Spain 0-0 Italy: a lopsided tactical battle but an evenly-balanced game

June 28, 2013

The starting line-ups

Spain progressed on penalties after an intriguing stalemate.

Vicente Del Bosque recalled Fernando Torres and David Silva to play in the front three.

Cesare Prandelli was without Mario Balotelli and Ignazio Abate through injury, and Riccardo Montolivo wasn’t 100% fit. Therefore, he switched to a 3-4-2-1ish formation, using an all-Juventus backline and introducing Alberto Gilardino upfront.

This was a long, drawn-out match of many phases – Italy dominated the opening, the second half was more even, then Spain were the better side in extra-time.

Italy dominate opening

Italy’s return to a three-man defence was a shift back to the system that produced a draw between these two sides in the group stage of Euro 2012, although there were a variety of other factors that prompted Prandelli to use this formation, including the loss of Abate – Christian Maggio is much more comfortable as a wing-back, and was a key player throughout this game.

Rather than the formation battle providing particular interest at the start of the match, however, the key was both sides’ attitude without the ball. Italy didn’t sit deep close to the edge of the box, and instead got tight to Spain in midfield – similar to Nigeria’s approach against the world champions.

Spain’s strategy was more confusing. They didn’t seem entirely certain whether or not to press Italy at goal-kicks, but in open play generally stood off the centre-backs and allowed Italy to bring the ball out from the back. When they did press, however, Spain often found their midfield bypassed quickly, and Italy were able to construct quick counter-attacks, transferring the ball forward immediately, often through the wide players.

Lopsidedness

An obvious feature of the first half was the game’s lopsidedness, primarily because Jordi Alba is a significantly greater attacking threat than Alvaro Arbeloa. Indeed, before this match Alba could probably be considered Spain’s standout performer in the Confederations Cup along with Andres Iniesta – he was the key player against both Uruguay and Nigeria.

Prandelli reacted to this challenge by using his two attacking midfielders in very different ways – although they were arguably simply playing their natural roles, which was why it worked so effectively. Antonio Candreva drifted towards the right and caused Alba problems, whereas Marchisio stood off and sat closer to Xavi Hernandez in the midfield zone.

Arbeloa was the spare player, and while this is becoming increasingly common in Spain’s tournament matches (see how France unsuccessfully left him free and played two right-backs against Alba), Spain didn’t play the ball to him, even when he was unmarked with oceans of space ahead of him. Xavi, in particular, seems reluctant to pass to him.

Italy right

Anyway, whereas the use of Candreva and Maggio on the right could have been an attempt to defend against Alba, Italy did the opposite – they attacked him, not only keeping him in defensive positions, but also providing a real goalscoring threat from that flank.

Whereas Pedro Rodriguez was staying wide on the right, sometimes dragging Giorgio Chiellini across but also stifling Emanuele Giaccherini’s attempts to get forward, Silva stayed more central which allowed Maggio to charge forward to create 2 v 1 situations against Alba. He motored down the touchline, whereas Candreva tried to make runs in behind Alba into the channels, and together they created a stream of promising situations. Alba was, understandably, seen complaining about the lack of assistance.

There were at least four situations in the first half where Maggio and/or Candreva got free down the right. There was Maggio’s header when through on goal against Buffon, Maggio’s cross to Gilardino in the middle, Maggio’s header back across goal for a Candreva chance and Maggio’s chance at the far post from a Giaccherini cross. Italy almost always overloaded the right, and they also won a couple of free-kicks down that side, allowing Andrea Pirlo to put some dangerous balls into the box.

Often, they did so after good diagonal balls from Daniele De Rossi. Spain made sure Pirlo was shut down, usually by Xavi or Fernando Torres, but De Rossi proved to be another valuable passing option in the middle.

Second half

After the break, Spain’s attitude without the ball was more consistent – they sat deep into their own half, and Italy didn’t have any opportunities to counter-attack through them. However, the lack of pressure on the back three meant Italy could still retain the ball easily at the back.

