Spain seemed all-conquering in the Euros, but Italy had held them in the opener. Why, asks Alex Keble, did they change their tack?
Italy's strategy in their opening game of Euro 2012 had more success with nullifying Vicente del Bosque's Spanish magicians than any other team. Their 3-5-2 formation caught everyone by surprise, stunting the Spaniard's attacks and allowing them to counter with speed and fluidity. In the final, they played the 4-4-2 diamond midfield that had proved so successful throughout the tournament, only to find themselves completely overrun. What went wrong?
Stifling the deep-lying playmaker
In Italy's opener, puppet-master Pirlo dominated, as his incisive long-field passes freed the ever-impressive Antonio Cassano and bypassed the Spanish midfield. By July 1st, everyone in the world knew who was pulling all the strings, and Spain worked hard to stunt his activity.
In the first encounter, the Italian wizard had the freedom to spray the ball around the field, stretching the opposition and carving out attacks for the advancing wing-backs. In the final, Spain minimised his threat by applying pressure quickly, forcing Pirlo to release the ball hurriedly and therefore with less attacking intent Ã¢ÂÂ hence the sideways passes deep in his own half, and lack of completed passes in the Spanish third.
Moreover, in the final Pirlo had less support. In the opener, Italy's defensive trio meant that Daniele De Rossi could afford to step forward when Italy were in possession and provide support to Pirlo, taking some of the creative burden off the 34-year-old's shoulders.
Between De Rossi and Pirlo, Italy were successful with many long diagonal passes, contributing greatly to their forward threat. By releasing Cassano et al with diagonal passes, Italy found themselves with the ball in advanced wide positions, where opposition from Spanish wingers Andres Iniesta and David Silva was invariably and conspicuously absent.
The diamond midfield relied too heavily on influencing play high up the pitch, and with Iniesta and Silva drifting infield to provide support, the Spanish simply outnumbered the Italians in the middle of the park. After bypassing Spain's midfield in the opening game with accurate long passes, Italy afforded themselves the solitary threat of Pirlo in the final, and the Spaniards knew exactly who they needed to mark closely. Without his and De Rossi's sweeping passes, Italy's Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio were rendered ineffective.
Abandoning the back three
The effects of De Rossi's positional shift weren't only felt in attack. By moving him from the back three to form part of a midfield quartet, Cesare Prandelli left the Italians open and exposed.
In the opening game, Italy sat back and absorbed the pressure, allowing the Spanish to dominate possession and pass the ball in front of them. With the wing-backs dropping into defence, Spain were trying to carve open a team with a back five protected by a central three.
In the final, buoyed by the fluidity of their midfield throughout the rest of the tournament, Italy were expansive and depended upon a higher defensive line without the solidity of six players defending centrally. This was particularly the case in the first half: after the break, two goals and a man down, the Italians found themselves helplessly retreating.
These screens indicate Italy were playing much higher up the pitch, allowing Spain to play in behind them Ã¢ÂÂ exactly what Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and Cesc Fabregas wanted. The inadequacy of this tactic was only exacerbated by Xavi being employed higher up the pitch (partly to mark Pirlo out of the game and partly to escape the cluster of Italian midfielders playing closer to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets), and Fabregas playing more like a traditional centre-forward.
Clipping the wing-backs' wings back
In the 1-1 draw, Italy's wing-backs provided an excellent source of attack and defence. Recognising the narrowness of Spain's play, Prandelli's 3-5-2 provided them with a line of five when defending, while also Ã¢ÂÂ with three central defenders to cover any counter-attacks Ã¢ÂÂ giving the wing-backs licence to roam forward and exploit the inevitable space out wide. Iniesta and Silva will always drift inwards and rarely track back, leaving plenty of room to utilise. Italy clearly knew this, given their long-range diagonal passing.
Perhaps more important than this was their ability to nullify the Spanish full-backs' attacking impetus. Wing-backs are notoriously difficult to combat as an opposing full-back: how far can I afford to venture forward? How much should I hold back? Do I stick tight to them, or let them go? If I stay tight then I will most likely be dragged high up the pitch, allowing other players to exploit the space behind me. If I hold back, I give them the chance to build up speed when running at me. Spain's defenders chose the latter, rarely risking a venture forward, perhaps fearful of their team-mates' defensive indiscipline.
Unfortunately for Italy, their later 4-4-2 completely obliterated these positive aspects of their play. The narrowness of their midfield diamond gave little or no opportunity for full-backs to overlap, and the increased defensive duties in a flat back four stifled their attacking intent.
With Iniesta and Silva coming infield and Alonso and Busquets taking Montolivo and Marchisio out of the game, the wings were more open than ever; unlike in their previous encounter, Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba were given license to burst forward, whilst Ignazio Abate and Giorgio Chiellini were forced to hold back.
The positive effect on the Spanish full-backs is just as obvious:
The player influence screen (below) speaks volumes: both teams were congested in the middle, but where Italy's full-backs were tentative and wary of the Spanish threat, Spain's pair caused havoc, most notably for Alba's goal. No longer troubled by the impending threat of the tricky Maggio (who had, although unnoticed by many, an outstanding game in the 1-1 draw), Alba abandoned his fellow defenders on numerous occasions, and to devastating effect.
Italy have learnt a valuable lesson, albeit one that comes too late: you simply can't "take on" the Spanish. Having defended doggedly in their opening encounter, employing a rigid strategy of deep, narrow defending and direct counter-attacks created by deep-lying playmakers (plural), Italy paid the price for being more adventurous in the final.
Prandelli's diamond relied on several key players being influential high up the pitch, which proved simply impossible in such a heavily congested area. It also stunted their width and ultimately left Pirlo helplessly alone, and unable to control the game.
Up until the 4-0 thrashing, Spain have increasingly been labelled 'boring'. In my opinion, the blame lies with the overwhelming negativity of the opposition, forcing the Spaniards to play patiently in-front of an ever-retreating defence. They have had to become faster and faster, finding ever more ingenious ways of breaking down their terrified opponents.
Even Jose Mourinho came to recognise the impossibility of overcoming tiki-taka, winning La Liga by defending desperately against Barcelona after several failed attempts at outplaying them.
Spain are seen as boring because teams don't play against them: they simply try and stop them. For once, a team came out and tried to win the match, not just avoid defeat. And, for once, Spain were able to get in behind a team, and utterly destroy them.
Spain can't be called boring any more. Perhaps Italy, and anybody else hoping to knock Spain off their pedestal, needs to take a word of advice from the Special One: "If you have a Ferrari and I have a small car, the only way I can win is by putting sugar in your petrol tank."
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