Both teams come into this fixture as favourites for the tournament. Both have conceded only a single goal leading up to this match up. Both have had a scare in their previous knock out game with their opponents pushing them to the limit. The winner of this fixture would be disappointed if they do not go on to win this tournament.Belgian fans might recall a similar feeling from when they faced highly fancied Brazil in Russia 2018. But they might have to do it without their main playmaker Kevin De Bruyne. He was substituted early on in the second against Portugal. Without him, Belgium did look short of ideas and they definitely did not have the cutting edge. The man who stepped up in his absence, the much-maligned Eden Hazard also looks doubtful after taking a knock.
The Italians come with a 37 match unbeaten record. They were ruthless in the group stage but were tested to the limit in the second round by a resolute Austrian side that played their tactics to perfection. Unlike Belgium, Roberto Mancini's side will have no injury concerns coming into this fixture but the emotional fatigue of having struggled to win against a supposed minnow may weight heavily on their mind.
As mentioned in our previous piece, Belgium tend to play out from the back and spread their back three across the pitch (RCB in right half space, LCB in left half space) and wing backs pushing up. This gives them a solid base to play out from but whilst they average close to 58% possession, upon closer inspection - their control of possession against stronger sides takes a 10-15% dip. This happened against Portugal where it dropped to 45%.
Against an Italian side hell-bent on dominating games, it seems fairly likely they will not be as effective at building up and could be rushed into making errors. Belgium will hope however that any such errors are made only when forcing a more direct pass and nothing 'fatal'.
Italy press in a 2-4-3-1 structure, with Immobile spearheading it and then followed in waves by Barella flanked by Berardi and Insigne, and then Locatelli, Jorginho and the full backs. This swarming effect is aggressive and effective, as Italy have 190 pressures to Belgium's 111 pressures in the final third. It is all very 'Un-Italian' but of no surprise to regular watchers of Serie A, which has become one of the most progressive leagues in the world from a tactical perspective.
Roberto Martinez is an attack minded coach. He likes his teams set up in a way that should help dominate zones and areas of the pitch. And during this tactical set up there will be no compromise on the main core system. Hence the formation will never change during the course of the match nor will the duties of the players that are on the pitch. Out of those players, some are given dual functions.
It is to conquer the zones that Roberto Martinez sets his teams up with 3 defenders at the back. This allows them to be more expansive on the pitch. It also allows them to keep their defensive shape which is essential against tough opposition. Wing backs are the most important part of this system. Roberto Martinez likes to play a classic full on the right. His preference for the knockout round has been Thomas Meunier. The player gives solidity to his position as well as physicality with a touch of skill.
On the left, however, the Spaniard has preferred an attacking option. In fact, it has been a chosen spot for wide forwards. Roberto Martinez' favourite for the World cup 2018 In Russia was Yannick Carrasco, an outside forward by nature and trait. For the Euros, the first choice man has been Thorgan Hazard, another forward or attacking wide man. It is definitely a tactic and Belgium have mostly attacked from the left. Thorgan even scored against Portugal for good measure. All the more justifying his selection.
Lukaku on the right
It would be fair to say Lukaku's fortunes took a turn for the best when he joined Inter Milan 2 seasons back. Antonio Conte understood the player. He gave him the platform to perform and made him even better by adding a few more dimensions to his game. Lukaku's time at Manchester United was mediocre but Lukaku now is a different beast.
He holds the ball to perfection. But more importantly, his runs off the ball and link up play with his teammates have been World class. Having played in Serie A for 2 seasons, the forward knows his way around Italian defenders. Their ageing backline and Spinazzola's aggressive positioning will leave a gaping hole down the left side of their defence, an area Lukaku loves to exploit. His performance will be key in this crucial encounter.
