Prior to Sunday’s Group C match against Spain the Italian media had been pressuring Italy manager Cesare Prandelli to adopt a 3-5-2 formation against the World and European champions. That he acquiesced wasn’t so much a concession to the scribes as it was a reaction to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Russia 10 days ago in which the Azzurri were cut to ribbons.
Italy lined up in a narrow 4-3-1-2 in that match and received dire performances from nearly everyone in the team, but especially Federico Balzaretti (who was torn a new one by Russia’s debutant right-back Kiril Nababkin) and Ricardro Montolivo (who did absolutely nothing).
Both were dropped for Sunday’s match against Spain, and given a dearth of options at left-back and the fact that Thiago Motta’s defensive instincts would allow Claudio Marchisio to get forward more often instead of leaving the running to the on-again, off-again Montolivo, a three-man defense and five-man midfield suddenly became the most logical option for an Italy side that required an immediate turnaround in order to stand any chance of progressing to the quarterfinals.
Had Andrea Barzagli been fit he would have probably joined Juventus teammates Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in the three-man defensive set. Instead, his absence forced Prandelli to drop Daniele De Rossi into the backline—a move that looked more like a stroke of genius than the pure necessity it actually was.
De Rossi was a colossus on Sunday. He made a double-intervention on David Silva and Cesc Fabregas inside the first 10 minutes and kept up his defensive concentration throughout the balance of the 90. He also looked an old-fashioned sweeper at times, swinging from a deep position before jogging upfield and pumping an accurate pass to the feet of a teammate.
A natural midfielder, De Rossi played a handful of matches in the center of defense for AS Roma last season—a decision, much like Prandelli’s, made more because of requirements and squad limitations than foresight. That being said, Prandelli does deserve credit as it takes a gutsy manager to make a significant tactical change on the eve of a major tournament.
This is just another example of why Italy can never be written off, no matter how poorly they played in pre-tournament friendlies, no matter what sort of drama is going on back home. Sometimes the pieces just fall into place for them. This certainly isn’t the first time.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer