When Spain lost to Croatia in their last group game, people were licking their lips at Spain v Italy in the last 16. Some were also quick to point out that Italy’s defensive style and Spain’s possession based game could make it a bore.
However, it's fair to say that the game was far from slow and could be argued as being the best game of the tournament thus far.
Conte reinstated the side that beat Sweden 1-0, barring Mattia De Sciglio in for the injured Antonio Candreva. For Spain, Vicente Del Bosque left his side unchanged for the fourth game straight.
Taking out Iniesta and Fabregas
It’s no secret that Spain’s winning formula is based on the creativity of their midfield, with Iniesta and Fabregas instructed to pull the strings and break down the opposition with short passing matched with clever movement. Sergio Busquets’ role in front of the back line is to retain possession whilst also seeking out players further ahead and conducting attacks.
The problem many teams have faced when playing against Spain is being able to mute all three of these players. Their poor World Cup showing was clouded when Spain walked through qualifying and, despite their defeat in matchday three of this summer's tournament, Spain have looked like the only dangerous team so far.
But Italy completely silenced the Spanish midfield. Sergio Busquets could hardly be seen during the game while Fabregas and Iniesta were restrained to sideways passes: any forward ball couldn’t break down Italy’s back line. The problems didn’t stop there though - any direct, long ball from either Sergio Ramos or Gerard Pique was intercepted or cleared.
No doubt Italy's formation was influential in their success today but the numbers they got back behind the ball should be labeled more than just a defensive system - it was structured and solid. Their players - especially the back three - were incredibly composed under pressure and at several times during the game, they were more than happy to dribble their way out of their own half.
As Spain pressed higher up the more time passed, the more it suited Italy. It gave them space behind the Spanish defence to release Emanuele Giaccherini and, in all fairness, the Italians deserved their second goal more than the Spanish deserved one.
Pelle and Eder
A decade ago, Italy could boast a frontline of Francesco Totti, Filippo Inzaghi, Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Del Piero. Playing up front for them today, they had Graziano Pelle and Eder - famous old names (sort of), but not the most glamorous of players in today's game.
Italy's direct style suits both of these players to a tee. With a three at the back, it allows their wing-backs to push on down the wing, supplying their team with more width. With the two outer midfielders naturally coming wider, it means that the Italians are allowed to double up on the flanks, meaning they can retain possession a lot better and offer a better ball into the box for one of their dominating forwards.
But their link-up play was brilliant. Pelle managed to find Eder on seven occasions, one of them being a scrumptious flick which led to Eder having a one-on-one with David De Gea, whose goalkeeping stopped Italy winning by much more than two.
Pelle’s passing to his strike partner wasn’t the only impressive part of his display today. He was the man responsible for keeping Busquets out of the game as he man-marked Spain’s deep-lying playmaker. You can expect him to play a similar role in next week's game against Germany.
He’s continued to thrive during this tournament, and duly deserved his goal late in the game.
11 players, one team
The strongest part of this Italy side is their ability to group together and work for each other. They’re hard working, and Conte has got this team drilled to the ground. They have no superstars, no focal point - they play as one unit.
In retrospect, the Spanish frontline went missing today. Iniesta and Fabregas saw lots of the ball but they failed to link onto their front three of David Silva, Alvaro Morata and Nolito. Even when they brought on Aritz Aduriz - whom Del Bosque seemed to think could become the target man to bring Iniesta closer to goal - the Italians snuffed their tactics out. With Del Bosque expected to make way after being comprehensively out-thought by Conte, perhaps Spain will need to change their plans in more ways than one.
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