55 YEARS OF HURT
D espite a skittish and frankly fraught performance in front of a heaving 60,000 strong Wembley crowd, Gareth Southgate's England lifted themselves off the floor to become the first team since 1966 to get into a major final. Let us repeat that again... England are in a major international final for the first time in 55 years. Wow.
It has been 25 tumultuous years since my 6 year old self wore that infamous grey replica shirt which England wore in that unforgettable semi final. I was too young for the 1994 World Cup but by 1996 I was fully aware of the importance of this game, the importance of representing your country but utterly unaware of how much of an effect this game would have on English football for generations to come and how many more chapters of heartbreak were to follow.
What happened in 1990 was and could have been a one off. But by losing in the exact same manner, to the same team a mere 6 years later, a national myth was created and absorbed into the national psyche to such an extent that it crippled the nation for a quarter of a century. England were 'bottlers', who choked at penalties and a nation who would forever fail to reach their potential. Heroic failure. This mentality would bleed into other sports too.
Tim Henman at Wimbledon. The English cricket team. Jimmy White in snooker. the English Rugby Team. Wherever you looked, English failure was rife and thanks to the media, accepted as just being part of the very fabric of what it meant to be English. Since the turn of the millennium, bit by bit we began to see change and the return of that famous 'English' or 'British' arrogance, ambition and 'professionalism'. This eventually would yield sporting success after sporting success.
It only seemed a matter of time before that tide would turn on the football front. The new generation can barely remember the failures of the 90's and would have grown up on the Champions League successes of the 00s and 10's. The widespread apathy towards the England side in the 2010's served as a reminder to the media and to the FA that failure was no longer tolerated nor was it to be celebrated. The toxic self-effacing culture surrounding the national set up during the 2000's had to go.
Italy unlike England are a genuine heavyweight of the footballing world. Where the English have only won 1 major trophy and reached 1 final... the Italians have 4 World Cups to their names having reached 6 World Cup Finals, won the European Championship title in 1968 and reached 3 European Championship Finals. Unless this Italian side wins this tournament, it will be a mere footnote in their history whereas the England team are legends in their own lifetime. Perspective.
THE NEUTRAL'S FAVOURITES
Nevertheless, Italian football has gone through a similar cultural reboot as we witness in the English set up. The pragmatism of yesteryear has been replaced or fused with a sense of daring. An urge or yearning for the sublime. Italian football, on the domestic front has gone from being the most physically demanding and pragmatic league in Europe, to one of its most eye catching and technically proficient. This has translated itself into the National Side and who better to knit it altogether than the modern cosmopolitan Italian, Roberto Mancini?
Sunday's final is a meeting of two nations coming to terms with their new-found identities. It promises to be a fascinating encounter and more likely than not - pragmatism and the old way of doing things will for sure rear its ugly head - it is hard to fully throw off the shackles of yesteryear - but the final is also a blank canvas - a chance to rewrite the script, a chance to set their nation on a new path.
Without further ado, let us dive into the key talking points and tactical issues which will determine the outcome of the final.
The loss of Spinazzola has proven to be detrimental to Italy, as it would to any squad really. Going forward Italy aren’t quite the same; Emerson gets in the way of attacking movements when entering the final third and looks out of place. The opposite can be said about Emerson in the first phase of play, where instead of getting in the way, he’s nowhere to be found. Against Spain, Italy struggled to get out of their own third when playing out from the back. More often than not, they were forced to play long, over the top passes to Immobile who ended the evening with five duels lost.
With no ideal direct passing option in Immobile, Italy will likely continue to play out from the back as they have all tournament. The issue, however, is personnel. Emerson will take up a more advanced role, while Di Lorenzo shifts inside to form a back three with Bonucci and Chiellini. Chiellini and Di Lorenzo will remain on the widest parts of the penalty area while Bonucci sits in a position you would normally see a #6 in.
England bolster a PPDA of 18.1, placed 18th out of 24 teams. While not as aggressive pressers as Spain or Austria, two teams who notably gave Italy a difficult time when out of possession, England come third for the most final third pressures at 218, behind Spain (247) and Italy (272) respectively.
While impressive and the number of pressures is comparable to that of Spain, England are far from being in the conversation for best pressing team. With a success rate of 26.1%, England are the 15th most successful pressing team, or “best”, while Spain leads the way with a success rate of 36.5%.
England may not be as successful at pressing their opponents, however they do attempt similar amounts of pressures in the final third, or, the opponents build up phase. Italy were forced to drop Verratti into a deeper role against Spain during the build up phase because Emerson was either too advanced or simply not trusted to carry the ball out during the build up phase and into the middle third.
