Euro 2020 has given football fans some of the most exciting international games in recent memory and as we enter the round of 16, that trend looks like it will continue. Italy versus Austria presents an opportunity for both sides to showcase their progressive and eye-catching style of football. The last time these two sides met in a competitive setting was at World Cup 98.
Roberto Baggio, Filippo Inzagi, Paulo Maldini, and Fabio Cannavaro were just a few of the stars who dismissed a rather lackluster Austrian side who possessed just a few diamonds in the rough. Players like Ivica Vastić and Toni Polster were excellent for club and country in their own right, but struggled to carry the weight of their nation.
23 years later we have a new generation of Italian talent who take a step back from the more direct and powerful side of the game and instead dawn a new playing style and philosophy. Italy are fluid in possession, having players move in and out of different roles on a whim. They press from the front and look to dizzy their opponents with their excellent off the ball movement.
23 years later we have a new generation of Austrian talent who are more technically gifted than their predecessors. No longer are Austria a team of individuals, rather a team of players who serve to play the roles best for the team. Seldom do we see a team as organized when defending from the front foot, less so at an international level. Lorenzo Insigne has been quoted saying: "From what we've seen, they are a very physical team who can run and press the entire match."
This preview will serve as a guide for viewers who are looking to see what tactical motifs will likely be on display by both sides.
Italy have quickly become fan favorites at Euro 2020 and for good reason: they play excellent football. This includes their build up play. Italy will play out from the back with a back three of Di Lorenzo. Bonucci and Acerbi. Spinazzola will take up a more advanced position, playing in a role similar to that of a traditional winger.
Jorginho will remain central in the build up while Verratti can be expected to start from the left half-space with permission to move centrally. This is done so that the first line of the Austrian press, their front three, will be at a numerical disadvantage as they come up against three Italian central defenders and Jorginho, with Verratti and Donnarumma possible passing options if needed, leading Italy to have a five versus three, or six versus three, scenario in their own third/top of the middle third, ensuring easy ball progression.
Verratti is the best option for Italy in this game for a few reasons. Despite Locatelli being in sensational form against Turkey and Switzerland, neither team were as organized in their pressing as Austria have been at Euro 2020. Austria plays best when transitioning from defense to attack and it shows in how they press. Verratti is the most press resistant between him and Locatelli. It seems unfair to drop Locatelli, but this is the best decision from a tactical point of view.
Presuming Austria press in the same structure as they have for the entirety of Euro 2020, expect the front three to be quickly beaten. Sabitzer on the right will be tasked with pressing Acerbi and shielding Spinazzola, Arnautovic in the middle will need to shield Jorginho while pressing Bonucci, Baumgartner will be able to press Di Lorenzo, but Italy seldom use the right flank in the build up.
Schlager and Grillitsch could press Verratti and Jorginho in order to beat the Italian build up phase, but their absence will leave Laimer exposed. Additionally, Austria’s central midfield does not join the press when the ball is in the opposition’s first third. All signs are pointing to Italy beating the Austrian press easily despite Austria’s pressing style being so effective in the group stages.
Dropping Locatelli for Verratti is not without it’s cons. Without Locatelli Italy will be without one of their best pressing midfielders, leaving the left half-space vulnerable for Austrian attack. Austria have played out from defense through the right side for the majority of Euro 2020, meaning that they’ll be playing into an area that's been weakened by Italy and one they’re comfortable playing in.
The Austrian structure in their first third is a slightly lopsided back four with Lainer taking up a more advanced role. Laimer will drop into the first third and remain central, while Grillitsch should be expected to stay in the right half-space to occupy Jorginho and force Barella to shield him.Against Wales, Italy pressed in a 4-4-2, with Insigne and Berardi occupying the opposition wingbacks and wide central defenders. While Wales played in a back five, the same pressing strategy will be used here due to the lopsided Austrian structure resembling a back five with Laimer dropping deep.
Austria will be able to beat the first line of the Italian press but will struggle to get further than that. North Macedonia ranked 20th of 24 teams in terms of middle third pressures (169 pressures over three games) meaning that they didn’t give Austria difficulty when Austria were able to progress the ball to the middle third. Austria looked out of their depth against Holland, who ranked 1st out of 24 teams in middle third pressures (265 pressures over three games).
The reason we use these stats to determine the quality and probability of Austria playing out from the back is because Italy, whose attacking third and midfield third pressures whilst not being as impressive as Holland’s (194 middle third pressures over three games, ranked fifth out of 24 teams), pass the eye test as being one of the most aggressive pressing teams when out of possession.
The reason they aren’t the most aggressive pressing team is because they spend most of the game in possession of the ball, not without it. Italy rank third at Euro 2020 for the team with the longest average time in possession, having 60.6% of the ball across three games. Now that Austria are facing a team similar in pressing style to Holland, expect little if any ball progression once Austria get out of their own third.
