Rafael Benitez: Age before beauty as Italy's wise guys try to stifle Spanish flair
The Rafael Benitez Column
It is exactly a week since we talked in these pages about what a formidable opponent the Italian team would be for England in the quarter-finals. We were as gentle as we could be last Saturday, because everyone in England wanted to hear the good news for their team, but Cesare Prandelli's players have not failed to live up to the way we were talking about them.
One of the parts of the Italy story which has surprised people is the age of some of the players. Not only Andrea Pirlo, who is 33, but Daniele De Rossi, Thiago Motta, Andrea Barzagli and Antonio Cassano, who are all also ageing. In football and in life, everybody wants the next new thing and that's why so much importance is attached to the next young manager, the next brilliant young player. But what Italy have taught us is that experience has a very big value – and that goes for every profession. Look at the economic crisis. The banks used to have people with experience. Then they started having younger people because they were cheaper. And now look where we are.
This is the end of a long season for the players at this championship and all of them are tired but Italy's older players have the experience and organisation which allow them to succeed despite all the fatigue. We talked after England went out about how important it is to have time to get the right coaching system and the right philosophy, to help develop the technical ability in young players. But be careful in the search for the next young player not to choose him only because he is young. The ones selected have to be good.
There are two types of players. The ones who will grow and develop by themselves and will always have the talent, because they are world-class. Wayne Rooney, Raul, Steven Gerrard. And the "normal" ones who can improve if you coach them properly. But even the second group has to have the natural ability at the start and sometimes that is overlooked because everybody wants to find the genius.
Italy actually have a similar problem to England – a massive problem – when it comes to developing new talent because they don't promote young players. They have the Under-19s squadra Primavera, which is very good, but after that the players find they are too young for the first team and must go on loan to a second or third division team, which is not often a technical benefit. Sometimes, the club that lends them gets money, that player becomes jointly owned by the two clubs before they go to the mercato, when everybody is deciding whether to take them back or sell them. The uncertainty doesn't help the players. Serie A clubs like older players because the pace is slower and the less mobile players with experience can succeed in it.
But what Prandelli has on his hands now is the right mix of old and young. The young include Mario Balotelli, of course, who, with players like Claudio Marchisio, will be around in four years' time. Prandelli also has Italian pride at his back. Italy were poor at the last World Cup and making up for that is important to the country.
The most interesting part of tomorrow's final is whether Italy will return to the system of three at the back (or five) with three midfielders and two strikers or the four-man defence they have used in the last three games. The three-man defence did enable them to control the midfield against Spain in Gdansk and it did not limit their attacking options, either. De Rossi, who was at the back, was playing the ball long for Balotelli and Cassano, creating a two versus two race against the Spanish defenders. The wing-backs, Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini, also provided good width.
If Italy go with four at the back, we can expect the same midfield diamond we saw against England, with one player in the wide areas going inside, and that might leave space for Alvaro Arbeloa or Jordi Alba to attack. Arbeloa is an interesting player: intelligent, focused, good going forward. He was a centre-half when we signed him for £2m from Deportivo la Coruña to fill the full-back's position for Liverpool. That diamond would mean more work for Italy; having to run harder. It is why the three-man defence looks like a good idea.
For Spain, look out for David Silva or Andres Iniesta as the key players – they will need to use the wide areas. It will be very busy in the middle of the field, so it is very important for them to wait out in the wide areas as long as possible and then go inside at the last minute, maybe creating a surprise for the Italians. It will be important to wait, wait, wait and then go inside. Look out for this part of their game.
We will have to wait for a while before we know the team but Jesus Navas and Pedro may also be a part of Vicente del Bosque's set-up. If they are, then they will be important people in those wide areas. You will be interested to hear that I know Fernando Torres has been training very, very well. Del Bosque has not been using him because Fernando does not show the same confidence in games as in training at the moment and in tournaments you need to be very certain about the players you start with. Fernando will be dangerous if he gets a chance later tomorrow.
Spain, like England and Germany, will do their best to control Pirlo. It is easy to overlook the way that if Pirlo is being controlled, De Rossi will drop deep, to receive the ball and dictate play. If De Rossi is being controlled, Thiago Motta – who I consider one of the best of the best in Italy's squad, as regular readers of the column will know – will do the job. In short, if you control Pirlo, Italy will find others who will play. It looks likely to be a fascinating final. The wide areas are the key.
We will have time to reflect on the tournament in a general way after the final but, because I know that it will be painful for England not to have been in the tournament for the third week, I must say that Manchester United's Phil Jones is one of the players who really interests me. He did not play a part in the championship but he looks like one who can play in defence and has the ability to move up to operate outside of it, too. As I said on Tuesday, it is wrong to say England lack the talent. It is only the philosophy which is missing.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will succeed, I think, because he has shown his pace and willingness to try things. But Jones is one of the English players I will watch with interest when the tournament is through and the international cycle starts again.
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