This suggests that Italy will likely continue with the strategy of having Verratti in a deeper role against England in order to beat the first press effectively. England press in a similar style to Spain: the front three joined by one of the ball sided central midfielders. With no direct passing option and a build up strategy that Emerson struggles in, Italy will have difficulty in playing out from the back.
Italy’s attacking structure has got them to the finals of Euro 2020 so expect no changes. The main ideas for Italy in the final third will only come to light during longer periods of possession, as the structure does take time to reveal itself. The attacking shape is best described as a 3-2-5 when in the final third and will remain the same against a back five as it does a back four. Therefore, if England do decide to make tactical rearrangements, Italy will not need to make attacking changes.
Against a back four, Emerson, Insigne, Immobile, Barella and Chiesa all form a sort of “front five”. Verratti and Insigne will often switch roles between each other in an attempt to lure their markers out of position to create space for each other or Immobile to run into. Italy will almost always look to maintain possession on the left, so there will seldom if ever be an overload on the right, at best it will be a two versus two.
Verratti, Insigne and Emerson are able to isolate the widest England defenders on the left, presumably Saka and Walker, in a three versus two. While threatening, it's unlikely England don’t know about this already, Italy have played on the left with this exact overload structure all tournament. The issue England have however is that Walker is the defender with the lowest 'bottom level' and has a tendency to brainfart on a off day.
Against a back five, the structure remains the same. The only difference is that the England defenders now mark the Italian attackers man for man, rather than a clear overload. This is likely to be where Italy struggles the most without Spinazzola as a player who is as successful at taking on their marker in a duel is not present, currently.
Emerson cannot be expected to beat Tripper in a one versus one duel, whereas Spinazzola could be. Before his injury, Spinazzola attempted 16 dribbles and completed 9 in four games. To put this into better context, nobody for Italy at Euro 2020 has attempted more than 12 dribbles (Chiesa) and no one has completed more than six (Jorginho). While creative, Italy do not attempt to take on their marker in one versus one duels, instead relying on possession and off the ball movement to beat the opposition.
Against Spain and Austria, Italy’s game was largely reliant on transitions. Unless Italy are clearly superior in their ball playing ability when compared to their opponents, which when compared against England, they’re not, their games could be best described as a pinball match. While excellent for neutrals, it’s gut wrenching if you’re an Italian supporter.
This is a sign that Italy struggle to maintain possession against sides equal to or better than their own ball playing ability. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if their style of play is reduced to relying on transitions, then an analysis is needed to understand where chances are going to come from and where Italy will struggle themselves.
Jorginho will almost always be the target of a pass during the transition. His passing range is better than anyone in our predicted lineup, making him the player that Italy will use to find passes into the channels left vacant by England. As mentioned above during the final third segment, Italy will target the left side. This is largely true for their transitional phase, but with a caveat.
Seeing as Spinazzola is injured, Italy’s most creative player on the left is Emerson. Insigne often joins the forward line with Immobile to form Italy’s front two in their shape out of possession, a 4-4-2, meaning that the player most often found on the ball in the left wide area won’t be Insigne, it will be Emerson.
Having addressed Emerson’s shortcomings already, we won’t dwell on them further. England’s shape in possession resembles a 4-2-4 or 3-2-5, depending on how aggressive England is attacking. Regardless of the shape, this leaves space in behind the fullbacks. If Emerson cannot be trusted in the transitions, Chiesa remains a very viable option on the right. Shaw is often the furthest forward fullback of the two, so should Italy struggle to create an immediate overload on the left, there’s certainly good company to be seen on the right.
PRAGMATIC BUILD UP PLAY
England are one of the best sides in the Euro's at not giving the ball away in their own half (rarely does this figure go above 15). Now that might seem super impressive on paper and you would assume that with defenders such as Stones, Maguire, Walker and Shaw that is a given but this stat is less impressive when you consider how many passes England make in their defensive third and how many of these are genuinely progressive passes.
England have made less forward passes than Italy (890 v 1019), more backwards passes (573 v 510) and more lateral passes (1298 v 1154). This risk averse strategy with the ball is why Southgate's men tend to avoid being caught out in their own half. The Italian press will have its work cut out to seduce this England side into making an error.
Italy press in a lopsided 4-1-3-1-1 structure, with Immobile targeting the centre back who receives it and then is closely supported by the nearest winger to that side of the pitch who targets the wing back closest. This is then supported by Barella, Verratti and the Winger on the far side who comes in off his flank to box the opposition into one side of the pitch. With 272 attacking third pressures compared to England's 219, expect to see this used to substantial effect in this encounter.
