain but couldn't assert themselves.  Two of those three were on the field against Macedonia in Skopje (Insigne missed out), but Italy needed the last fifteen minutes of the game to earn a chaotic 3-2 victory.

Against Sweden, if Italy manage to be even a sum of their parts they should easily win, but the question around their quality will remain.  Is it the case that Ventura is not exploiting his resources, or are his resources just not good enough?

The answers were clearer twenty years ago, ten years ago, two summers ago.  When Italy lost to France in 1998, the press turned on Cesare Maldini's defensive tactics, which wasted the talents of Del Piero and Baggio.  When Italy won the World Cup, the press hailed, among other things, Lippi's ability to incorporate Simone Barone and Cristian Zaccardo in a team that contained Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti.  When Italy lost to Germany at Euro 2016, Conte was excused, and the press focused on the indecency of those Zaza and Pelle penalties.

This time, critics can't get their hands around the culprit. 

Ventura has been underwhelming, but so has Italy's nominal star player, Marco Verratti.  Immobile and Belotti have at times looked an effective pairing, but at other times they have ghosted out of games.  Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have been characteristically dependable, but Ventura has tried several permutations in defence.  

Even when Ventura invoked the time-honoured stereotype of Italian teams playing better under pressure a couple of days ago, it sounded as if it didn't apply to this team, as if he was merely assuming that his players had inherited that gene by virtue of nationality.  Hopefully, he is right, and this Italy finally shows the fluency and fight against Sweden that we have been waiting for. 

Forza Azzurri!

Monday 6 November 2017

The Protean Pirlo

Pirlo in action for Milan
Andrea Pirlo announced his retirement from football today at the age of 38.  This article takes us back to May 2011, when Pirlo was on the verge of moving to Juventus. 

The divorce was quieter than you would have expected.  There were no hysterics from either side, and the gossip surrounding the couple was spared by considerations of the long, good run they had.  After all, a ten-year relationship is a lifetime in today's football.

The reason of the divorce was simple and heartbreaking: one of them had fallen out of love with the other.  Andrea Pirlo and Milan were a vaunted item for ten years, but Milan now want someone younger and feistier.  They no longer need a player who sees the football field uncluttered, who can find his man over players, hills, and mountains.  A few days ago, Milan assistant manager Mauro Tassotti succinctly summarized what many had feared and expected: "he isn't the type of player the coach [Massimiliano Allegri] wants."

Who could argue with Allegri?  He has just won a Scudetto largely without Pirlo, who was injured for most of the season.  Milan didn't really miss him.  It wasn't a case of absence making the heart grow fonder.  Milan's midfield has players--Mark van Bommel, Massimo Ambrosini et al.--who don't have the elegance or vision of Pirlo, but who are capable of winning the ball, keeping it, and running with it, all on their own.  It is for their tactical ability that Allegri prefers them.

Furthermore, the coach already has a player (though no one can tell for how long) who can provide the required skill and directness in midfield.  As maligned as Clarence Seedorf is by Milan fans, he can compensate for the heavier touches of players like Mark van Bommel and Massimo Ambrosini.  Consider also that Kevin-Prince Boateng was the trequartista of the Milan side this season, which says heaps about what Allegri prefers: direct players who can keep the tempo not ticking like Il Metronome--an epithet for Pirlo--but bursting.

The idea that Pirlo is a luxury in today's footballing context has persisted for a long time.  The theory goes that in modern football you need players who can do defensive duties in midfield while plotting creatively.  To some extent, it is true: in his role as regista, a deep-seated playmaker who sits in front of the defence, Pirlo has been coddled by diligent midfielders around him. The tactical adjustment always made sense because it accentuated the natural visionary capability of the player, and because Milan have traditionally had combative midfielders.

Pirlo playing for Brescia
Some also argue that Pirlo does not function well as a conventional playmaker because the lack of protection around him leaves him exposed. However, despite the common criticisms of his ineffectiveness further up the park, Pirlo was successful for Milan even as a trequartista, especially during the latter part of the 2001-02 season.  It was the presence of Rui Costa and Clarence Seedorf that prompted Carlo Ancelotti to move Pirlo to a deeper role, a role that he had played under Carlo Mazzone at Brescia.  By the adjustment, Ancelotti accommodated all three players.

It was as a regista that Pirlo earned acclaim, but he he could play well in different set-ups as well.  During Italy's triumphant 2006 World Cup campaign, he played a more advanced role in a flatter midfield that had the assurance of Fabio Cannavaro behind it, and Gennaro Gattuso in it.  The result was a tournament that definitively established Pirlo as a midfielder of startlingly rare and refined talent.  Where the more direct, all-action midfielder like Frank Lampard failed, Pirlo stamped his authority on the tournament with patience, equanimity, and, most importantly of all, an incisiveness that isn't always apparent from the langour with which he moves with or without the ball.

