Spain 1-1 Italy: Spain start with no striker, Italy use a 3-5-2
A fascinating tactical battle between two systems rarely seen at international level.
Vicente del Bosque supposedly had a three-way choice between Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Llorente and Fernando Torres upfront – but instead chose to play with a false nine, with David Silva and Cesc Fabregas both becoming the highest player up the pitch at different points.
Cesare Prandelli went with the 3-5-2 system he’s been using in training over the past two weeks, which meant Daniele De Rossi dropping into the defence, and Emanuele Giaccherini making his international debut as a left wing-back.
Spain inevitably had more of the ball, and probably created more too. But Prandelli’s system frustrated the reigning champions for long periods of the game (as Spain’s own narrowness and lack of depth) and of the two unusual systems, it was Prandelli’s that was more impressive.
You don’t get many formation battles like this. Spain played with three forwards, none of which played high up against the Italian defence, and instead tried to find gaps between the lines. Italy were actually happy to allow Andres Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva space in that zone – they were dealt with by the defence, while the three-man Italian midfield focused their attention on the three Spanish midfielders.
Despite the midfield containing some of the best passers in the world, this zone was relatively uninteresting. It was three versus three, with little rotation, movement or forward thrust from either side.
On the flanks, there was a battle between the Italian wing-backs and the Spanish full-backs – on paper Spain could have outnumbered Italy down the sides, but because Silva and Iniesta came inside and were dealt with by the Italian back three, it was actually a simple 1 v 1 situation. As is generally the case in these clashes, the wing-backs dominated the full-backs, able to be braver with their positioning, and more mobile as a whole.
Finally, Spain had no spare man at the back. Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli swapped around but always looked to work the channels, getting the ball in wide positions, and dragging the Spanish centre-backs out of position before trying to storm past them.
Italy with the ball
Italy may have had only 35% possession, but they caused Spain problems when they had the ball. Spain’s pressing throughout the game was poor, and although pressure often started high up the pitch, it didn’t continue throughout the side.
The main problem, from the Spanish point of view, was on the flanks. Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva could pressure the Italian defence 3 v 3, which was easy and when done as a unit, forced Italy into hurried passes forward. But the defenders could play simple balls out to the wing-backs, Christian Maggio and Giaccherini. With Iniesta and Silva higher up, the players closing down the wing-backs should have been the Spanish full-backs, Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa. But often they were too deep, and Italy were allowed too much time on the ball.
At one point, Xavi Hernandez was shouting at Arbeloa to press Giaccherini, but the Spanish full-backs were reluctant to do so, as they were also supposed to be providing cover at the back. If they’d moved up and effectively become wing-backs themselves, they would have left an unwanted 2 v 2 situation at the back, and with Cassano and Balotelli eagerly working the wide zones (particularly the space in behind Arbeloa), this would have been too risky. Instead, they stayed at home, and Italy could pass the ball easily across the back five, and then into the middle for Pirlo, who was often closed down quickly. He looked to get the ball to Balotelli and Cassano, while further long passes came from De Rossi, who hit some good diagonals. Pirlo looked for the forwards, De Rossi looked for the wing-backs.
Spain with the ball
Here, there were the expected problems. As mentioned in the preview, del Bosque is desperate to field as many playmakers as possible, but when he fields so many, Spain become slow, predictable and congested in the centre of the pitch. Without going over old ground, Spain play better when at least one player is either stretching the play laterally, or providing depth with forward runs. Preferably, one of each.
It’s difficult to know which Spain needed more. On one hand, Spain lacked width: Alba can provide that from left-back, especially against sides that defend with two banks of four (when the opposition full-backs get sucked inside by the Silva and Iniesta, and the opposition wide midfielders get drawn into the midfield battle). Here, however, the Italian wing-backs simply had to track the Spain full-backs, so neither Alba nor Arbeloa had a great attacking impact on the game. Spain should have stretched Italy’s back three with width from higher up, attempting to drag out of position.
On the other, the lack of verticality was shocking – Spain were content to play in front of Italy, and despite the fact they often worked the ball into a position between the lines, the next pass was never available, as no-one was making a run in behind. Many of Spain’s attempts were blocked, as they shot without trying to get past the Italian back three.
Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were brave with their positioning and aggressive with their tackling, happy to close down Iniesta and Silva quickly. De Rossi stayed behind and swept up – sometimes he was rash with his tackling, but he read the game excellently. In theory, Italy should have been nervous at the back with no spare man – but then with Spain’s ‘forwards’ always making runs into midfield to make a 4 v 3 in that zone, Italy usually did have a spare man.
