Analysis: Italy's back three plus Spain's false nine equal a tactical spectacle
From a tactical point of view, the standout match of the opening round of Euro 2012 fixtures was ItalyÃ¢ÂÂs 1-1 draw with Spain.
Of the 16 coaches at the competition, ItalyÃ¢ÂÂs Cesare Prandelli was the only one to choose a three-man defence, while SpainÃ¢ÂÂs Vicente del Bosque played without a recognised striker Ã¢ÂÂ 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, SpainÃ¢ÂÂs formation was a big surprise. They had tried to play without a striker before Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ but as Cesc Fabregas admitted after the match, Ã¢ÂÂWeÃ¢ÂÂd never trained in that system.Ã¢ÂÂ Del Bosque may have surprised Italy, but he also surprised his own players.
Spain encountered predictable problems Ã¢ÂÂ the same issues theyÃ¢ÂÂd 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 Ã¢ÂÂ simply with the addition of another central playmaker, Cesc Fabregas, adding to the congestion in that zone. He was playing the Ã¢ÂÂfalse nineÃ¢ÂÂ position Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂplayer influenceÃ¢ÂÂ screen demonstrates, SpainÃ¢ÂÂs shape in the final 20 minutes was completely different to their narrow first half formation Ã¢ÂÂ 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 SpainÃ¢ÂÂs attacks unpredictable. The passes Torres received were extremely straight, and often balls played in behind the defence Ã¢ÂÂ it took three-quarters of the game for Spain to test ItalyÃ¢ÂÂs 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.
NavasÃ¢ÂÂ crossing was typically inconsistent. However, with right-back Alvaro Arbeloa playing a defensive-minded role and scared to move forward for fear of giving ItalyÃ¢ÂÂs strikers space in the channels, Navas started to draw ItalyÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂ the use of a tall striker like Fernando Llorente might reap rewards, in tandem with width, in SpainÃ¢ÂÂs remaining games.
Of course, the Ã¢ÂÂfalse nineÃ¢ÂÂ system did work well once Ã¢ÂÂ for the goal, when Silva (at that point, the false nine) slipped in Fabregas running from deep, for SpainÃ¢ÂÂs 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.