Italy were fortunate to steal all three points from a highly impressive Japanese side, courtesy of a late Sebastian Giovinco winner.
Cesare Prandelli made two changes to his side that defeated Mexico a few days ago. Cristian Maggio slotted in at right back for Ignazio Abate, while Alberto Aquilani started as a floater with Emanuele Giaccherini behind Mario Balotelli, pushing Claudio Marchisio to the bench.
Alberto Zaccheroni made one change to his 4-2-3-1, as he decided to start with a legitimate centre forward upfront. Ryoichi Maeda led the line, meaning that Shinji Okazaki joined Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda to form an attacking three.
This was an entertaining open match that saw several lead changes and horrendous defending – Mexico took a two goal lead, Italy responded, Japan equalized and looked certain to win the match, but Prandelli’s initial substitution paid off at the end.
Playing balls from the back/Japan press
There was a specific theme that occurred in Italy’s opening match against Mexico – both sides were comfortable with their opponent playing out of the back.
Initially, Italy pressed higher up the pitch, but Japan was able to easily pass through that pressure. Prandelli’s men dropped into a 4-5-1 with Aquliani and Giaccherini tucking in, but their relatively older side, failed to cope with Japan’s movement and fluid passing.
Japan had no issues with letting Italy play from the back, and none of the goals they conceded stemmed from Pirlo or De Rossi’s dominance. Japan dropped off into a 4-4-1-1, and Honda was the key man staying close to Pirlo and preventing the Italian midfielder from dominating the match. This made De Rossi pivotal, but Zaccheroni instructed his players to close him down as well, meaning Italy’s centre backs were forced to play from the back. Leonardo Bonucci would have been an asset in this situation as he’s a better passer of the ball compared to his Juventus teammates Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini. Italy lacked cohesion going forward, and found it difficult to play the ball to Balotelli or their midfield.
When Italy tried to play the ball from the back on goal kicks, Maeada and Honda closed down Barzagli and Chiellini, while Pirlo was also pressed – Italy found it difficult coping with Japan’s pressure, and that played a key factor in their dreadful start.
Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa rarely featured for the Red Devils this season, as Sir Alex Ferguson allowed the Japanese star to settle into a high paced Barclays Premier League. It must be said that when he has made an appearance, Kagawa has made some sort of positive impact for the Premier League champions.
Nevertheless, Kagawa was one of Japan’s key men throughout the match – his tactical awareness and ability to find space around the pitch led to Japan’s dominance. Kagawa was Zaccheroni’s main creative outlet, he often drifted into central areas from the left flank to allow Nagatomo to push forward, but his combination of balls over the top and intricate passing in the final third troubled the Italians. Although Kagawa was influential going forward, he struggled to find the final pass at times – Japan were getting into great positions in the final third, but they rarely got behind the Italian defence.
Also, Kagawa played a key role in Japan’s ball retention and their ability to play through Italy’s pressure. The Japanese winger was dropping into pockets of space in the midfield to receive the ball – this gave Italy problems because a) no Italian player picked him up and b) he provided an extra passing outlet for the Japanese.
Kagawa played an essential role in Zaccheroni’s XI – he provided a creative spark, helped Japan retain possession and he also scored a lovely goal that should have put Japan in cruise control.
It’s key to note that six of the seven goals were down to diabolical defending – while many can make the case that Giovinco’s winner was as well, it’s fair to say that it was piece of magic from De Rossi. The Italians have struggled defensively thus far due to their inexperienced fullbacks and a possible tired Barzagli – Chiellini duo, while Japan conceded three goals for the second consecutive match.
Mattia De Sciglio had himself a difficult afternoon coping with Okazaki and constant overloads on the right flank, and the 20-year-old Milan fullback made a poor error that led to Honda’s penalty. For the second time in the tournament the Italian defence concede a penalty when pressed in their third, and Gianluigi Buffon was fortunate not to be sent off.
Failing to clear your defensive lines and defending a set-piece should be automatic at this level, and it was shocking to see Prandelli’s men concede goals in this manner. To be fair, Kagawa’s finish was superb, but Montolivo allowed Okazaki to run past him and head the ball past Buffon at the near post – two preventable Japanese goals made life difficult for the Italians, but luckily for Prandelli, Zaccheroni’s men weren’t any better defensively.
Zaccheroni will feel that the goals that his men conceded were unfortunate, and although he may have a point, the defending was still lacklustre. The Japanese manager would be disappointed with the defending on De Rossi’s header, which changed the balance of the match, as it gave Italy belief. Atsuto Uchida’s own goal was down to a bit of luck that Giaccherini received to keep the ball into play, but Maya Yoshida should have dealt with the situation better – the defending from the Southampton centre back was comical. Two minutes later, Makoto Hasebe conceded a penalty – it was a brutal call by the referee, and it allowed Balotelli to calmly record his second goal of the tournament.
