There is a joke that soccer is a simple game: Two teams of 11 players face off for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans win. While no World Cup is exactly the same, international soccer has a certain inertia at its core. The countries with the strongest histories, such as Germany, qualify for every World Cup and usually have the best chance to win. This year, one of those World Cup certainties may not be continued.
Italy has qualified for 14 consecutive World Cups, dating back to Chile in 1962. But this year, the Azzurri finished second in their UEFA qualifying group and were drawn into a two-legged playoff for qualification to Russia. A 1-0 loss on Friday to Sweden has left Italy with only a 38 percent chance of making the World Cup, according to the Soccer Power Index. Playing in front of a home crowd on Monday (2:45 ET) at the San Siro, Italy will need either to win by two or more goals, or to win 1-0 and go through on penalties.
How did the four-time World Cup champions end up in this position? Part of the story is bad luck and the vicissitudes of FIFA’s ranking system. Italy was drawn into the same group as powerhouse Spain1 Under the current UEFA qualifying rules, Italy has failed to win its group only one other time, and that was when the Azzurri were unfortunately drawn with England in 1998.2
But if you watched Italy’s dire showing against Sweden on Friday, you would have a sense that the Azzurri’s problems run deeper than a bad draw. Italy attempted 10 shots against Sweden, but only five came from inside the penalty area and the only two shots taken from within 15 yards were headed attempts. And this was more of the same for the Azzurri: Over the course of qualifying, Italy has looked less like a perennial power and more like an also-ran.
On the surface, the total results of qualifying don’t appear so problematic. But to better compare teams in international qualifying, it is useful to exclude matches against the weakest team in the group, as some of these teams — such as Gibraltar and San Marino — are made up primarily of amateurs and routinely lose 0-4 or 0-5. When Italy’s easy wins over the doormat of its group, Liechtenstein, are removed,3 the Azzurri’s numbers are weak across the board.
In matches against Spain, Albania, Israel and Macedonia, Italy scored 12 goals and conceded 8. That +4 goal difference was roughly the same as eliminated teams like the Netherlands and Slovakia after dropping the results against the worst in the group. The Azzurri’s shot difference and shot-on-target difference placed them in similar company, as did numbers measuring how many times the team’s attacking moves reached the opposition penalty area.
|CATEGORY||ITALY’S NET DIFF.||UEFA RANK*|
|Shots on target||+9||17|
|Shots from direct attacks||+1||23 (tie)|
|Attacking moves into the penalty area||+37||13|
The hallmark of Italian soccer is a stifling defense that might allow some possession but never a break in the back line. But that defense has looked more vulnerable in this qualifying cycle, which is perhaps no surprise considering the team’s aging backline. Defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi (34 years old) and center back Andrea Barzagli (36) both made the squad for Italy’s World Cup winning squad in 2006, and Barzagli’s center-back partners Leonardo Bonucci (30) and Giorgio Chiellini (33) were on the squad in 2010. Italy has about 83 more open play passes per match than its opponents, holding possession reasonably well, but a defensive spine of 30-somethings has left it vulnerable to direct counterattacks.
To measure counterattacks, we can look at direct-attacking moves, which I define as moves in which over 50 percent of the movement is directly toward the opposition goal. In UEFA qualifying, excluding matches against the last-place team in the group, Italy conceded 36 shots from direct attacks, placing the Azzurri defense 30th out of the 45 teams in consideration. Italy is flanked by eliminated sides like Romania (34th) and Finland (38th). This is not the company Italy should expect. This may be why Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura chose a 3-5-2 formation against Sweden, after playing a 4-4-2 in six of seven previous qualifying matches. The 3-5-2 features both an extra central midfielder and an extra center-back, compared to the 4-4-2, which should allow Italy to clog up the middle of the pitch and prevent direct, dangerous attacking moves. This lineup limited Swedish opportunities and broke up counters, but left Italy with little in the way of attacking drive.
If Italy is going to win on Monday, it will need to open up enough to score goals but not invite the counterattacks that could allow Sweden a crucial away goal. Unless an individual attacker can break up Sweden’s defensive structure with his own skill, Italy would need to throw numbers forward and risk leaving its aging defenders in risky positions.
One player has the potential to rescue Italy from this dire situation and help book a ticket for Russia next summer: 26-year-old Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne. Insigne has been one of the most complete attackers in Europe this season, offering goals, assists and ball progression both on the run and with his passing. Insigne leads Serie A in both shots (57) and shots assisted (38). His 8.9 expected goals plus assists are second in the league. Insigne’s 52 progressive passes and runs are third in Serie A as well.4 Insigne can both progress the ball in attack to open up opportunities for teammates and create shots at the end of a move. He was left out of the side on Friday as a tactical decision because there isn’t a clear role for a wide attacker in the 3-5-2, and Italy clearly lacked dynamism in attack without its best creator. The Napoli man offers the precise set of attacking skills that Italy will need in a crucial match on Monday.
If Italy can claim its perennial spot at the World Cup, Insigne should be one of the most exciting players to watch in Russia. But to extend their streak to 15 tournaments, Italy will need a comprehensive performance in attack and defense, something that has eluded the Azzurri during most of qualifying.