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Recapping Italy’s World Cup Qualifiers against Spain and Israel

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Before it started, things looked okay. Now?

Spain v Italy - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier
A sad looking Gian Piero Ventura.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Editor’s Note (Anthony Turgelis): To those who come here strictly for Juventus talk, this is an article about the Italian Men’s National Team. If you would not like to read it, then there are plenty more articles on here about the club we all love.

Before the international break started, it was fair for Italian fans to be cautiously optimistic towards their chances of direct qualification for the World Cup. The side had taken every possible point available to them aside from a draw against Spain on home turf. Even though the Italians haven’t looked at their best since Conte left, it was not unreasonable to think that Italy might come away with a victory and put them in pole position in the group. What happened was a different story:

Spain 3 - 0 Italy

Italy’s lineup was a 4-2-4 as follows: Buffon; Darmian, Barzagli, Bonucci, Spinazzola; Candreva, De Rossi, Verratti, Insigne; Belotti, Immobile. Spain had a plethora of midfield options available to him, and Ventura opted to field only two midfielders. To his credit, Veratti does have solid and often underlooked defensive abilities (backed by stats), but it does not take an expert to realize that it’s likely not a good idea to test your luck with that matchup.

And so Italy was dominated.

From an xG standpoint, it looks as though Italy didn’t do too bad until the third goal. From the eye test, it was bad. Italy had 45% possession, and none of their chances were very significant.

Buffon made a rare error in allowing Isco’s free kick past him by hesitating before going towards the shot. The second goal was just defensive miscues all around - De Rossi didn’t close down Isco quick enough and old pal Leo almost jumped out of the way of the long-range shot. The third goal was off of a Sergio Ramos cross from the right wing (yes, the central defender Sergio Ramos) that Morata got on the end of as Barzagli was too slow to deflect it. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to suggest that Barzagli might not be reliable in big games for club/country anymore.

Their passing map was also hilarious. Both Belotti and Immobile had minimal touches (as seen by their tiny circle on the map), and neither of them combined for 5 or more passes with another teammate. It’s almost like throwing two #9’s as your strikers is a bad idea. Ventura would surely learn from this for the next game, right?

Italy 1 - 0 Israel

Italy’s lineup was a 4-2-4 as follows: Buffon; Conti, Barzagli, Astori, Darmian; Candreva, De Rossi, Verratti, Insigne; Immobile, Belotti. Unchanged except for Astori in for the suspended Bonucci and Conti in for Spinazzola.

This matchup was a tale of two halves. Things looked okay in the immediate opening, when Belotti had a great chance in front of goal but whiffed on the shot, missing what was essentially a sitter. The rest of Ventura’s gameplan was pretty much to get the ball out wide and cross it in. That didn’t lead to many chances. Italy was arguably outplayed in the first half, with their only other chance coming right before halftime, but Israel’s keeper came up big.

The second half was better - not great, but better. Conti took a knock early and on came new Chelsea signing, Zappacosta, who had a solid showing. The lone goal came off of - you guessed it - a cross. Candreva whipped in a cross that found the head of Ciro Immobile, and this time he made no mistake. Italy could have probably scored a few more in the half, but Israel’s goalie played well and made some key stops to keep his team in it. Fede made a very late appearance.

The more concerning part was the number of chances that Israel managed to take from Italy’s defense. Buffon was asked to make a number of key saves. It’s almost like starting Astori and Barzagli when Daniele Rugani is available on the bench is a bad idea. If Italy had conceded, it would have been an unforgivable mistake by Ventura, and it still almost is.

The Belotti + Immobile Experiment - Time to Call it Off

One thing that became abundantly clear throughout these two games is that the experiment of fielding two traditional “#9” strikers at the same time is not a good plan. It’s not a good plan against weak opponents, and it’s not a good plan against strong opponents.

As you may have seen me rant on twitter (@AnthonyTurgelis), you’d know that my thoughts are that the only reason these two players should ever be on the field at the same time is if they were both completely un-dropable because their combined attacking performances warranted dropping a midfielder. While Belotti clearly has talent, and Immobible had a solid season last year:

As you can see from the radar, Immobile’s season shows that while he was a solid finisher, he offers almost nothing in terms of creativity. The team created very few chances, rendering his inclusion on the team almost useless - which can be seen by his extreme lack of involvement in the game against Spain. Having both these players on the field at the same time is not a good plan, and I hope these two games will make Ventura realize that.

All in all, not a great display by Manager Ventura. The players did not play particularly well individually, but it is clear that setups and tactical performances like these two games will not cut it on the big stage - provided they make it there.

Second-Place Watch (Potential Playoff Opponents)

Group A: With two games remaining, France (17 points), Sweden (16), Netherlands (13), Bulgaria (12) are all potential second-place finishers.

Group B: Switzerland (24) and Portugal (21) are the only candidates for second place.

Group C: Northern Ireland is a lock to finish second.

Group D: Wales (14) and Republic of Ireland (13) are battling for second position.

Group E: Poland sits atop with 19 points while Montenegro and Denmark are tied for second place with 16 points each. Could be any of the three.

Group F: Slovakia (15) sits second with Slovenia and Scotland (14) sit tied for third, could be any of the three.

Group H: Boznia (14) sits second with Greece (13) right behind them, could be either team but I really hope Greece makes it through and we avoid having to play them (selfishly).

Group I: It’s pretty crazy. Croatia and Iceland sit atop with 16 points each and Ukraine and Turkey follow with 14 points each. Realistically, any team could finish anywhere from 1st and 4th.

Italy’s next two games come on October 6th and 9th against Macedonia in Rome, then Albania away. Let’s hope for some better showings next time out.

Follow me on twitter: @AnthonyTurgelis