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Defensive mindset hurting national team’s progress after Bari debacle

Domenico Berardi scores Italy's second goal against Malta. Photo: Gabriel Cassar

Malta head coach Michele Marcolini expressed mixed emotions after the national teams suffered a comprehensive 4-0 defeat to Italy in a Euro 2024 qualifier at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari on Saturday.

Domenico Berardi stood out for the current European champions with a brace with the other goals coming from Giacomo Bonaventura and Davide Frattesi as the European champions stepped up their charge to secure a place in next year’s finals in Germany.

On the other hand, the defeat in Bari has left some uncomfortable reading for Michele Marcolini and his technical staff as it was Malta’s sixth successive defeat in Group C and are still in search of their first point.

While it has to be pointed out that it would be absurd that someone could even expect that the Maltese national team could end their point drought against Luciano Spalletti’s revitalised Italian team, however, what left a sour taste was the lack of fight and will to try and put some pressure on their more illustrious opponents.

From the outset it looked that the team’s primary goal on Saturday night was specifically to shut up shop but their hopes of fulfilling their goal was undone by a string of technical errors in key areas of the pitch as well as losing possession as soon as their opponents started to pressure them in their own half.

If one analyses the match, the Maltese did enjoy a solid start to the match as they managed to frustrate the home side with a good defensive organisation, something that was acknowledged by Marcolini himself.

“I’m always disappointed when I lose a match, but we have to understand against who we are playing and if someone thought that we can match the level of Italy, I think it would be very unrealistic,” Marcolini said.

“Honestly, I felt the team played well in the first half, particularly before conceding the first goal. We tried to play the ball and create some chances, but it was inevitable that we found it difficult to create any danger.

“It is also important to point out that Italy scored two very beautiful goals and we couldn’t do much to prevent them. At the end of the day, I don’t have any kind of regret for the players while also recognising that we need to do something better.”

However, it is equally very important to point out that the most frustrating factor in Malta’s performance against Italy on Saturday is their reluctance to play positive football and try and hit their opponents with quick transitions when finding themselves at a numerical advantage in their final third.

There was more than one occasion when Malta’s players opted to pass the ball back to their defensive team-mates instead of opting for vertical passes to the team’s forwards which could have stretched the home side’s defence.

The general feeling was that the Maltese players were blocked by fear of leaving their backline exposed should they lose the ball cheaply when pushing forward and thus preferred to play a ‘safer’ pass to their team-mates in their own half.

But that plan backfired as in the second half, Italy took full advantage of some glaring gaps left by the visitors’ defence who lost their shape defensively and inevitably ended up being punished by the clinical Italian forwards.

Marcolini disagrees that his players showed signs of fear but admitted the team’s second-half display left much to be desired.

“I don’t agree that we showed any signs of fear, particularly in the first half where I felt the team tried to play offensive football,” the Italian said.

“To be effective when pushing forward you need to find the space and you need to be faster than your marker, particularly in one vs one situations. The Italians did well to close all spaces for us, but our intent was there.

“In the second half, it was clear that our performance was not good enough. We again tried to play the ball but we lost a few metres and put us in a much bigger difficulty to pushing the ball forward.

“However, the most glaring thing and what really disappointed me is that we committed too many technical errors from the back and that inevitably saw the team end up under a lot of pressure and made life more difficult for us.”

It’s clear that these Euro qualifiers are not the ideal yardstick to gauge the team’s progress, particularly given the strong opponents the national teams are playing.

However, of greater concern is the fact that if the team continues to struggle to play positive football it may become a major problem in next year’s UEFA Nations League where promotion to League C is fundamental for the MFA.

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