Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi anchored Italy past a disappointing Mexico side, as the Italians produced a impressive performance in their opening match.
There wasn’t much of a surprise in Cesare Prandelli’s 4-3-2-1, Mario Balotelli led the line, with Claudio Marchisio and Emanuele Giaccherini playing behind the AC Milan striker. Daniele De Rossi, Riccardo Montolivo and Andrea Pirlo formed a midfield three, while Mattia De Sciglio and Ignazio Abate were the Italian fullbacks.
Manuel De La Torre stuck with his traditional 4-2-3-1 and Javier Hernandez played as Mexico’s main striker. Andres Guardado, Giovani Dos Santos and Javier Aquino formed an attacking three, while Gerardo Torrado and Jesus Zavala were De La Torre’s holding midfielders.
Prandelli’s men were worthy winners on the night – they controlled the match in midfield, found spaces between the lines and they defended superbly as a unit.
It was a change for Manuel De La Torre’s men, as they are used to dictating possession when playing against sides in CONCACAF, so their defensive shape was always going to be pivotal. Mexico’s 4-2-3-1 became a 4-5-1 when Italy had possession, with Dos Santos instructed to stay close to Pirlo. De La Torre’s men failed to stay compact when they didn’t have the ball, which allowed Balotelli and Giaccherini space to receive the ball between the lines on numerous occasions. Also, Aquino did a poor job in protecting his fullback when Italy aimed to penetrate down the left flank.
On the other hand, Italy was remarkable when they didn’t have the ball. They also dropped into a 4-5-1 – Giaccherini and Marchisio tucked in to form a compact shape, but were quick to press the Mexican fullbacks when they received the ball. Mexico struggled to get behind the Italian defence because a) the Italians had a numerical advantage in central areas and b) their wide men were disciplined.
An interesting component in this match was Italy’s pressing. Prandelli’s men swarmed Mexico’s ball carrier when they lost possession and when the Mexican’s looked to play from the back. Mexico was forced into many misplaced passes and defensive errors that presented Italy with a few goal scoring chances. The Italians found a balance when they didn’t have the ball – they could press high as a unit to win the ball in dangerous areas, or drop into their defensive shape to conserve energy and ultimately force the Mexican’s into a mistake.
Mexico’s inability to press as a unit wasn’t necessarily bad – it was their naivety towards pressing Pirlo and De Rossi, as they allowed Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini to move forward with the ball. Dos Santos occasionally got goal-side of Pirlo forcing the Italian maestro to play sideways passes, but De Rossi dropped between Barzagli and Chiellini to receive the ball. De La Torre didn’t order a player to close down De Rossi, and this allowed the Roma midfielder to take control of the match. De Rossi was playing long diagonal balls and intelligent forward passes into the final third when Pirlo was occasionally closed down.
In the second half, Hernandez was told to help Dos Santos close down the two Italian midfielders. The Mexican attackers were quite effective when they chose to close Pirlo and De Rossi down, but they couldn’t sustain that pressure for the entirety of the match – Giaccherini connected with De Rossi’s long ball that led to Balotelli’s winner.
Mexico’s goal did generate from a rare moment when Dos Santos pressed Barzagli, he dispossessed the Italian defender and was then clipped in the box. Hernandez calmly slotted his penalty past Gianluigi Buffon, which leveled the match.
Italy’s balance of pressing and defensive organization nullified Mexico’s attack – meanwhile, pressing had an impact on Mexico’s approach – it helped create their only goal, but their inability to press frequently allowed De Rossi and Pirlo to dictate the match.
There’s no secret about Prandelli’s appreciation for ball retention, and he’s fortunate to have the perfect balance of players in midfield to see out his goal. All three men are proficient passers and they each have their own significant strength. Pirlo is the deep-lying playmaker that can mix it up with a blend of short and long diagonal balls – he can also produce a final ball.
Despite dropping deeper against Mexico, De Rossi broke up play in the midfield and can also play key forward passes across the pitch. Montolivo was more of a shuttler – he pushed forward when space was available and linked play with Giaccherini, Abate and Balotelli, as they dominated the left flank.
Italy’s midfield three are defensively astute, tactically intelligent, proficient passers and possess high energy levels and technical ability. Many focus on Italy’s defensive solidity as their main strength, but their superiority in midfield is also a key component to their success.
Although Italy dominated possession, Mexico still created a few chances. De La Torre’s men lacked creativity in the final third and it’s been an issue they’ve face over the last few months. Mexico has tied five of their six World Cup qualifying games three, and have scored three goals – only last place Jamaica has scored less.
Most of Mexico’s chances came on the counter attack, but their decisions in the final third were poor. Dos Santos looked to be Mexico’s most influential player going forward, as he was getting the better of Abate on the left flank. Luckily for the Milan fullback, Barzagli drifted over to provide cover and nullify Dos Santos’ threat. Besides those minimal breaks, Mexico continued to struggle in the final third, as their crosses and passes lacked penetration and their decision-making was lethargic.
The Italian striker seems to save his better peformances for the national team, as once again he had a positive outing. Balotelli’s strength and pace troubled the Mexican backline, but he was also finding space between the lines to receive the ball and link play with the midfield. It was a constant feat in the first half, and the foul he suffered between the lines led to Pirlo’s magnificent goal.
The AC Milan striker’s only downfall was his finishing – quality infront of goal and discipline prevent Balotelli from being a top-class striker and there were a few chances that he should have buried. Nevertheless, he rose to the occasion in the 77th minute using his brute strength to shrug off Maza and direct his shot into the net.
A vintage Balotelli celebration followed the goal, which didn’t impress the senior players or Prandelli. Balotelli’s performances play a huge role in whether this Italian side succeeds, as they’re short on goal scoring options. In the past we’ve seen glimpses of how ruthless he can be in front of goal, but now is the time where it needs to be consistent.
Prandelli used all three substitutions available to address the minor issues he faced. Although they didn’t have a significant impact on the match they’re key to point out.
Alessio Cerci replaced the ineffective Marchisio, who was relatively quiet throughout the match. Cerci provides another element going forward, as he’s a direct player that likes to take defenders on.
Alberto Gilardino replaced Balotelli who was on a yellow card – Prandelli didn’t want to risk a second consecutive sending off for the Milan striker, so he decided to take him out of the match. Lastly, Alberto Aquilani replaced Giaccherini, to kill off the match by retaining possession.
De La Torre made a player swap by introducing Hiram
Mier for Aquino. He also added another striker in Raul Jimenez to replace Zavalla. The change made sense at the time, but the Mexican forward sat behind Dos Santos and Hernandez. De La Torre failed to change their shape and his changes had no impact on the match.
Italy were a class above the Gold Cup champions – they were fantastic without the ball, Pirlo and De Rossi were superb and they found space between the lines to penetrate.
Mexico face the same problems they have over the last few months. They lack a creative player in the final third, and a target man for Hernandez to play off of. De La Torre also has a few questions to answer as to why Pirlo an De Rossi weren’t picked up, along with their general plan. Tactically he needs to find another approach if Mexico want to get out of this group, along with featuring in next year’s World Cup.
It was an impressive performance, but Prandelli will have a few questions to solve ahead of their match with Brazil. How will he get the best out of Marchisio? And can Balotelli continue to play at this level, while scoring goals and keeping out of trouble? Nevertheless, like Brazil and Spain, the Italians displayed why they’re favourites to win this tournament.