Italy have been excellent when in the final third. Their structure can be best described as a 3-2-5. The central defenders plus Di Lorenzo will remain central, while Jorginho and Verratti will dictate possession. With two midfielders in front of them, this allows Italy to attack comfortably knowing that they are largely safe should Austria counter-attack as they will have up to five players in the middle third able to recover to their first third.
Verratti was most effective against Wales in the left half-space moving to a central area so we expect that to continue against Austria. Verratti and Jorginho can swap roles against Austria like they did against Wales to overload whichever flank they choose. Verratti can move into the left half-space to combine with Insigne and Spinazzola, isolating Lainer and Sabitzer in a three versus two.
This can be done on the right with Jorginho moving into the right half-space while Verratti plays in the central role. Jorginho would then be able to combine with Barella and Berardi, isolating Alaba and Baumgartner in a three versus two.
Immobile will likely remain central, shifting with the side of the ball. Barella can be expected to take up a role similar to that of a second striker with the intention of combining with Immobile to overwhelm the central defenders Dragovic and Hinteregger in a two versus two. Italy can overwhelm either flank while also occupying both central defenders.
Austria lost convincingly against Holland who played in a similar attacking structure. The fullbacks on their end were overwhelmed frequently, forcing Austrian midfielders to drop deeper and further out of position.
Austria’s attacking structure resembles a 4-2-4 shape. The back four can expect to remain mostly flat after the build up phase from their first third to the middle third. This is likely due to Alaba’s more defensive role this tournament where he’s been tasked with man-marking a side’s more creative forward player. For example, against Ukraine, Alaba was glued to Yarmolenko. This will likely continue against Italy as Berardi is Italy’s best attacker on the right side.
In midfield one of Schlager or Grillitsch will take the more advanced role in the forward line while the other partners Lainer. Austria will target the right wide space and right half-space as that is where Italy are weakest in transition from attack to defense. Sabitzer can challenge Spinazzola confidently one versus one as the Italian wide players haven’t shown that they’ve been instructed to take up deeper defensive roles when out of possession. SImilarly, Baumgartner can challenge Di Lorenzo one versus one.
Arnautovic will remain central for the most part. Austria will want to stretch the Italian backline for the oncoming Schlager or Grillitsch. Italy have not been challenged when out of possession at Euro 2020. We have not seen how Spinazzola or Di Lorenzo perform when they’ve been exploited for their responsibilities out of possession.
In transition, Italy is one of the best at Euro 2020. This is largely why I expect the flat back four structure Austria uses in possession to remain unchanged. Insigne and Berardi have often run into the spaces behind the fullbacks because it was left vacant in transition against Wales, Switzerland and Turkey. Now, the Italian wide men will need to challenge their fullback counterparts one versus one.
Alaba is having an excellent tournament in defense. Alaba has successfully pressed an opponent 19 times from 36 attempts. This means that the 19 times Alaba has pressed a player, his team have won back possession within five seconds of that pressure.
This type of defending was on display against Ukraine especially. Alaba will not make game saving tackles or win every header. Rather, he will allow opponents time on the ball so that Austria have time to get back into their defensive shape, then pressure his opponent into moving backwards or sideways, often leading to a misplaced pass or turnover.
Italy: Donnarumma, Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Acerbi, Spinazzola, Jorginho, Verratti, Barella, Insigne, Berardi, Immobile
Austria: Bachman, Alaba, Hinteregger, Dragovic, Lainer, Grillitsch, Laimer, Schlager, Sabitzer, Arnautovic, Baumgartner
With Chiellini reported to be training by himself Acerbi will start ahead of him. It would be a real treat to neutrals and Italian fans to see Bastoni start, but it’s unlikely. Acerbi came on for Chiellini against Switzerland indicating that he is favored by Mancini in a must win game.
Locatelli is expected to miss out after an incredible start to Euro 2020. It almost seems unfair, but Verratti put on a show for us all against Wales. Verratti also played the full 90 minutes against Wales leading me to believe that it was a test of fitness that he passed with flying colors. If Locatelli does start against Austria, I expect the attacking structure to be largely the same, except that Jorginho will always remain central, rather than being given the option to move into the right half-space as if Verratti were playing.
Austria will struggle to maintain possession against a high pressing and fluid Italian team. They’re pressing structure has been impressive but I expect Italy to beat it convincingly as I explained above. Otherwise, it’s hard to see where goals come from in this Austrian team. Italy defends well in transitions, even if it is their weakest defensive attribute.
I expect Italy to win this game, along with every other game that follows this at Euro 2020.
I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___