Euro 2020 - Why Italy’s semi-final with Spain is this tournament’s Spider-Man meme in the making
Italy have adopted Spain’s style of play at the European Championship, and now they meet for a place in Sunday’s final. Grace Robertson previews Tuesday’s semi-final at Wembley, which sees two nations who press high and prefer to hold possession collide - meaning something has to give....
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Do you know the Spider-Man meme? Unlike some, perhaps you don’t spend all of your time addicted to Twitter, so here’s an explanation. It’s a still from the old 1960s Spider-Man cartoon, in which the web slinger meets another person in an identical Spider-Man costume. You’ve probably seen it somewhere.
Italy against Spain on Tuesday evening is Euro 2020’s Spider-Man meme.
The in-episode context of the meme is that the second Spider-Man is actually an imposter, and that’s what this feels like. Spain are the tiki-taka masters. This has been their tactical identity since things really started cooking for the side around 2008. Luis Enrique has actually tried to move away from this, but you wouldn’t know it from watching them on the pitch. Possession football runs deep into the DNA of Spain and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Italy, then, are certainly impersonating the “real” Spider-Man. Italian football is always admirably shameless about copying methods that work elsewhere when their more traditional defensive style isn’t getting the job done. Arrigo Sacchi’s revolutionary AC Milan side largely borrowed from Dutch style total football mixed with an English 4-4-2. At the Coverciano technical centre where Italian managers learn their trade, an emphasis is placed on being flexible with different styles of football. Unlike most footballing nations, the Italians will look at what they have and find the methods to suit.
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Now it’s the Spanish they’re copying. This is a pretty obvious choice considering the profile of midfielder they have. Even when Andrea Pirlo was pinging passes around for fun, he had players like Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi to offer a different blend. This time it’s different. With a likely starting trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella, you have three players who all want the ball and favour a technical style. Jorginho has looked lightweight at times for Chelsea, and that’s when he’s next to N’Golo Kante. Here, he doesn’t have that sort of cover. It’s all about the passing because they don’t have the profile of midfielder to do it differently.
And that’s an interesting problem to deal with when Spain are going to be mixing it up in exactly the same way. Enrique’s team have had by far the most possession (67.2%) of any team in the tournament. Their midfield composition of Sergio Busquets, Koke and Pedri really does look the same as the Italian trio. It’s all pass, pass, pass, little feint, cute dribble, pass, pass pass. It’s not known for its hard runners or physical presence. This will be a game with six central midfielders looking to carefully move the ball through midfield trying to play every pass at precise angles. It’s a game of refined artists.
Which is exactly why it might not turn out that way. Both sides have the quality to play a possession game and will attempt to do so. When that happens, the side who dominates the ball sometimes isn’t the one who passes it best, but the one who wins it back the best. Counter-intuitively, this might become a game based around pressing rather than passing. When two possession sides meet, they inevitably have the ball less often than they want, so it becomes a story of how they respond to not having it.
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Both sides have pressed fairly similarly during the tournament. Italy have been slightly more front foot, making 31.2% of their pressures in the final third against Spain’s 29.5%, but we’re talking tiny margins here. These are, once again, both sides who have been trying to play the same way. But now is where we might start to see some differences. Italy have the flexibility to move into a more conventional defensive approach. They have two very experienced centre backs in Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci who know each other’s games inside out. Chiellini once claimed he knows his Juventus and Italy centre back partner “better than I know my wife”. This is as old school knowledge a pair as you’re going to get. The midfield is certainly a concern, but if Mancini wants to sit a little deeper and ride his centre backs making important blocks and clearances, they can do that.
Spain, on the other hand, don’t really have this emergency parachute. They haven’t settled on a clear centre-back partnership, with Pau Torres and Eric Garcia both getting minutes next to Aymeric Laporte. Spain had to convince French-born Laporte to turn his back on his birth country and represent La Roja because the options in this position were so poor (especially as injury problems plague Sergio Ramos). It’s not impossible to succeed without great centre backs, but the organisation in front of them has to be excellent. Spain, as discussed, don’t have high energy defensive midfielders, so they really do have to rely on good pressing right from the front. Arguably none of their defenders or midfielders are comfortable defending open spaces. This is a team that wants to defend with the ball, slowing down the game when needs be, and restricting the space that way. If it’s an open and transition-based game then Spain might be toast.
That might be why it could be wise for Italy to switch it up this time. An attempt to outpass Spain is asking to play their game against them. If the DNA of Spanish football is in possessing the ball, it’s in Italy’s nature to be adaptable. That’s the side we need to see from Mancini against Spain. Turn the possession football down a little, add in some of the basics of traditional Italian defending, rely on the front three in transition. Italy have what it takes to win this game, and the whole tournament, because they can switch it up when the moment calls for change.