England have predominantly featured in a back 4 this tournament and in truth the extra man in midfield has not really helped make that ball progression from midfield look any smoother. Rice and Phillips have not been error prone, but their general lack of willingness to receive the ball in tight situations and beat the press has meant England can at times look very disjointed and lose control of games. Fortunately it has not hurt England at all this tournament but it is an area that Italy will certainly look to exploit.
As it is highly unlikely Southgate will drop either of the pair, one possible solution is to drop Mount for Foden. The latter is more influential in possession and more deft in constricted spaces. He is also just more of a natural playmaker in terms of how he picks up pockets of space and can build out play from the back when he drops deeper. This will relieve some pressure off Rice and Phillips who at times looked overwhelmed against Denmark. Italy are advised to push up their 8's of Verratti and Barella right up against these two and not give them any room.
A key build up strategy for England has been passing it into Luke Shaw who with a first time pass or a flick breaks the lines and feeds Sterling. England are very reliant on their wings to progress the play from the defensive third. Seeing as Italy's weakness is their full backs, it is difficult to envisage how well they neuter this strategy but if they are to win, it is imperative that they shut down England's flanks and force them to play through the middle more.
THREAT OF STERLING
It is fair to say that Raheem Sterling is an integral component of this England attack and the equivalent of Neymar for Brazil in terms of effective influence on the international stage. England spark into life every time he collects the ball and I recall a performance against the Italians in World Cup 2014 which heralded the birth of a national superstar. The fact it went unrewarded and barely gets a mention probably sums up all that was wrong in English football at the time,
In that game, Rooney was unceremoniously dumped on the left wing to make way for Raheem Sterling to be given centre stage as the number 10 behind Daniel Sturridge. The young Raheem was electrifying and terrified the Italians with his pace and verve... he simply ran through them but this was an England which still held sway to the cult of Rooney.
The fading force could not handle not being the star of the team and he made waves behind closed doors. Despite the promise of Raheem's performance, he was shifted back out wide (but not given the same amount of possession he is now) and eventually dropped. It would prove to be a catastrophic error. Southgate's most commendable decision as a manager has been to identify Sterling as the nation's talisman and whilst it is Kane who has the captain's armband - make no bones about it, it is Sterling who is their leader on the pitch when the team has the ball.
The Italians do not really possess a wide defender good enough to take on Sterling. Bastoni is such a player but he features on the left, so quite frankly the Italians should in theory struggle to deal with him and he will be pivotal in this fixture. Italy's best hope is to perhaps ensure that Sterling's passing options are limited and double-mark him. One v one, he will simply prove too hot to handle.
If the Italians succeed in suffocating Kane - which they should as in open play as Chiellini and Bonucci should have too much for him - the right flank and England's use of substitutes will be a decisive factor as to whether they can hurt this Italian backline. I criticised Saka in the game against Denmark for being too narrow and not dragging Vestegaard wide enough to exploit his clumsiness. This time Saka or whoever is chosen on the right will be facing Emerson - a sitting duck in a 1 v 1 situation. This must be exploited.
Southgate may persist in Saka as he is England's most direct player in 1 v 1 situations. This is fine as long as the young man is instructed to stay out wider and be brave. If Sancho is selected, he will have a tendency to come inside too much just like Saka did in the last game. Having said that there is no doubt that Sancho has the footwork to trouble Emerson when he does decide to hold the width. Foden would be forced to come inside and for me is better utilised at 10. Another option would be to start Sterling on the right and play Sancho/Saka down the left.
One of the major issues we predicted in England's last fixture was that if they go with a back 4, due to their midfield's inability to control games for large periods of the game, there would be a tendency for their wide players to have to come back and help out defend for large periods. This then led to England being pinned in their own half with Kane isolated. With a back 5, England's front three are free to stay further up the pitch and that is definitely something the Italians will fear on the counter.
The Italians usually drop deeper and go into pragmatic mode when they suspect that the opposition can hurt them. Their game management is second to none. We saw this against Austria and Belgium, where Italy would pick and choose when to go for it and when to shut up shop. Having said that, they must avoid what Germany did and sit back for long periods, allowing that English midfield time to breathe and grow in confidence.
A few runs in behind by Saka and Sterling scared the life out of the Germans and their front foot philosophy went out of the window. Italy must be willing to take risks for the greater good and invite the English transition in the hope they can inflict greater damage by putting the English defence and midfield under siege. This will also make the crowd nervy and turn what is a hostile away crowd relatively quiet.
