Unintended consequences

Throughout the World Cup, I’ve been complaining about the disappearance of forwards. Too many teams employed only one forward throughout their run in the tournament, and some teams that began by playing two (England, Brazil, and Italy) eventually dropped the second. Not coincidentally, the flow of goals has been reduced to a trickle.

In today’s Germany-Italy match, Italy started the match with only one forward. But as the match headed for the inevitable penalty kick shoot-out, they brought on a second and then a third. Did this mean that Italian coach Marcello Lippi had suddently appreciated the virtue of using multiple forwards? Probably not. Instead, I’ll wager, Lippi was anticipating the shoot-out and bringing on his most lethal penalty takers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the shoot-out. The introduction of the extra forwards revitalized an Italian attack that had been dormant in the second half of the regulation 90 minutes. And the Italians paid little price for being so offensive minded because even though the new strikers (Del Piero and Iaquinta) weren’t tracking back on the flanks like the men they replaced had done, the German fullbacks were too exhausted (and too occupied) to make them pay at the offensive end. In the first overtime period (when Italy had two forwards) they hit the woodwork twice. And in the dying minutes of the second overtime period (when three forwards were on) they scored twice.

So when Italy takes the field in the World Cup final next Sunday, how many forwards will they play? My guess is one. In a match of this magnitude, it’s even more tempting than normal to play not to lose, and the Italians have a long tradition of embracing that approach. But because today Lippi played to win the shoot-out, he won the overtime instead.

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