Welcome to the latest in a new series where we will take a tactical dive and explore each and every one of the 32 qualified World Cup teams.
Next up is Italy, a side who qualified for the showpiece event in Brazil at a canter, winning six and drawing four in an unbeaten, dominant Group Stage campaign.
Prandelli's men eased through Group B of the European qualifying zone, besting Denmark by six points and the Czech Republic by seven in the final standings.
They started with a wobble, drawing in Sofia against a weak Bulgaria side, but went on to win the next four in a row to exert ownership of the group.
Armenia gave them some unexpected issues, but the Azzurri were largely able to navigate with ease, blooding new players and trialing new systems.
Formation & Style
Italy have always been very solid in a tactical sense, and Prandelli continues that trend by making his side hard to guess and therefore hard to plan for.
He seems to have settled on a 4-3-3 shape for the time being, but this squad—by virtue of boasting a Juventus backbone—can switch to a 3-5-2 system within seconds and produce seamless results.
In both formations, Andrea Pirlo is the key man, playing his regista role wonderfully well to this day. As a deep-lying playmaker, his job is to receive the ball from his centre-backs and create from a deeper role.
He's an underrated tackler, but his lack of mobility means that, despite his creative excellence in an attacking sense, Italy can be very prone to high turnovers should he not receive help.
That makes the two central midfield roles either side of him extremely important and the Azzurri are blessed to have Daniele De Rossi on board to do the hard running round Pirlo.
He, too, has great technique and boasts a great pass, but his primary role is to lock down the midfield in Gennaro Gattuso-esque fashion. He's been tried as a centre-back in a back three, too—most notably at Euro 2012—and knows his way around that area of the pitch well.
For Pirlo to find a pass, the onus is on every other player to find an angle. That means full-backs push on, forwards drop deep and wingers drift in and out. It's your typical 4-3-3 bar Pirlo's unique role, combining possession-based football with clever movement and hard work off the ball.
Should the switch to 3-5-2 be made, Juventus will supply the back line and Emmanuele Giaccherini will likely slot in at left wing-back, but Prandelli would need to find a second striker to play with Mario Balotelli.
If possible, a deep-lying forward—a la Antonio Cassano at Euro 2012—would be ideal, but options look limited now Giuseppe Rossi's injured again and Dani Osvaldo continues to shoot himself in the foot.
Francesco Totti would be perfect. Just saying.
Reasons for Hope
First and foremost, Italy do well on the big stage.
Sometimes, a propensity to perform when the pressure is on trumps any careful crafting of formations and tactical matchups, so the Azzurri faithful are always hopeful that their side can win a trophy.
Recent performances, too, inspire hope: Prandelli's men finished runners-up at Euro 2012 to an awesome Spain side, then lost to la Roja again one year later in the 2013 Confederations Cup semi-finals on penalties. They were the better team that day.
Italy will take Andrea Barzagli, Pirlo, De Rossi and Gianluigi Buffon to Brazil—all four of them were in the squad for the 2006 World Cup win in Germany. That's about as much experience as you're going to get.
Their ability to change formations between games is also a major plus-point; during Euro 2012, Prandelli used a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2 diamond and a 3-5-2 to great effect.
Versatile, yet disciplined players are key to making that work. The fact that Prandelli has won the respect of every player on the roster helps, too.
Reason for Concern
We're scratching for reasons here, as Italy went unbeaten through qualifying and impressed heavily in Brazil during the summer. It's a team of winners with a great coach and they're going to be tough to stop.
One weakness can, however, be sourced through a potential over-reliance on Pirlo. The very best defences have been able to cancel him out at club level—namely by sticking a suffoco on him and pinning him back—and if Italy can't find a support striker capable of dropping deep to receive quicker passes, he could be cancelled out.
The Azzurri would then need to find other ways to win, and while that's possible—via moving the playmaker role or switching formations—it would force Prandelli to use Plan B earlier than he'd like.
Mario Balotelli stands as an extremely unpredictable character even now, and as much as he could prove the difference for Italy, he could, conceivably, be the opposite, too.
Conclusions and Predictions
Italy have drawn England, Uruguay and Costa Rica in Group D.
They've had the beating of the Three Lions in competitive games lately, but that game will take place in the northern city of Manaus. There's every chance, in 90 percent-plus humidity, that fitness trumps skill and tactics.
Uruguay will provide a much sterner test and, much like the Azzurri, switch formations at will to make themselves very difficult to beat. Costa Rica have talented individuals, but they should be no match here.
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