At half-time, Prandelli brought on Montolivo for Andrea Barzagli, and moved De Rossi back into the centre of the defence. This meant Italy had even more passing quality from deep – Spain continued to shackle Pirlo nicely, but Montolivo and De Rossi were both capable of diagonal balls to the flanks.

In incredibly hot conditions, the tempo of the game dropped significantly after the break, and there were much fewer transitions than in the first half. Spain’s passing lacked any kind of rhythm, and with Alba still pushed back into his own half, slaloms from Iniesta seemed Spain’s best chance of attacking drive.

Subs

Maybe envious at Italy’s strength down the flanks, Del Bosque took off Silva and brought on his new Manchester City teammate Jesus Navas at the start of the second period. Navas went to the right with Pedro playing from the left, and now Spain had much more width and competed better down the flanks.

Navas has been an excellent supersub for Spain over the last few years, and he immediately picked up a long diagonal ball from Casillas and caused Chiellini problems. His introduction seemed to coincide with a territorial swing in the game, with Spain pushing Italy back – Pedro’s width on the left meant Maggio’s forward runs were less obvious.

The extra-time line-ups

But Del Bosque’s second change was surprising – he withdrew (the admittedly exhausted) Pedro and brought on Juan Mata. The Chelsea playmaker seemed to play in a central role with Iniesta drifting a little wider – but there was, once again, no real support for Alba down that flank – and the full-back again seemed isolated and overrun, although Maggio’s forward charges were more sporadic as the game continued. Alberto Aquilani on for Marchisio changed little.

Extra time

The two changes after the end of 90 minutes were particularly interesting, almost from a theoretical point of view rather than for their impact upon the game. Prandelli took off Gilardino and brought on Sebastian Giovinco upfront – while Del Bosque took the even more surprising step of bringing on Javi Martinez for Torres, and playing the Bayern midfielder upfront. Neither side had a proper striker on the pitch.

Spain’s use of a midfielder upfront is nothing new, of course, but this was particularly odd – Martinez is a combative box-to-box midfielder, or a holding midfielder, who was being played at centre-back last season for Athletic Bilbao. Maybe Del Bosque wanted to use a defensively aware player close to Pirlo, but Martinez spent most of his time upfront, battling with De Rossi.

That, in itself, was a remarkable situation from the perspective of universality – two all-round central midfielders battling each other in a centre-back versus centre-forward clash. The more progressive football coaches around at the moment are increasingly using midfielders both upfront and at the back, and the pitch is increasingly turning into a giant midfield battle.

As for the game itself, Italy re-established their dominance down the right with Candreva teeing up Maggio to cross to Giaccherini at the far post – he hit the woodwork.

However, Spain’s superior ball retention meant they dominated the extra-time period, with Mata finding space in behind Pirlo, who tired dramatically in the final 20 minutes. Iniesta was still a threat from an inside-left position while Navas stretched the play on the right – and Spain put continual pressure upon the Italian backline.

Spain were certainly more likely to score, as Italy’s only approach was hitting balls over the top for Giovinco to run onto. Neither side could find a finish, however – perhaps that was expected, without any strikers on the pitch.

Conclusion

Alba is such an important player for Spain, and whereas others have attempted to simply nullify him, Italy were brave and attacked him with two men. Of course, the entire point of Spain’s narrowness down the left is to encourage Alba to break forward into space, and therefore when the left-back found himself up against both Candreva and Maggio, he had no natural protection. Italy dominated in the first half, and should have taken the lead.

Spain got back into the game with some decent substitutions from Del Bosque, although this was simply a reflection of Spain’s greater strength in depth. No-one else in world football can bring on players like Mata and Martinez  - the best players in their position in Europe last season – and the more the game continued, the more Spain dominated.

The Martinez v De Rossi battle at the end might, one day, be something of a turning point in modern football – the moment the midfield battle became the entire tactical battle.


Spain 0-0 Italy: a lopsided tactical battle but an evenly-balanced game

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