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Nationaliteam No.4: The Italian Centre Back

June 12, 2011

The route of all defensive play in the modern game is predominantly attributed to the central defender. While the goalkeeper is the last line of defence, the centre back is seen as vital, co-ordinating the back line and often the instigators of offside traps. Such tactical nuances of defending are permanently linked to the nation of Italy.

Italian football is sterotyped as negative and Serie A seen as the mecca of defensive play and binary-code scorelines. In brief, the stereotype of defensive Italy was born simplistically via the methodology of Catenaccio and the words of its greatest advocate, Gianni Brera. Gianni Brera’s talk of the perfect game ending in a 0-0 has seeped into British populist mentality when it comes to Italian football. Of course, the accusations of Italians being defensive are technically largely false. It just so happens that Italians have generally been much better at defending than others with attacks being more thought-out and often therefore more effective and efficient. The long-line of outstanding Italian goalkeepers and defenders adds weight to such a claim.

The mention of Italian defenders of any type brings a name to mind that has to be included in such an analysis: Maldini. Firstly there was Cesare, a centre back who featured for the national team in two World Cups (1962 & 1966) and won 4 Serie A titles and a European Cup. His son Paolo would go on to become arguably one of the greatest defenders to have played the game. Firstly a left-back who gravitated to the centre of defence as he began to lose pace, Paolo is the second most capped player for the Azzurri (126 caps) and is one of the most highly decorated players in Serie A history: 5 European Cups, 7 League Titles amongst other accolades, and all wearing the Rossoneri shirt. Paolo’s two sons are now currently in the AC Milan youth system creating the possibility of a true footballing dynasty.

La Grande Inter, the team seen as the most potent example of Catenaccio in its purest glory, was built on solid defensive foundations. While Armando Picchi served as the sweeper (the coach, Helenio Herrera, referred to him as the director of the team), ahead of Picchi stood two assured centre-backs: Tarcisio Burgnich and a converted right-back in the shape of Aristide Guarnieri. Later in the Italian national team, a similar defensive shape existed with Gaetano Scirea serving as sweeper behind the centre-back pairing of Claudio Gentile and Fulvio Callovati (another centre-back, Giuseppe Bergomi was pushed forward into a defensive midfield role). While now the role of the sweeper is very rarely used in such its purest sense, the mentality of the sweeper has hugely influenced the playing-styles of many centre-backs, the roles becoming transfused together with a modern example being Alessandro Nesta.

Nesta is seen as one of the best centre-backs of the modern era and despite losing the pace he’d illustrated in past years, this season has seen him somewhat rejuvenated (in part due to not having as many injuries as in the previous few seasons)alongside Brazilian centre-back Thiago Silva. For the national team, the partnership between him and Fabio Cannavaro was seen as one of the most complete in Azzurri history. Cannavaro rose to prominence at Parma where he formed an excellent partnership with Frenchman Lilian Thuram. With Nesta alongside him in the national team, Cannavaro would continue to blossom and the duo were the prime attribute of the team that went all the way to the Euro 2000 final, only to be downed by an unfortunate Sylvain Wiltord goal. Unfortunately, injuries would play their part as opportunities with them both playing in the Azzurri became few and far between. World Cup 2006 dawned and with Nesta missing most of the tournament, Cannavaro was paired with the more brutal defender in the shape of Marco Materazzi. As captain of the side, Cannavaro was seen as the poster boy of the World Cup-winning team of 2006 and he is the only defender to have won the FIFA Player of The Year (attributed to his dominant displays both at the World Cup and for his club at-the-time, Juventus) and is indeed the most capped player for the national team, amassing 133 caps.

Cannavaro’s centre-back partner in that 2006 World Cup-winning team, Marco Materazzi, is an interesting figure to say the least. To characterise his play, he falls distinctly into the “Stopper” category, a central defender whose job is to stop the opposition centre-forward at all costs. The World Cup-winning team of 1982 featured one of the best exponents of such a style: a Libyan-born centre-back by the name of Claudio Gentile.

Claudio Gentile rather infamously got the better of Diego Maradona (albeit with ethically questionable tactics). An adequate method to describe Gentile’s playing style in that match is to use his most famous quote: “Football is not for ballerinas”. Unfortunately such an image masks a player who was technically proficient and well-disciplined. Indeed in his 71 games for the Azzurri, he was never sent off. Gentile was the perfect player for a coach as he would stick to the task he was given and would not be distracted from it as brilliantly illustrated by his displays in marking Maradona and later in the 1982 World Cup final against German forward, Pierre Littbarski.

Two important examples of a more recent kind in the “Stopper” category are Ciro Ferrara and Alessandro Costacurta. Both dominated attackers while maintaining discipline on most occasions and both serve as symbols for the clubs they spent the best part of their careers with: Juventus in the case of Ferrara and Costacurta spent his entire playing career with AC Milan. Internationally, both players didn’t earn as many caps as their abilities warranted. Costacurta retired from the international game in 1998 after making 59 appearances for the Azzurri and his timing, like with many challenges in his career, was impeccable. Ferrara carried on but after missing World Cup 1998 through injury, he had lost his place to Nesta and Nesta would not give it up for some time to come while Cannavaro rose to prominence. Ferrara played second fiddle until 2000 where he left the international game, having amassed 49 caps for his country.

While the past has seen such brilliant Italian centre-backs ensure Italy’s place in the footballing elite, the current crop raise more questions than answers. Giorgio Chiellini is arguably the best available for the national team, a “stopper” whose tendency to lose discipline in the past has seen him draw more comparisons with Materazzi as opposed to more refined “stoppers” like Gentile and Ferrara. Andrea Barzagli was initially seen as a good alternative to Cannavaro and Nesta and was hoped to be ready to step in once the duo stepped aside but a move to VfL Wolfsburg in 2008 was seen to derail his progression with the national team and now aged 30, it’s debatable if he can get back to the heights that propelled him so high in people’s thinking a few years back. There are a wealth of options available but there are questions as to whether they will be comparable to what’s been before them. The likes of Andrea Ranocchia, Leonardo Bonucci, Davide Astori and Angelo Ogbonna have such expectations to try and match up to. While they all have talent, it’s seen that there may well be a lull in the centre-back talent conveyor belt for the Italian national team on this rare occasion. It’ll be a tall order but they’re Italian footballers so I wouldn’t put it past them to carry on the trend against such high expectations.

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