Ahead of England's opener at the World Cup, our tactics guru Jonathan Wilson, runs the rule over a clash between two countries who've won the tournament five times between them...
Italy have lost their first-choice left-back, Mattea De Sciglio, for the game against England after he suffered an injury to his right leg in training. Left-back was an awkward issue for Italy through qualification: they played eight different players in the role in 10 qualifiers. Giorgio Chiellini, of course, is perfectly capable of operating there, but he lacks pace, while Ignacio Abate, who could also be used there, is a right-back. Either way, the temptation to unleash the pace and confidence of Raheem Sterling on that side must be huge. England’s only absentee is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who might have been a useful option bursting forward form a 4-3-3. If Roy Hodgson had intended to use a 4-2-3-1, though, it’s unlikely he would have started anyway.
The likelihood, based on the three warm-up games, is that England will play a 4-2-3-1, with Wayne Rooney behind Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana on one flank and either Raheem Sterling or Danny Welbeck on the other. It could be, though, that Hodgson opts for the greater security of the 4-3-3 he used against Denmark in March, with Sturridge as the central striker, Sterling wide and Rooney trying to replicate the role Luis Suarez plays at Liverpool. Either way, England will presumably look to sit deep, absorb pressure and then use their pace on the counter-attack. Sitting deep makes sense given the relative lack of pace of the centre-back pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka: they cannot allow players to get behind them. The risk is that by looking to play a containing game, Hodgson is asking Steven Gerrard – and to a lesser extent Jordan Henderson – to play with defensive discipline for a whole game. It’s not the way they played at Liverpool last season and it’s not their natural game.
Cesare Prandelli flipped between a back three and a back four at the Euros, and although he generally used a 4-3-2-1 in qualifying, there was little consistency of selection, with no fewer than 11 players being used in the three attacking positions. In the build-up he has even experimented with a strange Y-shaped midfield, with either Tiago Motta or Daniele De Rossi behind Marco Verratti, with Claudio Marchisio advanced and left of him and (probably) Alberto Aquilani to the right. To play like that, though, is to do without Andrea Pirlo, which would seem unlikely, at least from the start. “If you haven’t worked out [the formation], it shows we are on the right track,” Prandelli said. “We don’t want anyone to understand anything.”
There has been much talk of the heat and humidity of this World Cup, but the truth is that it will only be an issue at certain venues. Manaus is one of them. The pace of the game will be slower than usual and fatigue will be an issue late in the game. Theoretically that should suit Italy who, as they showed in the quarter-final of Euro 2012, are far better than England at maintaining possession. That, though, could play into England’s hands, if they do, as seems probable, look to sit deep and counter. That said, Italy’s poor recent run in friendlies, and their history of starting tournaments slowly, means they are unlikely to be gung-ho. The result could be one team content to hold the ball without looking to do much with it, the other happy to let them do so. The uneven surface may militate against fluent play anyway. In the circumstances, a draw might suit both sides quite nicely.
The game in the Euros was dominated by Pirlo, who dictated play from in front of the back four and capped a fine individual performance by Panenka-ing his penalty past Joe Hart in the shoot-out. Hodgson insisted then that his team didn’t need to deploy a single player to close him down, and that the zonal system he preferred would be sufficient. It is true that England largely restricted Italy in that game and that, for all their possession, the Azzurri created few clear chances, but if England are to do anything other than survive, he may look to more specific measures to combat Pirlo – assuming he plays. If Pirlo is stationed deep, and England play a 4-2-3-1, he naturally comes into Rooney’s zone – if Rooney can be persuaded to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Both sides qualified comfortably but neither side has particularly impressed in recent friendlies. Given the conditions, the urge not to lose the first game and the fact that both may regard Uruguay as over-the-hill, a draw seems highly likely. The decision then is whether to go for 0-0 at 6.10 or 1-1 at 6.50.
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