England v Italy preview
After three one-sided quarter-finals, this should be a much tighter, tenser tactical battle.
Roy Hodgson will name a standard 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 formation, and although there’s a chance that a more direct winger could start on the flanks, it’s probable that he’ll stick with the starting XI that overcame Ukraine in the final group game.
Cesare Prandelli’s formation is much less clear. Having used a 3-5-2 for Italy’s opening two games against Spain and Croatia, he switched to a 4-4-2 diamond for the win over Ireland.
Which formation will Prandelli play here? Prandelli has been keen to keep his starting shape a secret throughout the competition. First, he was annoyed that Italian journalists leaked his plan to switch to the diamond against Ireland. Then, he told off Andrea Barzagli in a press conference, when the Juventus defender told the media that Italy would “defend with four defenders”. Could this be an elaborate hoax, with Italy trying to trick Hodgson?
It’s not impossible, but it seems much more likely that Italy will play the diamond. Of course, they could switch between the formations within the match, as Daniele De Rossi played at centre-back in a back three, then in central midfield in a diamond. “We used Daniele De Rossi at centre-back in emergency situations, when using the three-man defence,” says Prandelli. “Now he is returning to midfield because we need his quality there.”
The 3-5-2 arguably makes more sense in theory – it would allow a spare man at the back. But Italy were caught out with two-versus-one situations down the flanks against Croatia, and the system worked better against a Spanish side that had no proper wingers (or striker).
England will attack with width, and while the diamond doesn’t offer great protection for the full-backs, it should be able to shift laterally across the pitch to close down the England full-backs – who generally only attack one at a time. (With the diamond sliding from side to side, crossfield balls and switching the point of attack is theoretically the right approach for England, but unlikely unless Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson play higher up.)
A more telling sign will be the selections of the wide defenders. For a back three Prandelli prefers natural wing-backs Christian Maggio and Emanuele Giaccherini, for a back four he wants Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti. Prandelli has been intelligent in recognising the differences between playing as full-back and playing as wing-back, and has changed players accordingly.
Maggio is a fine wing-back for Napoli, but uncomfortable as a full-back. Giaccherini is a winger and can adapt to playing at wing-back, but full-back is too deep for him. As it happens, despite being more comfortable in a four, Abate and Balzaretti are better at going forward themselves, so England must attack them.
The other decision for Prandelli to make is at the top of the diamond. Thiago Motta played that role against Ireland, but is an injury doubt and Riccardo Montolivo may take his place. This position is a very interesting role within the context of the rest of the diamond, especially when Motta, more of a holding midfielder, plays. This man isn’t playing as a traditional Italian trequartista (like, for example, Francesco Totti). He isn’t directly connecting the midfield and attack. Instead, they tend to drop back into deeper positions and create space for the two shuttlers on the sides of the diamond to break into, while Pirlo also moves forward to become Italy’s true playmaker.
In the game against Ireland, Motta passed to Pirlo more frequently than any other player, showing that the Juventus man is the main creative threat despite being positioned twenty yards deeper.
Upfront, Mario Balotelli will probably start rather than Antonio Di Natale.
For England, the first seven places in the side are assured – the goalkeeper, back four and two central midfielders have started all three games so far, and are set in stone. Ahead of that, Wayne Rooney will also play and Danny Welbeck is highly likely to be the main striker.
On the wings, there are question marks. Whichever way Italy play, they’ll be most vulnerable down the sides of the pitch – either England can create two-versus-one situations against the wing-backs in a 3-5-2, or (more likely) they can get their wingers to take on the full-backs, who will lack protection.
Hodgson likes James Milner because of his defensive awareness, and because England’s wide midfielders might get sucked inside to cope against Italy’s four central midfielders, Milner is well-suited to this game. Looking at the graphic above, he might be asked to pick up De Rossi. On the other side, Ashley Young has been disappointing so far, and because he tends to drift inside with the ball, Hodgson might be concerned he doesn’t have a direct winger to take advantage of Italy’s weaknesses on the flanks. Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will, in all probability, be substitutes – but either would be a great addition to the side, in order to stretch the play.
If Milner does pick up De Rossi, with Gerrard and Parker dealing with Montolivo (or Motta) and Marchisio, plus Rooney dropping back on Pirlo, the left-winger might be the out-ball.
Possession and Pirlo
Italy will dominate possession.They will flood the centre of the pitch with four good ball-players, and around 60%-40% is realistic. For their part, England’s approach without the ball will be particularly interesting. Hodgson insists on strict zone play, so Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker won’t be dragged around too much – but Italy’s midfield layout is peculiar, as Montolivo (or Motta) is essentially a decoy, with Marchisio looking to slide forward to the edge of the box, De Rossi powerfully storming forward, and Pirlo lurking in deeper positions. England could simply be outnumbered in that zone if Gerrard and Parker try to close down, but could allow Pirlo too much time if they don’t (which is far more likely).
This means Rooney will probably be asked to drop back on Pirlo and help out in the midfield zone, and Pirlo’s long distribution into the channels is very dangerous. The trouble with playing against Italy (as Spain demonstrated) is that opponents are keen to get their full-backs forward to capitalise on Italy’s weakness on the flanks – but this leaves them vulnerable to Cassano and Balotelli working the channels and dragging the centre-backs wide. If those get a couple of yards of space in wide positions, Pirlo will find them with diagonal balls.
Finally, set-pieces and crosses might be England’s best chance of scoring. Italy are the smallest squad at this tournament (although they’ll be taller than in previous matches) while Gerrard has been in superb crossing form when moving out to the right, having assisted goals for Joleon Lescott, Andy Carroll and Wayne Rooney from that flank.
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