Zaccheroni’s men did receive some unfortunate setbacks, but they stemmed from poor defending and that should never be overlooked. On the other hand, Italy looked a shambles at the back and will need to improve dramatically as Brazil and Spain await.
One of the interesting components in Prandelli’s 4-3-2-1 system has been his right floater. In Italy’s opener he chose to play Marchisio in this role – the Italian failed to adapt to the role, often sitting as another midfielder and failed to receive the ball in the final third. Against Japan, Prandelli opted to play Aquilani in that position – another central midfielder, that can score goals, but isn’t necessarily suited playing behind the striker.
Aquilani, like Marchisio didn’t understand his role as a right floater and it left the Fiorentina midfielder lost during his time on the pitch. One can assume that the attempt to play a fourth central midfielder in that role is to nullify the opponents attacking left full back and to help retain possession, but Aquilani failed to do that.
As the tournament progresses, we’ll learn more about the role of Prandelli’s right floater, but thus far, two direct players in Alessio Cerci and Giovinco have been better options in that position.
Japan in wide areas
Zaccheroni’s men had majority of possession in both halves, and they were thriving in wide areas. Italy’s tendency to drop into a narrow 4-5-1 closed down pockets of space for Honda and Kagawa to penetrate, but it left their two fullbacks vulnerable to overloads. Prandelli’s wide men were disciplined against Mexico – they created a narrow midfield five, but quickly closed down the Mexican fullbacks when they received the ball, and it was strange to see that initial plan ignored.
With Kagawa and Okazaki drifting centrally, Maggio (oddly a great right wing back but a below-par right back) and De Sciglio struggled to cope with the threat of Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida. Kagawa and Nagatomo combined brilliantly, terrorizing Maggio, and it looked like a well thought out plan constructed by Zaccheroni. De Sciglio had to cope with not only Okazaki and Uchida, but also Honda, who periodically drifted into pockets of space on the right hand side.
Japan was vastly superior in wide areas due to the lack of defensive cover from the two Italian floaters – but why weren’t they instructed to track the Japanese fullbacks? And where was Montolivo or De Rossi? Although these are minor tactical errors, Prandelli needs to be held accountable for them, because they can prove to be the deciding factor in matches of this nature.
Giovinco replaced Aquilani 30 minutes into the match as Prandelli noticed that Aquilani was ineffective. Giovinco offers a different element going forward – his movement off the ball into pockets of space is better, his direct running and pace is key on the counter and his ability to link play with Balotelli, who was isolated for large portions of the match would be vital.
Ultimately Giovinco grabbed the match winner, and the ball from De Rossi was delightful, as was the diagonal run from Marchisio, but Giovinco’s positioning was key. It’s very unlikely that we would see Aquilani get into that position, which is why Giovinco’s substitution proved to be significant. His mobility and instinct to get into goal scoring positions is something you wouldn’t get from Aquilani, and as stated earlier, it now leaves Prandelli with a few tactical issues to iron out ahead of their clash against Brazil.
Prandelli replaced Giaccherini with Marchisio, pushing Giovinco to the left. With the game deadlocked, it could have been an attempt to focus on ball retention or to limit the threat Nagatomo was inflicting on Italy’s right side.
The Italian manager also decided to introduce Abate for Maggio, who was struggling at right back. Abate is better suited at right back but the Milan defender also found it difficult to cope with Japan’s left side.
Zaccheroni made predictable player swaps, but the decision to bring on a target man in Havenaar was logical. Unfortunately, Japan failed to provide the striker with quality service and he had no impact on the match.
Italy nick a late winner and qualify for the semi finals, despite Japan’s domination in possession and wide areas.
Overall, it was an open game filled with many defensive errors. Zaccheroni’s men were unfortunate on the night, but their inability to convert chances into goals cost them three points and a chance to secure a berth in the semi finals.
Prandelli’s tactical change proved to be pivotal, but he’ll be concerned with his back four, as they’ve been mediocre thus far. With De Rossi and possibly Pirlo unavailable to face Brazil, Italy lose their two best midfielders – but the Azzuri have adequate replacements in Aquilani and Marchisio to join Montolivo in midfield.
Does Prandelli stick with his 4-3-2-1 and play Giovinco as the right floater?Or does he go 4-3-3 and start Stephan El Shaarawy? Fortunately for Prandelli, this tournament is a great setting to experiment – Italy have yet to play their best football, but they’ll need to produce a better performance without their two best midfielders if they intend on avoiding Spain in the semi-finals.