Italy-Estonia: Game settled by set pieces

3 Sep

Starting lineups

A gritty performance from the 2006 champions sees them save face at 1-0 down on their travels to Estonia. Italy came out in a lopsided 4-3-3 with the Sampdoria duo Cassano and Pazzini, with the newly signed Juventus man Simone Pepe manning the right flank. Italy played a fairly flat midfield 3 of De Rossi, Pirlo, and Montolivo. A starting debut for the excellent Mattia Cassani at right back highlighted a frankly shaky back five for Italy, with the young Salvatore Sirigu in between the posts.

Estonia fielded a fairly straightforward 4-4-2 with a few changes from their Qualification win over the Faroe Islands in early August.  Jaager moved to right back with the more naturally attacking Puri playing ahead of him and looking to come inside.  Zenyov played the furthest forward and rounded out a fairly dull attack on paper.

The game started with Estonia content in putting 11 men behind the ball and letting Italy’s center back pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini try and pass the ball out of defense, while pressuring the first touch of the player looking to receive the ball from one of the Juventus duo. This made the opening few minutes quite cagey as, and Estonia’s plan was to clearly play with 2 banks of 4 and close down any spaces for the midfielders and attackers. However, the extra man in midfield for Italy was key, and as the game grew on, their passing did get much better. The 2nd striker for Estonia, Vassiljev, was busy trying to cut down passing lanes for the center backs – so one of the central midfielders was always free for a few seconds to receive a pass, and Italy grew into the game with both decent short and long passing.

Italy start decently
While Italy passed the ball well, their play was somewhat predictable as they looked to get the ball to Cassano on the wide left – who either looked to combine centrally or cut in and have a shot or cross. Estonia’s defenders were very quick to close down Italian players in possession and were generally very good defensively. The Italian players with the most time on the ball in good areas were the fullbacks. Cassani had a few good combinations and dangerous crosses into the box but Molinaro was very often poor in the ball or even caught in possession which hurt Italy since they had so many men above the center line. You have to think his place is under threat with such a poor game. Pazzini and Cassano looked to work off each other and combine, which did work to good effect a few times, and Italy had quite a few corners in the early-mid first half. Italy had their best chance in the first half with a good bit of skill from De Rossi to evade a defender and then set Pazzini through, but he shot right at the keeper from a somewhat narrow angle.

The star man saves Italy's blushes

Estonia were effective on their counter attacks, and the 3 man midfield from Italy was pulled apart quiteeasily as they had no ‘pivot’ player, and played too flat. This is definitely a problem that Italian coach Cesare Prandelli needs to address, because you have to feel as if a little more defensive organization could have easily snuffed out these counter attacks before they started. Another glaring error from Italy was how they pressed the ball when not in possession. Some players would press, some wouldn’t. Cassano and Pirlo did hardly any pressing, while Pepe would run at the player in possession at full speed. This contributed to Estonia simply evading a tackle and playing the ball into a wide open area during a counter attack.

Estonia draw first blood
An Estonia counter attack after the Italians gave away possession would be a warning shot. A long ball from an Estonian center back was simply flicked on by Vassiljev, and Zenyov took the ball down and had a shot on goal. His effort was somewhat scuffed and wide, but it gave Estonia some confidence that they could break through the Italians.  Minutes later, Estonia had a free kick 45 meters from goal and Vassiljev had an audacious driven effort. He struck it well at Sirigu, who could have done more and parried right into the path of Zenyov who coolly tapped it home.

Second half set pieces
Italy continued their possession dominance
in the 2nd half, but there was an even greater sense of urgency as they were caught cold and needed to get back in the game. The fullbacks pushed even further forward and at some points the center backs were venturing a few yards into the Estonia half. Italy looked to get the ball wide, and won quite a few corners this way. Their first goal came from a Pirlo corner 15 minutes into the 2nd half. Estonia made a mistake in leaving Cassano completely unmarked. He hit his header low and hard, and Italy were level. Too simple of a mistake from Estonia. 3 minutes later, Italy won a corner on the opposite side and Pirlo drove it low to the near post. Cassano backheel flicked the ball into the path of Bonucci, who turned it into the net. Italy were in front, and on the balance of play you feel they deserved it.

Final Thoughts
A narrow win for the 2006 World Champions on paper, but one they probably deserved. Their 4-3-3 shape probably needs a little tweaking, but they passed the ball well and got it into dangerous areas. It’s tough to see how their midfield area will work against opponents who will try and pass the ball themselves, because today all 3 midfield men got forward with ease. However, Estonia have to be given credit, they closed down Italy decently and didn’t allow Cassano or Pirlo too much time on the ball as they recognized these were the players who could hurt them. However, at home, they probably could have been a little more adventurous in getting men forward.  It will be interesting to see what happens when young starlets Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli are healthy, will Prandelli integrate them right away? Surely both Simone Pepe and Cristian Molinaro’s  lack of technical ability and composure on the ball will see them lose their places to more talented players? We shall see.


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