Since Italy last played in either of the most prestigious international competitions in football, much has happened to say the least. New faces, young and old, have joined Roberto Mancini, accompanied by some experienced veterans who will most definitely have an impact on Italy’s style and quality of play at this tournament.
Italy come into this tournament on a 27-game unbeaten run having played exciting football the whole way through. Players like Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, and Domenico Berardi have been afforded the freedom to cut inside from their wide positions and move across the front line on a whim. They have been supported by Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolo Barrella who can keep possession well, participate in the build up phase and act as the creative outlet.
Italy painfully missed out on World Cup 2018 after Sweden held on to force a goalless draw in the second leg at the San Siro to defeat the Italians 1-0 on aggregate in their Russia 2018 play-off. This setback followed what was a rather impressive and surprising run in Euro 2016 when Antonio Conte took a very poor Italian side to the quarter-finals of the competition, only to lose on penalties to Germany.
This Italy team is no longer synonymous with boring, defensive football. In fact, it's quite the opposite. This tactical report will show the change in quality of player Italy has produced since their last feature in a major international tournament.
Below is what is expected of the Italian national team, with the only spot of contention being Locatelli’s. Verratti is by no-means a poor player, but Locatelli seems to be the best option for Roberto Mancini and the style of play he wants his team to play in. Nevertheless, Verratti will likely play a role in Italy’s success this tournament, he may even take Locatelli’s starting spot in this expected starting lineup.
Conte’s Italy in 2016 was a very rigid 5-3-2 that showed similar ideas to his Inter team that won the 2020/21 Serie A title. You can revisit our piece on "How Inter Milan Won The Scudetto" here. Despite their relative success, this forgettable Italian side demonstrated an over reliance on counter-attacking football and featured a distinct lack of players who wanted to control possession.
The difference in style and personnel is almost overwhelming. Roberto Mancini has Italy playing in a very fluid 4-3-3 formation that encourages creativity due to how many creative players he has at his disposal. For example, as Italy goes forward one of the forward wide players, Insigne or Berardi for example, can tuck inside while that side’s fullback is encouraged to move forward, forming a sort of “front four” which will be shown in the analysis.
Defensively, the Italians can be expected to shift into a structure that resembles a 4-5-1. The defenders will tuck inside to form a more narrow backline. Jorginho will stay between the back four and midfield, while Locatelli/Verratti and Barella can be found in the half-spaces. This is done so that there are as few opposing central passing options as possible.
Insigne and Berardi will not have as many defensive responsibilities as their midfield teammates. Their responsibilities are to remain wide and act as passing options should Italy win the ball back, allowing a quick counter-attack. Italy do not rely on counter-attacking tactics but are confident and know what to do in transitions.
When the ball is won Italy will target the space between opposition centre-backs and fullbacks. This is done because in order to overload the Italian low-block, attacking teams must commit numbers forward, often the fullbacks. Therefore, this allows an easy decision for the Italian ball winner to make when questioning where they need to pass to during transitions.
This modern Italian side prefers to maintain possession and win it back quickly if they lose it. In the previous seven games leading to this tournament, Verratti, Barella and Jorginho made 30 tackles collectively that won back possession, while Bonucci and Jorginho led the way with interceptions with 17 in seven games. The Italians are not a defensive side anymore, but are more than capable of winning the ball back after losing it.
While Bastoni and Toloi both have had incredible seasons with Inter and Atalanta respectively, it’s likely that Mancini will trust Chiellini and Bonucci due to their experience. No one has made more interceptions than Bonucci (9) in the seven games leading up to this tournament, so he looks undroppable.
Chiellini plays in the same position as Bastoni, left centre-back, but Bastoni spent this season in a five man defence, not a four man defence like Chielinni. The difference between the two types of defences is large, and could be overwhelming for Bastoni despite him having some experience in a back four with the national team already.
Toloi plays as a right centre-back for Atalanta, often taking up a right fullback role when his club side are in possession. It’s hard to see where Toloi fits in this Italian side as Bonucci has made that right side spot his own. It also doesn’t help that Atalanta plays significantly differently than the Italian national team. Atalanta rely on player fluidity and off the ball movement with players moving into new positions often; Italy are not like that. Most players have clear, defined roles. It may be a case of Toloi being too versatile for Italy.
Bastoni is the defender of the future for Italy. He is the mould of what every defender should aspire to be and will be. He joins Lukaku and Barella on a short list of names that Inter would be worse without. However, Mancini is expected to go with the experienced defence that has got Italy to Euro 2020, rather than experiment unfortunately.
As play moves from the first third to the middle third, the Italian attacking structure begins to reveal itself. One of the fullbacks will go forward, likely Florenzi, while the other stays back, likely Spinazzola or Acerbi. The central defenders will shift to the side of the pitch that has been left vacant by the attacking fullback.
Jorginho will be the deepest midfielder of the expected three. His role involves moving the ball from defence to attack, maintaining possession with his midfield partners while also being asked to break up opposition attacks. Locatelli or Verratti will play on the left side of the midfield three with permission to move centrally as like a more traditional #10 player.
Barella will play in the same role as he has for Inter this season, and that is as the right half-space #8. His job is to link play between the right sided forward and fullback. This will overload the defending team’s left sided defenders.
Insigne and Berardi are both inverted wingers for their clubs, meaning they start on the side that favors their weakest foot. However they’re both comfortable playing on either side of the forward line, so their starting positions are just that; they will switch sides often.
Once play enters the final third the Italian shape comes to light. The defenders have shifted according to the space left behind the attacking fullback, Florenzi in the example above, as he joins the forward line.
Jorginho is the most important part of the Italian set up when they attack. He will help recycle possession if there are no immediate breakthroughs. His key passing options will be Locatelli/Verratti who take up a more advanced role in the left half-space or centrally if allowed, while Barella exclusively remains in the right half-space.
Florenzi adds width to the right side, meaning that the starting right sided forward tucks inside acting as a second center-forward. Immobile and Berardi will occupy the opposition central-defenders, while Insigne can be expected to make late runs that go around the fullback that marks him.
This attacking structure allows Italy to overload defending teams left sided defenders and occupy the central defenders. If this doesn’t create immediate goal scoring opportunities, Italy are able to recycle possession through Locatelli, Barella and Jorginho, all of which are confident under pressure in the final third.
Italy are packed with attacking talent, something they missed dearly during their Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 qualification campaigns. Not pictured above are Federico Chiesa (15 goals and 11 assists in all competitions) and Andrea Belotti (13 goals and 7 assists in all competitions) who join Italy on the bench. For the first time in what seems like ages, Italy has quality depth in all areas. It’s a good problem to have.
Italy went under the radar in the build up to Euro 2020. Teams like France, England and Portugal were being lauded as favourites to win the tournament while Italy have been working on themselves since they missed out on the 2018 World Cup.
As the tournament edges closer Italy are beginning to get the credit they deserve. The Serie A was the most exciting league to watch in the 2020/21 season and for good reasons, they produce high quality players who are entertaining to watch.
The only concern Italy may have is the lack of players who have played in important matches for their clubs. This shows that these players are either not making it far in club competitions, or not qualifying for them in the first place. This could lead to a lack of “big game” players for critical moments in the tournament.
Italy are my favourites to win Euro 2020. There is high quality depth in all positions but fullback which can only lead to healthy competition for places on one of the biggest stages of international football. Intelligent attacking players are being rewarded under Roberto Mancini as they’re supported by a dynamic and creative midfield cast who have the support of one of the most experienced defences at the tournament.
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I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___