At Craven Cottage last weekend Italy played out a goalless draw against the Republic of Ireland as part of their World Cup preparations. On Monday, the final 23-man squad was announced without the name of one of the team’s most important players. Riccardo Montolivo broke his leg in a challenge with Reading centre-back Alex Pearce during that game and will miss the World Cup in Brazil. If we set aside the obvious sympathy and sadness we feel for the AC Milan captain personally, the injury also has a massive impact on Prandelli’s side.
For starters, Montolivo is a fantastic player and would have been a certainty to start for Prandelli. The two go back a long time; when Montolivo played for Fiorentina, Prandelli was his coach. In Euro 2012, after starting on the bench in the group stage, Montolivo started every knockout game on Gli Azzurri’s road to the final. Ultimately, Spain were the better side but Montolivo flourished and the entertaining Italian side returned to the top of the international game after two poor tournaments following the World Cup win of 2006. During the Euro’s, Prandelli chose a four man diamond in midfield to complement the talents of the brilliant Andrea Pirlo with the ball-winning midfield controller Daniele De Rossi and the energetic Claudio Marchisio as well as Montolivo’s playmaking abilities to create a terrific midfield quartet to support the attacking duo of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Wayne Rooney struggled against the terrific midfield in the Euro 2012 quarter-final clash
In last year’s Confederations Cup Prandelli changed his formation completely. As Italy once again impressed and reached the semi-finals easily, they did it with a 4-3-2-1 formation where the midfield three of De Rossi, Pirlo and Montolivo were complemented by two out of Antonio Candreva, Emanuele Giaccherini or Marchisio. The Italians were unlucky not to beat Spain in the semi-final and bowed out on penalties but it was another testament of the progress the side had made under the guidance of Prandelli.
One of the most progressive coaches around
Riccardo Montolivo’s importance to the side can be explained quite easily. He, like Pirlo, is capable of playing the role of regista, the deep-lying playmaker, as well as trequartista, an attacking playmaker supporting the two strikers. The reason they both can do this is that they possess the intelligence, the creativity and the range of passing to excel in both roles. Pirlo is Italy’s most important player, every attack seems to go through him at one point, either with him starting it from a deep position or with him playing the final pass to create a chance or a goal. The Juventus midfielder is one of the three midfielders I believe to be the best we have seen over the past decade, the other two being Paul Scholes and Xavi, because of his, and their, ability to control the tempo of the match. When to pass short, when to pass long, when to slow a game down or when to quicken things up. These three have been extremely influential in their respective sides and have all enjoyed tremendous success in their careers.
However, in some games, especially the game against Japan in last year’s Confederations, Pirlo will be so intensely pressed or marked that even he will find it difficult to make Italy tick. That’s where Montolivo comes in to the picture. Prandelli has always used an additional playmaker alongside Pirlo to ensure that the side keep control of possession even if Pirlo will find it difficult to influence the game. This is where Montolivo’s absence will be felt the most.
The man who replaced the midfielder at Fiorentina is also the one in the frame to replace him this summer. Alberto Aquilani has enjoyed two very good seasons at a resurgent la Viola side with the midfielder netting 14 goals in those two campaigns. He has appeared from the substitutes bench quite a lot under Prandelli and was actually the one who replaced Montolivo at Craven Cottage. He is the player in the squad who is the most similar to Montolivo and if Prandelli plans to use the 4-1-3-2 system he’s used recently then Aquilani should be starting. You could make a case for the likes of Marco Verratti or Thiago Motta, but Verratti is not disciplined enough yet and Motta doesn’t have the playmaking abilities Aquilani does. In order to ease some of the burden on the 35-year-old Pirlo, Alberto Aquilani is the answer to Prandelli’s worries.
There is one more option for Prandelli though. He could go back to the successful Confederations line-up with De Rossi, Pirlo and Marchisio in the middle and Alessio Cerci and Candreva roaming around and supporting Balotelli up front. The problem with that system is that the additional playmaker is not on the pitch to help Pirlo dictate play as well as the fact the side’s most inform striker, Ciro Immobile, will be sitting on the bench. The plus point is he gets the impressive Cerci on the pitch, along with Candreva, two players that are likely to score goals, and he will get more players moving between the lines. Whatever Prandelli decides, he will have one of the best midfields in the tournament and whichever formation he goes with, he is guaranteed to have a fluid and entertaining team on the pitch, even though one of his favourites will be absent.
Possible line-ups in either formation