Stats Zone: How Italy can counter Spain – and why Del Bosque should drop Silva

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's Euro 2012 StatsZone app to preview the final between Italy and Spain

For the fourth time in the last seven European Championships, the final is being contested by two sides who met in the group stage. The 1-1 draw between Spain and Italy in Group C’s opening game feels like an age ago, but both Vicente del Bosque and Cesare Prandelli will have reviewed that tape ahead of the final, trying to find weaknesses in their opponent.

Tactically, the key difference between that match and Sunday’s final will be Italy’s formation. Prandelli started the tournament playing a 3-5-2 system, which was effective at shutting down Spain’s system in the centre of midfield, and also pushed back Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa. But he moved to a diamond midfield ahead of the 2-0 win against the Republic of Ireland, and is widely expected to continue with that system here.

Spain’s side will be very similar to that opening fixture. For that game, Cesc Fabregas started as a false nine – but after del Bosque’s experiments with Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo proved unsuccessful, Fabregas is likely to regain his place. Spain were hugely frustrating against Italy the first time around, and only sparked into life after going 1-0 down – but they got the false nine system to work much more effectively against France, with more width, depth and midfield runs.

Italy’s formation may have changed, but their forward partnership hasn’t. The unpredictable yet (so far) highly efficient pairing of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli will start the final together, just as they started in Gdansk three weeks ago.

Their movement in that game was interesting – rather than staying in the centre of the pitch, they constantly looked to make runs out towards the flanks in behind the full-backs. Not only did this help restrict the freedom of the full-backs to advance, it also pulled the Spanish centre-backs into uncomfortable wide positions – Balotelli should have scored after robbing Sergio Ramos near the touchline on Italy's right. But both players actually spent more time to the left of the pitch, and Cassano in particular will look to work in that zone, having created Balotelli’s opener against Germany from that position.

The man looking to find Cassano and Balotelli with long diagonal balls is, of course, Andrea Pirlo. The Juventus midfielder was widely recognised as Italy’s key player before the tournament, but few expected him to have such a great competition. He was 100/1 to win the tournament’s best player award, which now appears to be a two-horse race between him and Andres Iniesta.

Spain didn’t deal with Pirlo especially well in their previous meeting – they started off trying to pressure him on the ball, but he managed to evade a couple of challenges and assist Antonio di Natale’s opener. The man closest to Pirlo was Xavi Hernandez, and while stats may not do justice to Xavi’s pressing, his tangible defensive contribution was weak:

Indeed, for guidance on how to contribute defensively from an advanced midfield position, Xavi could look to new Milan signing Riccardo Montolivo, who is expected to play at the top of the Italian diamond, having started the previous encounter on the bench.

Montolivo played a crucial role against Germany – not only did he assist Balotelli’s second goal with an excellent ball over the top of the defence, he also put in an excellent defensive display, breaking up the passing of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira with interceptions, tackles and even rather useful fouls, which disturbed Germany’s rhythm. He’ll probably look to do the same against a Spanish team that hasn’t encountered much pressure in midfield during this tournament and could be surprised by this approach.

As for Spain, Del Bosque isn’t a manager known for making surprise selection decisions – but after the inclusion of Negredo against Portugal, might he have another surprise in store here?

Italy may be using a different formation, but they were clearly troubled by width after Jesus Navas’ introduction in the second half of the group game, with the defence stretched in a different direction. David Silva has retained his starting place, but the semi-final draw against Portugal was another fine example of how Spain are so much more exciting when they stretch the play, and after Navas and Pedro Rodriguez came on, Spain dominated extra-time. Silva is a fine player, but Navas brings variety to Spain’s attack, and deserves some kind of role against Italy.

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