One incident involving Silva summed it up – a pass was fired into his feet, and he would have had a clear sight of goal had he turned quickly. Instead, he played a backwards pass, and Italy had time to get back into shape. It’s entirely possible to have success with a false nine, but the idea of a false nine is to open up space for others to run into. If the verticality isn’t provided from the flanks (or deep from midfield), then you are simply playing another midfielder and not offering a goal threat.
Silva and Fabregas both took up the false nine position at points in the first half. Although Fabregas is the more direct player and therefore the best makeshift forward, it was Silva who was more suited to the role…because it meant Fabregas played deeper, and then provided the verticality. When Silva was the false nine and came deep, Fabregas pushed on. When Fabregas was the false nine and came deep, Silva stayed deep too. Those two would combine for the Spanish goal later, and support this theory – but it was actually Iniesta who was the biggest goal threat, constantly dribbling past opponents towards goal.
Spain improved at the start of the second period, with quicker passing and more movement. Xavi moved higher up the pitch and became more of a number ten, rather than dropping back to replicate the role being played by Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso. Spain had more shots from long-range, though no clear-cut chances.
Maybe Spain were trying to recreate their pattern at the World Cup – play cautiously in the first half, retain the ball, tire the opposition, then pounce in the second half. That generally came after a substitution, though, and despite Spain’s problems, del Bosque didn’t turn to his bench.
But this was a different situation from at the World Cup. In South Africa, del Bosque could afford to be patient because there was little danger of conceding. Here, without Carles Puyol, Spain weren’t so secure. Balotelli and Cassano’s movement was excellent, and their hunger to win individual battles was highly impressive. Balotelli’s final action before being removed was to beat Sergio Ramos and storm into the box for a great chance – but he took too long, and Ramos got back to tackle.
Antonio Di Natale seemed like an obvious option. This is a striker who is used to playing upfront in a 3-5-2ish system (it’s more like 3-5-1-1) with Udinese, a striker who loves working the channels and making clever runs in behind the defence. He replaced Balotelli, and the switch worked almost immediately as Di Natale put Italy 1-0 up, after some brilliant midfield invention from Pirlo, maybe the only true creativity we saw from the six central midfielders.
Spain responded immediately with a goal that showed Spain did know how to play the false nine system, with Silva moving towards play, Fabregas running in behind, and that combination unlocking the Italian backline.
Then del Bosque finally introduced some width, with Jesus Navas out wide. But he chose to remove Silva – and so, frustratingly, this meant Fabregas became the (more permanent) false nine, moving towards the ball again. Navas is a player who stretches laterally rather than vertically, and Spain seemed to lose their forward thrust immediately.
Then del Bosque brought on a natural striker, Fernando Torres, for Fabregas. Torres’ natural game – whatever one thinks of his current form – is to run in behind, and he did so almost immediately, going one-on-one with Gigi Buffon and forcing the goalkeeper into a clever tackle. Next, he made a clever run towards the right of the pitch in behind the defence, but chose the wrong passing option. Then, a couple of minutes later, he played a one-two with Xavi, was through against Buffon, but chipped over the bar. His finishing was poor, but his natural centre-forward running gave another dimension to Spain’s attack. They’d waited nearly 75 minutes to test Italy’s offside trap – it turned out, it wasn’t very good – and Spain had some very fine chances to win the game.
Italy had a glorious chance too. Sebastian Giovinco replaced Cassano and played deeper between the lines – turning Italy into a 3-5-1-1 system (much like Di Natale is used to at Udinese). Giovinco’s chip to Di Natale on the stretch could have produced a winner, and put simply, better finishing from either centre-forward would have won the game.
Italy tired late on, and Prandelli’s only mistake was not introducing Antonio Nocerino sooner – his energy would have helped Italy compete in midfield, as they risked losing the game late on.
The game finished as a draw, but Prandelli’s tactics worked better than del Bosque’s. Italy coped well at the back, won the battles down the flanks, and both strikers looked dangerous in the channels. Spain lacked verticality and penetration, and their full-backs were unable to stretch the play. They still need variety in their attack, and del Bosque seems to be using six players to do the job of roughly four – although the goal demonstrated the value of playing with a false nine.
Italy performed extremely well across the pitch, and Prandelli will surely stick with this 3-5-2 for Italy’s next match, against Croatia in Poznan on Thursday.