Spain 4-0 Italy: Spain win Euro 2012
Spain produced by far their best performance of Euro 2012, and won the final with ease.
Both teams were as expected. Vicente del Bosque made a single change – Cesc Fabregas returned upfront in place of Alvaro Negredo.
Cesare Prandelli also made one change, bringing back Ignazio Abate at right-back, with Federico Balzaretti dropping to the bench. Giorgio Chiellini continued at left-back, although didn’t last long before Balzaretti replaced him.
Spain were the better side by a considerable distance. They didn’t settle for mere dominance of possession, and instead attacked with speed and determination to produce a wonderful display of football.
This was an interesting challenge for Spain – usually, they’re assured of winning the midfield battle, but here they encountered an Italian side that used four central midfielders and attempted to compete in that zone. Del Bosque was concerned about the pure numbers game in midfield, and asked Andres Iniesta and David Silva to help out.
Iniesta started on the right and Silva on the left, the opposite to usual – although they switched after around ten minutes. But this wasn’t particularly important – what was more vital was their positioning and movement. In the defensive phase of play, they formed a second bank of four with Xavi Hernandez clearly ahead of them, but they quickly drifted into the centre of the pitch and effectively became the fourth and fifth central midfielders either side of Andrea Pirlo, meaning Spain were outnumbering Italy and could play around them.
That wasn’t enough, of course, and the most important factor was the sheer speed of Spain’s passing moves, which was unlike anything they’ve done previously in this tournament. It was superb one-touch football, combined with more movement than usual. Riccardo Montolivo, who had broken up Germany’s rhythm so effectively in the semi-final, couldn’t get close to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, and Italy’s diamond was dragged around as they attempted to close down.
Italy’s pressing was much less effective than Portugal’s pressing against Spain in the semi-final – maybe as the numbers game was more complex – Italy had 4 v 3, that turned into 4 v 5 and players seemed unsure of their responsibilities. Portugal had pressed 3 v 3, and each player had a clear opponent to mark.
False (?) nine
Ahead of the midfielders was another, Fabregas. He’s clearly not a natural forward, but it might actually be inappropriate to label him a false nine here – his positioning was that of a classic centre-forward, his runs were that of a classic centre-forward, and he rarely dropped deep into the midfield zone. His clever link-up play was vital, of course, but Fabregas was really simply playing as a striker, motoring towards goal and working the channels excellently. He played much higher up than in the previous meeting between the sides, and received the ball much less frequently.
His movement for the opening goal was tremendous, getting in behind the defence and then cutting the ball back to Silva. Iniesta – Fabregas – Silva was the combination – the front three. All in central positions, but all playing different roles in the move – previously, all three would have been getting into a position to play the first pass.
Xavi v Pirlo
Just behind Fabregas was Xavi, who had an excellent game. In the previous meeting between the sides, Xavi was relatively anonymous, playing too deep and broadly in the same role as Busquets and Alonso. His pressing of Pirlo was also inconsistent.
Here he was much better – he stayed high when Italy had the ball, and Spain often looked like 4-4-2 when out of possession, as Xavi made sure Pirlo couldn’t drop deep unmarked. When Spain won the ball, Xavi was on hand to provide a clear option for a forward pass, drifting either side of Pirlo into space, and attempting through-balls.
Italy tried to get around this problem by dropping Daniele de Rossi deeper to free up Pirlo, and often de Rossi moved between the centre-backs before spraying long passes forward. He can do that job, but really Italy wanted Pirlo playing the diagonals – his only long ball towards Balotelli, a constant tactic against England, came when a wayward pass from Alonso gifted him possession (away from Xavi, for once). In all, he had to work in much deeper zones than in the 1-1.
The midfield was the first battlezone, the second was the area involving the Spanish full-backs – and del Bosque’s side were superior in this area, too. Out wide, Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba were completely free – which was predictable, with no direct opponent, but as the Italian midfield became compressed and disorganised as they ran around trying to press Spain, the out-balls were even more obvious.
Arbeloa had plenty of freedom because de Rossi was playing deep and central to help out Pirlo, so there was often no-one on that. There was the problem that Antonio Cassano was looking to make runs in behind, and Gerard Pique had a couple of nervous moments when dealing with him 1 v 1 in wider positions (Pique picked up a yellow card for a clumsy tackle from behind), but Arbeloa was brave with his positioning, as he has been throughout this tournament. Long diagonals always found him in space and switched the angle of the attack, and as Italy had to shuffle over to the opposite side of the pitch, gaps appeared for the midfielders to play through. The first goal was a fine example of this – Silva scored moments after a long Alonso diagonal from left to right.
On the opposite side, Alba was less free because Claudio Marchisio was wider than de Rossi, and shuttled out to that side quickly, but the new Barcelona left-back was more direct and purposeful on the ball. He has arguably been Spain’s most important player (separating ‘most important’ from ‘best’, though he’s not far off in that category either) because of the verticality he’s offered throughout this tournament. Spain couldn’t have scored their second goal without him – he provided the finish, but more importantly, provided a burst of sheer speed which took him clear of three Italians to get the ball from Xavi. No-one else in the side would have made that run, and that immediacy is vital to complement Spain’s tiki-taka.
