Euro 2012 final: Spain v Italy preview
Of the 30 games at Euro 2012 so far, the 1-1 draw between these two countries in the first game of Group C was probably the most fascinating in a tactical sense. A back three battled against a false nine – not a formation match-up you see very regularly.
Unfortunately, we’re unlikely to see such a contest this time around, now Italy have moved away from a 3-5-2 to a midfield diamond. But then again, the diamond is also unique in this tournament – and besides, it gives us an entirely different tactical battle.
It’s odd that these two managers should produce interesting strategic battles. Both are fine coaches, but neither are particularly keen tacticians.
Vicente del Bosque is primarily an organiser, a communicator and a father figure. His talents shouldn’t be underestimated – he’s won the World Cup, and did so because of some excellent strategic moves – but he is more concerned with creating a harmonious dressing room, and making the most of Spain’s cohesive footballing identity. According to him, Spain’s success has “foundations in many things – in the structure of our football, in the academies, and in better coaches.” He downaplays his own role: “When the players are good, the manager is good.” It’s his usual modesty, and it’s partly to deceive the opposition. But it’s also partly true.
Prandelli is not dissimilar. He focuses upon getting his side to play a positive, attractive brand of football and avoids game-to-game switches based around the opponent. Granted, he’s changed formation completely from a 3-5-2 to a diamond in this competition, but in natural tactical terms, moving away from a three-man defence for the Ireland game was an unconventional move. The 3-5-2 thrives against a 4-4-2 – whereas Italy’s diamond had problems against it, particularly down the flanks. Listen to why Prandelli changed formation – “We maintained a certain balance over the last few games…the team that opened the tournament had a different approach, but over time we found fitness and the balance we had been looking for, so rediscovered the certainty we had lost before the competition” – and it’s all about his own players being comfortable, rather than because of the challenge of specific opponents.
But this is a challenge for Prandelli – Spain are both the favourites and the more predictable side. The tactical battle is all about how Prandelli can stop Spain, and exploit their weakness – he’s spoken at length about this in pre-match press conferences.
Spain formation & selection
To a certain extent, it’s the same as always. The first nine names on the teamsheet are unquestionable (despite some reports Xavi could be dropped) but the balance and feel of the side changes according to the names of the centre-forward and the right-sided attacking midfielder.
The centre-forward – if you can call him that – seems likely to be Cesc Fabregas. You can take it as a process of elimination – Fernando Llorente hasn’t featured yet, Fernando Torres hasn’t convinced, Alvaro Negredo was invisible against Portugal – but it’s probably more accurate to look at the midfield battle. In basic terms Italy have a 4 v 3 in that zone, and having struggled to cope with Andrea Pirlo when it was a 3 v 3, del Bosque will want the extra midfielder to compete there, and possibly to put direct pressure upon Pirlo.
The right-midfielder will, in all probability, be David Silva. He’s started all five games, but so frequently the introduction of a proper winger, Jesus Navas, has made Spain more dangerous. The previous meeting against Italy was a fine example – OK, it was against a three-man defence, but with Italy’s full-backs likely to lack protection from ahead here, a natural wide player would stretch the play and create gaps for others. Silva will probably start the game but not finish it.
Italy formation and selection
Will Prandelli consider moving back to the 3-5-2? “In all honesty, no, I haven’t considered it,” he says. “We maintained a certain balance over the last few games, although we understood that during the match we can switch to a 3-5-2 if we want to.” That settles that.
Giorgio Chiellini should continue at left-back alongside his Juventus centre-back colleagues, and the real question is on the other side. Ignazio Abate is the natural option, but might not be fit. Christian Maggio is naturally right-sided, but is more of a wing-back than a full-back, so Federico Balzaretti is more likely to continue – he played well there against Germany, though is probably the weakest of the three players going forward from that flank, as he’s played at left-back for the past few years.
Elsewhere the only slight question is at the top of the diamond. Thiago Motta did well against Spain in the first game, but lost his place to Riccardo Montolivo because of injury. There’s no reason he should get it back – Montolivo’s forward-playing destroyer role worked brilliantly against Germany, although this drains his energy, which means Motta has a good chance of replacing him midway through the game.
Spain will do their usual – relentless ball retention, moving it quickly between players, but rarely moving it forward with any speed. They’ll attempt to tire Italy in the first half, before attempting the breakthrough with greater penetration after half-time. It always feels like del Bosque would be happy with a 0-0 at the break (even against much weaker sides), safe in the knowledge Spain will have conserved energy, and have more options from the bench.
Italy’s approach is more uncertain. Prandelli says Italy are “not so arrogant as to say we’ll control the game from start to finish,” and accepts that “Spain will go into the game as favourites.” Italy are likely to take a hybrid approach, not seeking to dominate possession wholly, but trying to minimise Spain’s dominance to frustrate them. When Spain do have long periods on the ball, Italy are likely to break forward quickly through the forwards. “Our tactical approach will be positive and attacking, where the first objective is to close space to get the ball back. Obviously where we try to win back possession will depend on our attitude and Spain’s performance,” Prandelli states.
Key battlezone 1 – the midfield zone
Spain’s usual area of strength is in midfield, but del Bosque will be concerned about being outnumbered in that zone. As a result, expect to see others playing drifting there – all three attackers are likely to drop even deeper than usual to make up the numbers. This means Spain will lack width high up the pitch, and who will provide runs in behind Penetration will be an afterthought.
Prandelli is looking to “create superiority in midfield” and knows that “the other midfielders work in such a way as to allow Pirlo to control the midfield.” This probably means that Prandelli wants Daniele de Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo to push back Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, creating space for Pirlo to dictate the game from. Getting him free is the key, and if de Rossi has to drop in and allow Pirlo forward, Italy will use that approach too.
Key battlezone 2 – the advance of the Spanish full-backs, and the space in behind
Del Bosque will need to make the most of the full-backs’ freedom. This is a tricky battle, because the more the full-backs advance, the more Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano will drift wide (Pirlo’s diagonals will find them) and drag the centre-backs out of position. Therefore, moving only one full-back at a time would make sense. Jordi Alba could push forward more permanently and attack down the left, leaving Alvaro Arbeloa to effectively form a back three, keeping a spare man.
Against Spain in the first match, and then again against Germany after they went 1-0 up, the Italians forwards took up very wide positions. They’ll probably look to block off a simple pass to the full-backs, but not actually track them – simply making them nervous about moving forward. Then, when Italy win possession, Balotelli and Cassano should be in a position to break quickly into the channels.
A related tactic against Spain was how Italy looked to attack the space to the side of, and in behind, Gerard Pique when Arbeloa was high up the pitch. Both strikers moved more to the left of the pitch than to the right; one would drop deep and try to bring Pique out, then the other would sprint in behind. Their first goal against Germany was vaguely similar – it depended upon the German right-back being dragged up the pitch (Silva must watch Chiellini), then one centre-back being dragged towards Cassano on the left, and Balotelli headed in. Despite the fact the ball won’t spend much time there, that zone in and around Pique could be the most important on the pitch.