Analysis: Italy's back three plus Spain's false nine equal a tactical spectacle's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's Euro 2012 StatsZone app to analyse the action from Poland and Ukraine

From a tactical point of view, the standout match of the opening round of Euro 2012 fixtures was Italy’s 1-1 draw with Spain.

Of the 16 coaches at the competition, Italy’s Cesare Prandelli was the only one to choose a three-man defence, while Spain’s Vicente del Bosque played without a recognised striker – also unique in the tournament so far.

But Italy had spent most of the last fortnight practicing the formation in training and the 3-5-2 system was largely expected. In stark contrast, Spain’s formation was a big surprise. They had tried to play without a striker before – against Scotland, and also briefly in the 1-0 defeat at Wembley last year, where David Silva moved upfront and David Villa played as a left winger – but as Cesc Fabregas admitted after the match, “We’d never trained in that system.” Del Bosque may have surprised Italy, but he also surprised his own players.

Spain encountered predictable problems – the same issues they’d faced in the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in their opening game of World Cup 2010. Then, they fielded Villa as a lone striker, but with Andres Iniesta and David Silva both moving inside and crowding the middle, the Swiss shut out Spain easily, by defending very narrow.

That pattern was repeated on Sunday – simply with the addition of another central playmaker, Cesc Fabregas, adding to the congestion in that zone. He was playing the ‘false nine’ position – the man highest up the pitch, but dropping into midfield - but with he, Iniesta and Silva moving into a similar position, Spain concentrated their passing in a very small area of the pitch. Italy were relatively comfortable.

As with so many of their games in South Africa, Spain looked significantly more threatening when they introduced players who offered width and depth: Jesus Navas and Fernando Torres. As the ‘player influence’ screen demonstrates, Spain’s shape in the final 20 minutes was completely different to their narrow first half formation – it stretched the Italian backline and created gaps for the creative midfielders to pass through.

Navas and Torres were of great benefit to Spain, purely as they provided variety and made Spain’s attacks unpredictable. The passes Torres received were extremely straight, and often balls played in behind the defence – it took three-quarters of the game for Spain to test Italy’s offside trap, and they manufactured two clear-cut chances by playing through-balls between the three defenders. Torres may have wasted two promising chances, and his passing was also wayward, but he was certainly a threat.

Navas’ crossing was typically inconsistent. However, with right-back Alvaro Arbeloa playing a defensive-minded role and scared to move forward for fear of giving Italy’s strikers space in the channels, Navas started to draw Italy’s back three out of position. He always received the ball wide on the flank, and although only one of his crosses found its intended target, Spain were attacking from a different angle. Torres has never thrived on crosses – the use of a tall striker like Fernando Llorente might reap rewards, in tandem with width, in Spain’s remaining games.

Of course, the ‘false nine’ system did work well once – for the goal, when Silva (at that point, the false nine) slipped in Fabregas running from deep, for Spain’s equaliser. A system featuring a false nine can bring success, but you need runners from deeper positions to make it work. If Del Bosque wants to continue with this system, Fabregas should be the player breaking forward into space, rather than starting high up and moving towards the ball.

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