Jorginho v Foden/Mount
Stemming the Italians influence is a task which Mount and Foden should be well equipped to handle. Both have the dynamism, the agility and the football IQ to lock down a deep lying playmaker. The only slight issue in defeating this threat is that Italy can always bypass this by bringing Verratti deeper and going with a double pivot. Nevertheless the Spaniard's proved that stopping this Italian side from playing is not as difficult as it looks.
Kane v Chiellini and Bonucci
The Italians will fancy themselves in this battle. Kane did not look like scoring a goal from open play against Denmark, nor did he look like scoring against Germany until they were forced to push for an equaliser. The only time he has looked like a genuine threat in his own right was against the mighty Ukraine. Having said that, he proved that his passing game is exceptional so the Italians must be wary that if he drops deep, there are no gaps in their defence for him to find... he has a laser-like precision with his assists.
Phillips and Rice v Verratti and Barella
The German's fatally sat off the English midfield and allowed Rice and Phillips to put in their most accomplished display of the tournament. The Ukrainians followed in suit. The Danes afforded England's midfield no such respect and we began to see the limitations of this midfield. The Italian's with their 4-3-3 structure have the perfect formation in which to push their advanced 8's onto the double pivot of England. They will struggle to play out if this happens.
Defensively Phillips and Rice have struggled when facing central overloads, Damsgaard in particular exploited this and we saw how a similar player in Havertz also caused problems. Verratti tends to play in front of teams so in theory England should be able to see of his threat, whereas Barella has that ability to drift into naughty areas and make blindside runs behind Rice. It is battle which ultimately looks like it will end in stalemate but the Italian's quite frankly should expect to win this battle.
Walker v Insigne
Walker is a fundamental cog in this England side and there is no doubt he has been so important in their progress at both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020. Having said that, he has a tendency to switch off. Insigne is a player who physically is no match for Walker and you would expect the Englishman to deal with him well, but the way Italy overload that flank means that at times Walker will be forced to confront Emerson or follow Insigne inside and that will open up gaps. If England go with a back 5, he and Tripper should be able to see this off.
Italy: Donnarumma, Di Lorenzo, Chiellini, Bonucci, Emerson, Jorginho, Barella, Verratti, Insigne, Chiesa, Immobile
England: Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw, Rice, Phillips, Mount or Foden, Sterling, Kane, Saka
To be brutally honest, I do think this English side is 2 players short of being a World Cup winning side - a more dynamic centre forward and perhaps a ball-playing midfielder of top class. You drop a prime Shearer and Gazza or Scholes into this side and we are talking a team that will stand toe to toe against any great side of recent years. There is no reason with the conveyer belt of talent coming through, that will not happen by Qatar.
But we are talking tomorrow night, in front of a home crowd. Can this English line-up bring football home? Psychologically I cannot help but feel the pressure has been lifted to some extent... by getting into a final, England broke 55 years of unwanted tradition. The way the players celebrated, it was a joy to behold and I would not put it past them to just go for the jugular to some extent in this final and be uninhibited.
Now by that, I do not mean they will end up playing like Brazil but the faith in their game plan and in their own ability will be sky high and that will mean more precision in everything that they do, more courage to get on the ball and make things happen. Confidence is such a major factor in elite level sports and the high of reaching a first major international final in front of a buoyant home crowd, knowing you are heroes regardless if you lose - that is a very strong psychological foundation from which these players go into Wembley on Sunday night.
The Italians have the weight of history arguably weighing them down or motivating them depending on how you look at it. The likes of Bonucci and Chiellini have always been seen as second tier defenders in the Italian hall of fame. They do not match up to the likes of Cannavarro, Nesta let alone Maldini and Baresi. They will be absolutely desperate to change that perspective and cement their status as genuine GOAT level defenders.
Italy very rarely lose to teams in finals that they are matched up well with or superior to. Their final losses have always been to generational teams, Brazil 1970, France 2000, Spain 2012. The only one which was not generational was perhaps 1994 but that was a fateful penalty shootout and it was to a relatively strong Brazil side. This is an England side which whilst it is talented, the Italians should have the edge in terms of attacking synergy and tactical proficiency. History can always be deemed irrelevant but this does point to Italy being slight favourites.
Prediction - This is a very tough prediction to make - no one can be sure for certain. Psychologically I think England are in a great place and with the home crowd, it seems almost written in the stars that Gareth's men will bring football home. Defensively I do not think the English have much to fear but at the same time, the Italians have the tools to pin England in their own half and dominate large portions of the game. Subs wise and tactical variations wise, England have the upper hand - they can change the game if it is not working. I suspect a game with not many goals and for it to go to the wire. England to edge it if they come through first half unscathed.CO-WRITTEN BY RAEES MAHMOOD AND CAMERON HERBERT (FOLLOW US @PYTHAGINBOOTS)