This was more about Spain being brilliant than Italy being poor. But what went wrong for Prandelli’s side? There were two main issues – first, they simply couldn’t compete in the midfield zone, both in terms of possession and (maybe more surprisingly) mobility. Second, they couldn’t get the ball to the forwards quickly enough, mainly because of Pirlo being closed down.
Italy’s best chance of success was when the full-backs overlapped. Both Abate and Chiellini got forward well, and when Chiellini was forced off and replaced by Balzaretti, it didn’t seem a particularly bad thing for Italy – it gave them more natural drive down the left flank, and Balzaretti delivered a dangerous cross towards Balotelli – Casillas flapped at it.
Things are always clearer with hindsight, but perhaps Prandelli would have been better shifting to 3-5-2 when Balzaretti was introduced. That was the formation Italy used successfully against Spain in the opening game, and with de Rossi practically dropping in and playing as a centre-back anyway at times (he was the third centre-back in the 1-1), it would have made sense. The full-backs, Abate and Balzaretti, could have moved forward and pushed back Alba and Arbeloa and stopped Spain playing the ball out to the flanks so easily. It almost certainly wouldn’t have made a difference to Spain’s victory – but it would have been interesting to see, and after Prandelli said Italy were capable of switching to 3-5-2 midway through a game, he could have given it a go, to make del Bosque and Spain think.
At 2-0 down, Prandelli had to change things. His first substitute was the logical option – Antonio di Natale was introduced in place of Cassano, told to test the Spanish offside line, having scored the opener in the 1-1. He had Italy’s best chance of the second half, getting the ball level with the Spanish defensive line from a superb Montolivo pass, forcing Casillas into action.
But Prandelli’s third change (having been forced to introduce Balzaretti in the first half) turned out to be fatal. Montolivo was tired having closed down to little effect, so Motta replaced him…but he only lasted five minutes before going off with a hamstring injury. Can Prandelli be criticised for using his third substitute so early? Maybe – but he needed to make alterations, and such an immediate blow is extremely rare.
Now Italy were down to ten men – not only that, but they’d lost their ‘forward destroyer’, man whose job was winning the ball. Italy weren’t going to see much more of the ball, and weren’t going to stand a chance at coming back from 2-0 down. Jose Mourinho showed the way to play a 4-3-2 formation in the Milan derby a couple of years ago, but that relied on the opposition having to come forward.
Spain have been aesthetically frustrating throughout this tournament with their lack of attacking intent – too often, even at 0-0, they’ve been content to play keep-ball and turned down opportunities to penetrate the opposition defence. It would have been classic del Bosque to replace his front three with ball-players, like Santi Cazorla or Javi Martinez.
But instead, the forward trio were replaced with even more attacking players – Pedro Rodriguez, Fernando Torres and Juan Mata. They provided fresh energy and determination upfront – Torres and Mata grabbed a goal each, Pedro missed an easy chance (albeit from an offside position). Italy were outnumbered, exhausted and probably a little embarrassed. The contest was over long before the final whistle.
Spain narrowed their wide midfielders to win the numbers game in the centre, then advanced the full-backs to stretch the play. That’s what they usually do, of course, but here it was combined with rapid passing and constant runs in behind the defence. It was almost unstoppable, and the beauty of their first two goals (when the game was proper contest, at 11 v 11) was the difference in style. Silva’s goal came after 14 passes, Alba’s after only 4. Silva’s goal arrived after 36 seconds of possession, Alba’s after just 13. Spain finally found the right balance, mixing possession with penetration.
Del Bosque will be delighted that this victory was achieved with with six passing midfielders in conjunction with a back four. Before the tournament that seemed impossible, as Spain appeared to need more directness from the flanks and a more direct centre-forward. In terms of personnel, he was justified in returning to the XI that started the 1-1 – and he’ll be particularly delighted that Silva got the goal, as del Bosque had gone to great lengths to include him in the side, at the cost of attacking variety.
But it was notable that both Iniesta and Silva got into the box more, and that Fabregas was making runs in behind the defence. Alba, meanwhile, provided a superb display to provide directness from wide, his most impressive display of an excellent tournament. Ultimately, you do need off-the-ball runs and movement in behind the defence, which wasn’t forthcoming for long periods throughout this competition. Because of that, Spain earned a slightly unfair tag of being ‘boring’ before tonight, but there was a large element of frustration in those allegations – people wanted Spain doing more; passing more rapidly, penetrating more readily. A lot of the negativity was actually rooted in optimism – that Spain were capable of more than pure tiki-taka. They proved tonight that they were – this was as impressive a performance as you’ll ever see in an international final.
Spain’s first two goals provided their crowning moments – pieces of pure footballing brilliance that also sum up their playing style. Every great side needs a ’shortcut’ – people don’t remember the entirety of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup campaign, but they remember Carlos Alberto’s goal, and that summarises Brazil’s brilliance. Silva and Alba’s goals provide that microcosm. As del Bosque is the first to point out, Spain’s success has “foundations in many things – in the structure of our football, in the academies, and in better coaches.” The goals weren’t typical 2012 Spain, but they were certainly typical tiki-taka.