While many would've looked at the 1-1 scoreline and concluded that the match between Spain and Italy on the third day of the group stage wasn't all that exciting, it was possibly the best all-around game of the tournament. It had not only the technical quality one expects from these two countries, but also a fascinating clash of tactical systems rarely seen at international level, as Italy played three at the back and Spain played with no recognizable striker.
The final is set to be the same; although Italy moved away from its 3-5-2 formation for matches against Ireland, England and Germany. However, as the only team to score against Spain and convincingly stop it from being an attacking force (along with Spain's own almost fanatical need for control), Cesare Prandelli could return to a 3-5-2 system.
One reason why Italy's back three was so successful at stopping Spain was the inclusion of Daniele De Rossi, normally a midfielder, in the defense. For most of the match, De Rossi looked extremely comfortable, only looking uneasy when Fernando Torres started making runs behind De Rossi, something that he didn't have to deal with much when Fabregas, Silva and Iniesta were all playing in front of him. One aspect of playing a false nine is that it makes defenders uncomfortable; as Arsenal and France defender Laurent Koscielny said:
It's easier for a central defender when there is someone who stays up front but Spain don't play like that. There's always movement. Sometimes there is no-one in the middle & then all of a sudden there are 2 or 3 players.
Unlike a centre back, De Rossi, as a defensive midfielder, is more comfortable marking space and tracking runs from the midfield. Because of this, the combination of Fabregas and Silva didn't have that much success against Italy. An obvious problem was the lack of midfield runs into the space Fabregas left behind. Although the system is designed for this space to be filled by midfield runs, it wasn't against Italy. Spain did a better job of doing that against France, when Xabi Alonso got forward, but with De Rossi in defence, Italy has a player who is very comfortable marking space when Fabregas drops deep.
Furthermore, the narrowness of Spain's wide players in the front three, Andres Iniesta and David Silva, meant that instead of having a 2 v 1 battle on the flanks, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonard Bonucci were able to man mark Iniesta and Silva, as it became 3 v 3 at the back. This narrowness was exploited by Italy on the counter attack; Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio didn't need to come too deep and were able to receive ball high up on the flanks, with the pair effectively acting as wingers.
Further up the pitch, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano drifted wide, trying to create 2 v 1 combinations down the flanks, but also trying to drag the two center backs, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, wide, and create space for midfield runners Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio. It's the type of movement that saw Cassano cross for Balotelli's opener against Germany. There, Cassano drifted to the left, while Balotelli made a run to the near post. Against Spain, the tactic will be similar; Cassano and Balotelli will drift to create space; especially if fullbacks Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa push forward to give width to Spain's attack.
That width, though, might not be as necessary if the Spanish were to play an actual winger. Their two wide players, though, are David Silva and Andres Iniesta. The latter is most definitely not a winger, playing in a central role for Barcelona, and always coming inside when Spain has possession. The former is more of a wide player, but not a winger. Although Silva plays in that role for Manchester City, he has the freedom to come inside, and usually does. For Spain, Silva played wider against France, but reverted to type against Portugal and was extremely narrow.
Not only does this make Spain more vulnerable to counter attacks down the flanks, but it also makes the team more predictable and narrow in attack, making it easier to defend against. Vicente Del Bosque could play Jesus Navas out wide, but so far, he has stuck-by David Silva, with the only changes in Spain's attack coming up front. Neither Fernando Torres nor Alvaro Negredo have been overly impressive, while Fernando Llorente hasn't played a single minute in the tournament for reasons unbeknownst to many observers. Indeed, the safe bet seems to be that Spain will play as it did against France, and against Italy; with Cesc Fabregas as the false 9 and maximum ball retention.
Based on this, it makes sense for the Italians to play as they did against Spain in Gdansk. Spain's narrowness means that Italy can man mark at the back, with De Rossi comfortable with midfield runs from deep that could be provided by Fabregas and Xabi Alonso. The narrowness also means that Maggio and Giaccherini can worry less about defensive play against wingers, which isn't their strong point. Instead, they can try to push back Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa, two players, Alba especially, who have been crucial to Spain's attack. Against Spain, Cesere Prandelli's team showed that they have the ability to stop Spain and hurt them on the counter attack with quick play. Now, it's up to Vicente Del Bosque to come up with a plan to counter Prandelli's tactics.
Chalkboards from the Statszone app.
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