Absence of De Bruyne
Nothing in Tournament can put more emphasis on the importance of this man more than the group game against Denmark. Belgium were second best all game. up and until De Bruyne was introduced in the 46th minute. The playmaker produced one assist and scored the second himself for Belgium to win the game 2-1. De Bruyne is a man with vision. His accurate passing and willingness to take on opponents while also providing the final pass have been key to the success of Roberto Martinez' side. Needless to say the Spaniard will be sweating over his fitness.
When Belgium win the ball, Lukaku tends to drift into the right half space and his first option is to try and get on the shoulder of the last man and get in behind. An alternative pattern of play is to feed the ball to his feet whilst on the run, use his powerful ability to run with the ball to eat up yards before he cuts in and plays in runners who are now in advance of him (wingbacks and Hazard).
Italy tend to try win the ball back as soon as they have lost possession, whilst expecting their defenders to drop off and try and defend space. They usually have 3 men left back and at times Jorginho is located ahead of them, to give Italy a solid base to deal with the transition. Due to the lack of pace in their backline however, they are vulnerable to a pacey powerful striker who can be found very directly.
Expect very little to change from Italy’s build up structure as seen in previous matches at Euro 2020. It will continue to be a lopsided back four, basically a back three, with Di Lorenzo moving inside from his right back position into a right central defender position while Spinazzola takes up a role similar to that of a left winger.
Expect a focus on the left side during the build up phase. One of Locatelli or Jorginho will drop deeper to assist in the build up, with the overlapping runs or Spinazzola and inside runs from Insigne to be the focus of attacks from Italy as they look to attack Belgium during their change in shape in the middle third to the their more rigid shape in final third.
Belgium only really get aggressive once the opposition get into their half, so I expect to see Italy build up from the back with relative ease. With the injury to De Bruyne, even if he does start - I do not envisage him being able to execute the press with the same intensity but Belgium do mix it up and there will be moments they do go for the jugular though they must be wary of a quick long pass in behind.
The attacking patterns Italy have used so far are unlikely to change. What isn’t broken does not need fixing. Expect width to be provided by Spinazzola on the left, with Insigne and Locatelli swapping roles as creator and finishers, while Immobile remains central. Barella will enter the final third through the right half space while Berardi adds width on the right hand side.
Berardi deserves the start over Chiesa due to being able to act as a natural wide player, inside forward, or at times, switching roles with Barella as the creative option in the right half-space. Chiesa did score the first goal against Austria that broke the deadlock but he should not be expected to start. While talented, Chiesa does not offer the same versatility that Berardi does when going forward.
Additionally, chopping and changing players so frequently at international tournaments will disrupt the harmony of what has been created. Chiesa remains to be the best option off the bench as both a pair of fresh legs and sound tactical change. This leads me to believe that Berardi will keep his starting spot.
Italy have rid themselves of the “defend and counter-attack” style of play from Italy of past, so expect little from them in transitions as they should be expected to maintain possession against a Belgium side potentially without Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. With that said, Italy will surely be targeting two areas of the pitch more than any during the transition from defence to attack.
It’s not a shock anymore that Italy are very good at attacking the left side. Spinazzola almost always draws a man-marker, leaving space for Insigne or Lcoatelli to move into between the right wingback and right central defender. Expect this to continue in transition as Insigne and Spinazzola’s positions are quite high to begin with when out of position.
This abundance of pressure on the left side could see Alderweireld shift from his half-space to the wide area, but would then leave Vermaelen in a one versus one against Immobile with an oncoming Barella from the right half-space moving into the spaces between the central defenders.
Hard to say how Belgium defended in the transitions as they haven’t been tested too much thus far. With that said, Thorgan Hazard’s advanced position on the left leaves this back line quite lopsided. It’s unlikely that we’ll see many chances created from transitions, but evidently, it can be a weakness for Belgium against Italy.
Locatelli stole the headlines during game weeks one and two at Euro 2020 and for good reason. Two goals against Switzerland, one of which he created himself with a deep pass from his own half to Berardi who then set Locatelli up for his goal, along with a commanding display against Turkey have made Locatelli one of the most exciting players at the competition.
