Italy 2-1 Mexico: Italy excel down the left flank
Italy dominated for the majority of the match, and Mario Balotelli was a fitting matchwinner.
Cesare Prandelli selected a 4-3-2-1 system, using Juventus duo Claudio Marchisio and Emanuele Giaccherini behind lone striker Balotelli.
Mexico coach Jose Manuel de la Torre used a standard 4-2-3-1 system, playing Giovani dos Santos behind Javier Hernandez.
Mexico had some bright moments, particularly through the lively Dos Santos – but Italy were the better side, and created more goalscoring opportunities.
Both pass out from the back
An obvious feature in the first half was both sides’ commitment to technical football – both wanted to pass the ball through the defence from goal kicks, and while this often allowed the sides to get the ball to their deep-lying playmaker – Andrea Pirlo and Gerardo Torrado – both sides conceded possession cheaply in the first half.
Francisco Rodriguez got away with a terrible lateral pass straight to Balotelli’s feet in the opening minutes – and while this was an exaggerated example of the problem, Italy pressed intelligently high up the pitch, often winning possession when Mexico’s defenders tried to play the ball forward into the centre of midfield, a zone where Italy had lots of players.
The crucial mistake came at the other end, however. Andrea Barzagli was caught dawdling in possession – he was challenged by Dos Santos, who won the penalty for Hernandez’s equaliser.
Dos Santos appears to save his best football for international tournaments, and he was a constant force in this game. His lateral movement was very dangerous, particularly towards the left, from where he created an early chance for Andres Guardado. Italy’s centre-backs attempted to stick tight to the Mexican forwards, but Chiellini struggled against Dos Santos’ pace and movement.
This was Pirlo’s 100th appearance for Italy, and it was fitting that he played such a crucial role in the victory. In the opening moments, Hernandez and Dos Santos dropped back to keep Mexico compact and Pirlo had relatively little time on the ball, but Prandelli’s emphasis upon midfield rotation meant he moved into surprisingly advanced positions at times, usually with Daniele De Rossi dropping in.
Pirlo had a penalty shout at an early stage when he motored forward (in advance of De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo) to the edge of the box, and also curled in a trademark free-kick to open the scoring – but much of his work was deep in midfield. Once the tempo of the game dropped, and Mexico’s front two weren’t so quick to get goalside of him, he found space to send a succession of excellent passes out to the flank – there was a first-time, blind pass into the pathof Ignazio Abate that was particularly impressive.
His pinpoint distribution encouraged the Italy full-backs into attacking positions, and Montolivo – who has often played in a Pirlo-esque role for Milan this season – also played some fine passes out wide.
The most interesting feature of Italy’s strategy was the two men playing behind Balotelli. Giaccherini and Marchisio are completely different players – one a versatile, tactically intelligent jack-of-all-trades often fielded in wide roles, the other a straightforward, attack-minded central midfielder. It was interesting to see how the duo interpreted their roles very differently.
There was a similarity in some of their movement – in the early stages, both attempted to get in advance of Balotelli when the striker received possession, and both tried to arrive late in the box to become a goalscoring threat from crosses and cut-backs.
Giaccherini performed considerably better than Marchisio, however, primarily because there was more variety and unpredictability in his movement. Whereas Marchisio remained centrally and found it difficult to receive forward passes, Giaccherini went wandering out towards the flank, often collecting the ball in behind Mexico right-back Gerardo Flores. His combinations with Montolivo were good throughout the game – an early chance they created for Balotelli showed that promise.
Giaccherini’s wider positioning meant Mattia De Sciglio could become an extremely dangerous attacking threat from left-back. Italy essentially had a two-versus-two on the left, with Flores afraid to venture forward, and De Sciglio in a battle of stamina against Javier Aquino, who isn’t the most defensively willing wide midfielder.
On the other flank, Marchisio’s narrowness meant Abate was a more sporadic attacking force – he often found himself outnumbered down that flank – and with Andres Guardado defensively solid following a season often spent at left-back for Valencia, Carlos Salcido was generally free (although he twice appeared surprised by this freedom, clearing left-wing crosses poorly when under absolutely no pressure).
A key factor in Italy’s victory was the role of Mario Balotelli. From the outset he was clearly in the mood – leading the pressing from the front, and also shooting four times within the opening 15 minutes. The one disappointing feature of his game was his single-mindedness – he made little attempt to link play and create opportunities for Giaccherini and Marchisio, who frequently ran in advance of him. However, he was a constant goal threat – and his second half performance, in particular, justified his attitude.
Interestingly, Balotelli’s game – and the Mexico centre-backs’ strategy against him – varied hugely before and after half-time. In the first period, the Mexico centre-backs stayed in position as Balotelli kept coming short and dropping into deep positions, where he often spun and found space to shoot from range. This happened repeatedly, and (possibly after some half-time instructions from De La Torre), Rodriguez and Hector Moreno adapted.
Now, they attempted to stick much tigher. Moreno was booked early into the second half when he got too tight and dived in, and Rodriguez had similar problems. Later, Moreno was fortunate not to be dismissed when hauling down Balotelli as the Milan forward tried to reach Pirlo’s ball over the top (which was reminiscent of a few moves from Euro 2012).
Balotelli was dangerous because he had the ability to move either way – to drop towards play or spin in behind. In those situations, centre-backs find the unpredictability tough to play against: if they get tight, they can be outsprinted, but if they back off, the players can get time in deeper zones. This was similar to when Benfica’s Lima destroyed former club Braga because of that variety last season, and while it’s a very simple concept, strikers who can outfox centre-backs in two separate ways are highly dangerous.
Balotelli eventually scored the winner after outmuscling the centre-backs.
There was a single interesting substitution from either coach. First, De La Torre removed right-winger Aquino, introducing Hiram Mier at right-back, and pushing Flores forward to the right of midfield. Clearly, this substitution was a reaction to De Sciglio’s constant runs from left-back, and Giaccherini’s movement troubling Flores, and sums up how dangerous Italy were down that side.
Prandelli removed the underwhelming Marchisio and introduced Alessio Cerci. The Torino man is a very different type of player to Marchisio – he’s a winger who dribbles at speed and takes on full-backs, and Prandelli was possibly trying to recreate Giaccherini’s movement on the other flank – turning Italy into a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-3-2-1.
There were three key factors in Italy’s victory: Pirlo’s influence from deep, Balotelli’s movement in either direction, and Giaccherini’s drifts to the flank giving De Sciglio encouragement to get forward past Aquino. Italy were particularly good when they combined two of these areas of strength, with Montolivo often facilitating passing between those three zones.
Mexico had moments of promise through Dos Santos, but he and Hernandez faded from view – maybe because they were determined to drop back and keep Mexico compact, so they weren’t always in an ideal position to play to their strengths – particularly true for Hernandez, rather than Dos Santos.
Italy 2-1 Mexico: Italy excel down the left flank