No team at Euro 2020 have caught the imagination like Italy have. For large spells of their semi-final against Spain, though, their fans were surely imagining what defeat would feel like. Out-played and out-thought by an opponent that looked to have the upper hand, the Azzurri appeared to be in trouble.
Roberto Mancini’s master plan, which had got his team to the final four, was faltering as Spain controlled the centre of the pitch. Nicolo Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti, Italy’s engine, struggled for traction. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were pushed and pulled out of position by Dani Olmo in a ‘false nine’ position.
Luis Enrique’s strategy starved Italy of the ball in a way that hadn’t been done before in the tournament. The absence of the injured Leonardo Spinazzola down the left side denied Italy an outball as Gianluigi Donnarumma played a series of passes straight into the Spanish pass machine.
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And yet Italy still had enough within them to secure their place in the final. When it mattered most, the likes of Jorginho and Federico Chiesa still came up with moments of individual quality to mask failings elsewhere. Mancini’s Italy are more than the sum of their parts, but those individual parts are still capable of deciding things on their own.
From the start, it was clear this would be a high quality encounter between two teams good enough to appear in the final of a major tournament. This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise given the pedigree of the two coaches on the touchline. Their work was clear in the produce on the pitch.
Unlike many managers currently plying their trade in the international arena, Enrique and Mancini have proven themselves at the highest level of the club game. The coherence of their respective game plans hinted at this, with Italy and Spain the two best coached teams in the tournament.
Chiesa’s opener looked to have created the ideal scenario for Italy, who were able to sit back, prevent space from opening up in behind and protect their lead. Enrique could barely have envisaged more of a nightmare pattern of play for a team that had been criticised for their lack of cutting edge.
And yet the introduction of Alvaro Morata, benched from the start for the first time at Euro 2020, unsettled the Azzurri. While Olmo enjoyed some success in pulling the Italian defensive line higher by dropping in deep to compress things in the middle, Morata tested Bonucci and Chiellini’s mobility by repeatedly taking the ball into feet before spinning in behind.
This is how Spain created the opportunity for the equaliser, with Olmo and Morata exchanging passes for the Juventus striker to be released clean through on goal. Rafael Toloi was substituted on to offer fresh legs and stop Spain from simply running through Italy, but this came at the cost of defensive width.
By extra time, Italy appeared to be playing for a shootout. Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessini were introduced to provide some athleticism through the middle of the pitch, where Spain were still dominating, but their impact was minimal. The structure that had sustained Italy through the tournament until that point had been fragmented.
Mancini doesn’t just have a group of good players capable of executing his instructions, though. He has strong characters and that shone through in the end. The likes of Bonucci, Chiellini and Jorginho weren’t about to let this tournament, which has often felt like Italy’s tournament, slip away. Sometimes, football comes down to the intangibles and this is another area where Italy measure up well.
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