His pass to Fabio Grosso, which resulted in the winning goal of the semi-final against Germany, only came about from a corner that he had originally won.  The pass, though not his best, also recalled  the brilliantly weighted one that Demetrio Albertini, Milan's Il Metronomo of the 1990s, provided Roberto Baggio in the 1994 semi-final against Bulgaria.  Albertini and Pirlo are certainly different players in several ways, but they were able to position themselves freely on time's continuum, thinking and seeing seconds in advance.

Not to build a team around, or at least with, a talent like that takes temerity, but Pirlo has somehow eluded many in football.  Inter's decision to sell him to Milan in 2001 is now a running joke, but it is sobering when you stop to think about it.  Admittedly, there was stiff competition for a starting place in that Inter team, but selling Pirlo to a direct rival remains a colossal blunder.

There have been months during which Pirlo has struggled for form, but it is hard to escape the feeling that ideas about him have ossified over the years because of how protean he is as a player and as a personality.  That is, because he is so difficult to characterize entirely, people have continually circulated the same timeworn notions about the player.

Pirlo does fly in the face of neat definitions.  As a midfielder who was at the absolute top of European football for a good part of the last decade, he was and is seldom seen wheeling through the middle of the park. Instead, he possesses an innate sense of economy that sees him cover vast areas of the field without the urgency that many come to expect from midfielders.  

Champions League joy with Milan
His sleepy appearance contributes to his critic's accusation that is as self-discrediting as it is self-describing, namely that Pirlo is lazy.  He may often stroke the ball around, dither on it even, but he has on many occasions decided the outcome of a game in a second. 

One thing that is certain is that Pirlo is leaving Milan for Juventus.  The Rossoneri will probably bring in a player more consistent with their new philosophy, but the fact that Pirlo, at the age of thirty-two, is still coveted by a top club tells a lot about the quality of the player.

He exits Milan with grace and an outstanding amount of success. Two European Cups, two Scudetti, and a World Cup will always be concrete achievements of a player that has often proven difficult to understand completely.

Friday 3 November 2017

Calcio Memories: The Lesson of Roma vs Barcelona

Totti fights off Barcelona on February 26, 2002
It could have been 4-0, or even 5-0, but Roma's 3-0 victory against Chelsea this week in the Champions League evokes a precise memory of more than fifteen years ago.

On February 26, 2002, Roma hosted Barcelona in a Champions League group game at the Stadio Olimpico in almost the exact same position as they were at the start of play this past Tuesday--two points behind the leaders, at home, coming off a draw against their opponents in the previous encounter, and not expected to run out emphatic winners.   

Roma coach Fabio Capello started Francesco Totti, Marco Delvecchio, and Gabriel Batistuta on that day, but it was Emerson who opened the scoring.  Well, it's generous to say he did anything intentionally to get the final touch.

Totti received a ball from Emerson in the area, and Barcelona defender Philippe Christenval latched on to him so committedly that his captain's armband came off.  Totti, while dangling the white armband, passed to Vincent Candela whose shot deflected off Emerson into the goal.  Roma went on to score two more goals through Vincenzo Montella and Damiano Tommasi, who replaced Delvecchio and Batistuta respectively.

The Giallorsosi won 3-0 in the end in a game that was memorable not only for the scoreline, but also for the exquisite Roma jerseys on display--two even blocks of maroon and yellow, the Scudetto patch, and the Ina Assitalia insurance company sponsor across the front.

That game was also pivotal in changing the group's complexion at least for that night, but it only proved in the final calculations Roma's glimpse into what could have been.  Their position at the top was short-lived.

Roma drew the next game to Galatasaray 1-1 at the Olimpico,
Stephan El Shaarawy celebrates his goal against Chelsea
meaning they only had to avoid losing by more than one goal away to Liverpool at Anfield.  

They lost 2-0 after goals from Jari Litmanen and Emile Heskey in a game that had a depressing predictability about it before kick-off.  You just knew Roma would collapse.  Gerard Houllier's Liverpool, along with Barcelona, went through to the quarterfinals.

There are similarities this year as well.  Roma lead the group now, needing three points to go through.  They play Atletico Madrid in a testing encounter in Spain before hosting the gritty Qarabag at home.  For Atletico Madrid read Liverpool; for Qarabag read Galatasaray.  

Roma should look to wrap up their progress in Spain, which won't be easy, but given Atletico Madrid's recent struggles, it isn't impossible.  

They brushed aside Chelsea with a comprehensively superior performance on Tuesday, but there is history that suggests Roma should be cautious.