A well-drilled Italy side deservedly knocked out the European Championship holders, Spain.
Antonio Conte continued with the impressive 3-5-2 system from the group stage and returned to his preferred starting XI, aside from the injured Antonio Candreva, who was replaced by Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi.
Without the ball
Italy’s defensive organisation has been a tactical highlight of this tournament because Conte has introduced a level of organisation and discipline to international football we would typically expect from a club side (which, of course, makes sense given Conte is first and foremost a club coach).
Here, Italy had a clear remit to disrupt Spain’s build up play and prevent them from being able to comfortably establish their typical dominance of possession. That was most obvious from Spain goal-kicks, where the front two and Giaccherini sat high on the two centre-backs and Sergio Busquets, thus eliminating David De Gea’s usual first passing options. As a result, he often went long towards Alvaro Morata upfront (even though the full-backs were generally free because Italy’s wing-backs started from a deeper position).
When Spain’s centre-backs had possession Italy’s front two focused on occupying Sergio Busquets, with Graziano Pelle’s clear man-orientation throughout the game aimed at preventing the #6 from receiving passes in build up. Pelle did a very good job, demonstrated by the fact that statistically, this was a highly atypical game for Busquets, as Michael Cox highlighted on Twitter.
The most effective thing has been completely nullifying Busquets with the front two. Usually he is the top passer. Today he is 16th-most.
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) June 27, 2016
If Spain circulated the ball to Jordi Alba or Juanfran, Spain’s full-backs, then the direct opponent, the Italian wing-back, moved high up the pitch to apply pressure. Interestingly, when Mattia Di Sciglio did so on the left hand side, Giaccherini (the left-sided #8) moved high and prevented backwards passes to Sergio Ramos. Sometimes this meant the passing lane into Cesc Fabregas became open, and this was the one area in which Spain looked promising in the build up phase.
When defending in deeper positions, Italy’s midfield focused more upon maintaining extreme horizontal compactness. The midfield three tucked in very narrow, often leaving the far-side of the pitch open to Spanish switches of play. However, with Fabregas making ball-oriented movements in possession, and David Silva tucking in very narrow on the right, Spain lacked the passing options to be able to play these switches. This was highlighted by @analysport in his excellent match analysis.
It is also worth noting that even when the ball was deep inside their own half, Italy’s front two always dropped deep to maintain vertical compactness in the formation, as well as limiting Spain’s ability to circulate the ball across the pitch through Busquets. This extreme compactness (typical of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid) made it very difficult for Spain to have their usual long spells of possession.
With the ball
In fact, it was Italy’s control in possession that was the most surprising and definitive feature of this match. Conte’s side showed remarkable understanding and poise in building up from deep positions in order to draw Spain’s press up the pitch, creating space that the Italian centre-backs then exploited brilliantly with direct, vertical passes into the front two.
The key was the deep and wide staggering of the three centre-backs when Italy were building up. The trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini currently play in the same system together at Juventus, having originally been brought together by Conte, so it was unsurprising that they were extremely clever in the way they circulated the ball across the pitch, using backwards passes to tempt Spain’s front three up the pitch and thus create more space in the central midfield zone.
Atypically, though, Italy’s advanced central midfielders rarely actually looked to receive in these central positions, and instead took up very wide positions in the half-spaces, with the wing-backs higher up the pitch and positioned on the touchline. In this tournament, Spain’s advanced #8s, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas, have pressed with simple man-orientations on the deepest opposition midfielders, but seemed very uncertain here about whether to stay centrally, or move out into the wide zones to occupy Giaccherini and Parolo. The problem was exacerbated by the intelligent positioning of De Rossi, who looked to receive behind Spain’s first pressing line – meaning that Iniesta had to decide between occupying Parolo, or pressuring De Rossi. With Italy creating great width and depth in the build up, though, the Spaniard ran into problems regardless of what he did.
The scene in the video below highlights this, with Italy building up through Barzagli on the right. With Nolito trying to use his cover shadow to force the centre-back to play wide, and Iniesta moving forward to press De Rossi, a passing lane is created into Parolo. Intelligently, Parolo plays an immediate pass into Florenzi, who in turn plays a first time pass inside into De Rossi – now free because Iniesta has had to react and retreat because of the initial vertical pass into Parolo.
This was a perfect situation for Italy, because it meant they had now created large distances between Spain’s pressing lines, and created a situation where De Rossi had the ball in time and space facing forward. In these positions, they had a clear plan to then play quick, direct passes into the feet of either Pelle, who dropped off from a high starting position as a #9 to receive between the lines, or Giaccherini, who played higher than Parolo on the left.
Now, Spain were in real trouble, because Italy were getting passes to players high and in front of the back four, with two strikers and typically two wing-backs in support. Conte’s Juventus were excellent at creating chances through quick combinations in attack, so it was not surprising to see more of the same here – typical moves include Eder sprinting in behind whenever Pelle came short, and third man runs from Giaccherini and the wing-backs which resulted in a number of promising situations.
Perhaps the final word should go to Xavi, whose comments before the match now sum up the tactical battle nicely.
When Italy need to come out with the ball, having three at the back and two wide players means they have five possible people to carry it out – which makes it difficult for Spain to press as they would like.
Then, playing with two strikers complicates things further forward, because it occupies both of our centre-backs and then one of the two full-backs has to step forward to close down [Antonio] Candreva or [Alessandro] Florenzi – leaving you with only three at the back. At the World Cup in Brazil, both Holland and Chile chose to use a 3-5-2 against us and it put is in great difficulty.
Overall, this was a sophisticated plan of attack from Conte, with the key being how the back three and De Rossi drew Spain’s pressing lines up the pitch, creating space they could then exploit with those long, flat passes into the final third.
That, surprisingly, is what Spain used to be excellent at. However, the better they became at beating an opposition press, the more their opponents began to sit off, and more and more the typical pattern of Spain games became about them dominating possession and territory and having to break down a packed defence, as opposed to dominating possession and having to ‘win’ territory by penetrating through a press.
Throughout this tournament (as evidenced by the defeat to Croatia, who also pressured higher up the pitch than Croatia and Turkey) Spain have been uncomfortable when actively pressured in the initial stages of possession, like they’d forgotten how to build up against a press.
The irony was, Italy certainly hadn’t. In the simplest tactical terms, Conte’s side exploited space with the ball by making the pitch as big as possible, then exploited space without the ball by making the pitch as small as possible.