Calcio goes on the attack
There can be little doubt that a wind of change has blown through Italian football, both at national and club level. In his quest to guide the reigning world champions to a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, coach Marcello Lippi has tested a host of new faces, mainly in forward positions, in a bid to freshen up his squad for the challenges ahead.
The nation's finest club sides, for their part, none of whom progressed further than the first knockout stage of last season's UEFA Champions League, appear to be following Barcelona's lead by employing young, progressive and attack-minded coaches in the mould of Josep Guardiola.
This sea change has been helped by the emergence of a new generation, who have moved in to fill the gap left by some of Italian football's most successful and experienced coaches. Indeed, Giovanni Trapattoni, Fabio Capello and Lippi are all currently involved in the international arena with Republic of Ireland, England and Italy respectively, while another former Serie A stalwart, Carlo Ancelotti, has taken up the reins at English side Chelsea.
The success of Barça's gamble on relative novice Guardiola has clearly caught the eye of AC Milan, who this season will be led by their 39-year-old former player Leonardo in his first top-flight coaching job. Juventus, for their part, have put 42-year-old Ciro Ferrara in permanent charge after his caretaker spell last campaign, a choice roundly backed by his former Napoli team-mate and now Argentina coach Diego Maradona.
One man who certainly cannot be accused of lacking experience is Inter Milan's Jose Mourinho, who has been charged with ending the club's 44-year drought in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. Meanwhile, Roma's Luciano Spalletti, 50, begins his fifth season at the helm of the capital outfit, a landmark also reached by 52-year-old Cesare Prandelli at Fiorentina, with both coaches earning a reputation for producing adventurous teams. Also noteworthy is Napoli's appointment of 45-year-old Roberto Donadoni, who is expected to send out his side in an 3-5-2 formation.
Given the success enjoyed by Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan side in the 1960s, Italian football has long been associated with the defensive rigours of the infamous catenaccio system in vogue at the time. And though this system has been out of favour for some decades now, Italian teams' ability to combine a solid defensive unit with clinical counter-attacking has meant this tag has endured.
Yet for a number of years now, Serie A's scoring statistics have compared with Europe's other major leagues. No fewer than 988 goals were scored in Italy's top tier in 2008/09, an average of 2.60 per game, behind only Germany (894 goals in an 18-team top division) and Spain's La Liga, which saw 1,101 goals at an average of 2.90 per match. Lagging behind Serie A were England, 942 goals at 2.47 per match, and France, where the net billowed 858 times - an average of just 2.25 per game.
A number of reasons have been put forward to explain this trend. One of them is the fact that more Italian players and coaches have been trying their luck abroad, subsequently bringing back new ideas and fresh tactical thinking to the domestic game. Another is the emergence of a talented generation of attacking players coupled with a lack of defensive stalwarts to fill the shoes of legends like Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
As regards his forward options for Gli Azzurri, Lippi has a veritable embarrassment of riches. A fixture up front in recent years, 32-year-old Luca Toni is now facing ever stronger competition from the likes of Alberto Gilardino, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Fabio Quagliarella and Giuseppe Rossi, with the latter highly impressive at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009. In midfield areas, meanwhile, rugged ball-winners such as Gennaro Gattuso are in relatively short supply compared to the influx of more creative individuals.
However, at club level at least, it remains to be seen whether Italian football can regain its legendary efficiency while playing a more expansive game. And for Italy coach Lippi, whose decisive attacking substitutions earned him many plaudits at Germany 2006, he must first secure his side's ticket for South Africa 2010 before entertaining hopes of similar exploits next summer.