It was a goal from a midfielder, Nicolo Barella, that got Italy up and running in their Euro 2020 quarter-final win over Belgium, but it was the performance from their midfield as a whole that made the biggest difference. Not even Kevin De Bruyne could measure up to the Azzurri in the centre of the pitch.
Of course, De Bruyne and Belgium aren’t alone in having failed to match Italy at this tournament. From the moment kicked off at the Stadio Olimpico on opening night, Roberto Mancini’s side have set the pace, both figuratively and literally. No team at Euro 2020 plays with their intensity and tempo.
Belgium were pressed high throughout, just as Turkey, Switzerland and Wales were. This set a precedent from early on and created the opportunity from which Italy truly took a grip of the contest through their opening goal, with Marco Verratti stepping in to intercept a pass and set up Barella for the low strike.
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Verratti, who has recently struggled with injury, produced the sort of performance many had hoped to see from him at Euro 2020. It was the complete display from the 28-year-old who demonstrated control on and off the ball. He dictated the game whether it was through his possession or his pressing.
Italy, however, have played the same way in midfield even when Verratti hasn’t played. This is the sign of a well-coached team, with Mancini able to rotate members of his squad in and out of the team without much of a drop-off. Consider that Manuel Locatelli, one of the stars of Euro 2020 to date, didn’t even get off the bench against Belgium.
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Whether it’s Locatelli or Verratti in the team, the root of Italy’s considerable strength can be found in their midfield. It’s the three-man unit in the centre of the pitch that is driving them towards Euro 2020 glory. It’s this area that opposition teams, potentially like England, must combat if they are to stand any chance of victory.
The balance Mancini has struck is perfect. Jorginho is the one who keeps things ticking over with his use of the ball while Barella is the all-action midfield creator who carries a goal threat, as demonstrated by his strike in the win over Belgium. Then there’s Verratti, who impressed in all areas of the game, both on and off the ball.
Verratti made four tackles and contributed three key passes, illustrating this. Jorginho also mustered three interceptions, which showed just how effective Italy were in stepping high into Belgium’s possession play. De Bruyne was left to do a lot on his own as the Red Devils toiled to find a foothold.
Mancini has forged the best midfield unit seen in the international game since the days of Vicente del Bosque’s great Spain team, when Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez would win games almost entirely on their own. Italy are similarly daunting in the centre of the pitch.
A semi-final meeting against Spain themselves looms for Italy, where they will face another midfield unit with excellent balance. Busquets remains the anchor at the base of the midfield for La Roja, with Koke offering energy and Pedri creativity. It’s the latter who could give Italy the most trouble, especially if Spain find a way to pass through their high press.
Victory over Belgium, however, proves Italy have nothing to fear in any of the other teams left in Euro 2020, including Spain. The myth goes that teams who shine brightest earliest at major tournaments burn out before the end, but Italy’s flame is only growing stronger and it’s their midfield where the fire is hottest.
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