Enter Verratti who replaced Locatelli against Wales in Italy’s final group game. Many fresh faces entered the Italian side in that game, but only Verratti started their following match against Austria meaning that Lcoatelli was dropped. Verratti was lauded for his dribbling ability and successful passing when put under pressure, making him seem the obvious choice for selection against a team looking to defend from the front.
Verratti was brought in for Locatelli for his press resistance and ability to control the tempo of the game. If you saw Italy versus Austria you’d know that the first 30 minutes was a game of pinball rather than a game of football. Verratti’s inclusion was ultimately made redundant due to the Austrian press and his inability to control the tempo against one of the most aggressive pressing sides at Euro 2020.
Belgium bolster a PPDA of 14.9 at Euro 2020, the third highest PPDA at the tournament. This is an indicator that Belgium are not as aggressive in their pressing as Austria, who had a PPDA of 11.8, the third lowest at the tournament. If we assume that Verratti was brought in to handle to Austrian press, of which he failed to do, then the argument for Locatelli’s start is valid.
Verratti offers little in the area of passing ability when compared to Locatelli at Euro 2020. Verratti has a completed passing percentage of 94.7%, of which 84% were short passes. Think of how often Verratti would drop deep into the middle third and play passes between him and Jorginho, and him and the defenders.
Verratti is undoubtedly a good football player. His role, however, is irrelevant in this Italian side as we’ve seen in the build up to Euro 2020 and the opening group stages. He offers very little going forward as an attacker, but that’s okay, it isn’t his job. The issue is that Italy plays a system in which two of the three central midfielders are expected to join the forward line during the attacking phase to create overloads. Verratti doesn’t do this and neither does Jorginho. One must go and it can’t be Jorginho due to the amount of defensive responsibilities he has taken on and executed brilliantly.
Belgium: T. Courtois, J. Vertonghen, D. Boyata, T. Alderweireld, T. Hazard, T. Meunier, Witsel, Tielemans, De Bruyne, Y. Carrasco, Lukaku
Italy: Donnarumma, Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Spinazzola, Locatelli, Jorginho, Barella, Insigne, Berrardi, Immobile
Belgium were dominant in their match against Portugal. That was until their key players got injured especially Kevin De Bruyne who was substituted early in the second half. Roberto Martinez men from there on in, went defensive and allowed Portugal to attack them which did not look too convincing. They marched on but they will have to improve if they want to have any chance of beating this Italian side.
The midfield will be crucial here. Witsel and Tielemens will be coming up against Verratti/Locatelli and Jorginho. This is where the game can be won and lost. If Belgium do not have De Bruyne or Hazard or both for this fixture, we can expect Italy to dominate proceedings and the match as a whole. The pressure of their 4-3-3 with vertical attacking prowess might just be too much for the Belgians who seem to fall back to a 5-3-2 on default whenever under pressure. And without the cutting edge, they might find it too hard to shift back to a 3-4-2-1.
Lukaku can play a crucial role here. His physicality and intelligent movement can create openings for Belgium. He has played in Serie A for 2 seasons now and he knows this Italian back line very well as does Dries Mertens. Intelligent play from the front line and workman like midfield can be the answer to the Azzurri force. But they will need to show efficiency in front of goal. And if the Denmark game is anything to show for, it that this Belgium side lacks ideas when without it's main talisman.
Italy will see captain Chiellini return to an otherwise consistent starting lineup at Euro 2020. The only main point of contention is whether Verratti starts over Locatelli. We've made the argument for his starting spot, or rather, Verratti's dropping from the starting lineup. We won't pretend to know more than Roberto Mancini, but given the context in which Locatelli was dropped, his return is more than deserved.
If Belgium win, expect it to be through transitions but we believe the Azzurri should squeeze past them to the semis. It will be a close affair.