I taly will take on Spain in the semi-finals of Euro 2020. The Mediterranean Derby as it has been called before, puts two progressive, attacking and intelligent teams against each other. Historically speaking, The Azzurri have never been synonymous with fluid attacking play, instead choosing to play defensive football; Catenaccio meaning "door-bolt", which implies a highly organized and effective defence focused on nullifying opponents' attacks.
This 2021 Italian side is nothing of the sort, having evolved in recent years since overachieving at Euro 2016 and failing to qualify for World Cup 2018. It’s safe to say that Roberto Mancini has worked miracles in getting eleven Italian players to play beautiful football.
On the other hand, Spain have been synonymous with artistry in possession, the mastery of which has paradoxically also been labelled by certain critics as defensive football, due to their unyielding control of the ball, leaving very little to chance. The best form of defence is possession.
Regardless of the debate over the aesthetic merits of their football philosophy, one cannot dispute the efficacy of it - European champions in 2008 and 2012, and World champions in 2010. 6 Champions League winning clubs during the 2010's. Spain breed success... or at least it did.
The last time these two sides met in an international tournament was in the 2016 Round of 16, where Italy won 2-0. Just six faces return as members of their Euro 2020 squads. Aside from Florenzi, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini remain ever present in this Italian squad, having aged like fine wine, as most Italian players do.
Meanwhile Morata is joined by veterans Jordi Alba and Busquets for Spain, who will be keen to inflict a similar result to that witnessed in the Euro 2012 final. The illustrious quartet of Bonucci, Chiellini, Alba and Busquets are entering the twilight years of their career and are keen to finish what is likely to be their last international tournaments with silverware.
This preview will serve as a guide to explain the tactics used by both sides in their semi-final match, as well as what tactical adjustments should be considered in order to better the chances of success in what is expected to be one of the most fiercely fought games of Euro 2020 so far.
Italy’s build up play has remained largely unchanged in Euro 2020 and it is expected to continue that way. Bonucci will step forward into a position you would normally expect a more traditional #6 to be in, while Di Lorenzo and Chiellini stay at the top of the penalty area. This will create a diamond shape and an overload in the central area. It becomes a four versus one that favours Italy.
Spain will press with one central player, likely Morata, while the starting wide players will press the central defenders from behind while also screening the wider passing options. Koke and Pedri will also be expected to press their midfield counterparts. Should Italy beat the Spanish press, Insigne, Immobile, Barella and Berardi/Chiesa will be able to attack Spain before they have time to move into a more of a mid- to low-block.
One issue that crept into my mind is not knowing how Italy will handle the Spanish press. Italy played and beat the second best team that successfully pressed most often at Euro 2020 when they played Austria in the round of 16 but it was not an easy ride. The most successful pressing team at Euro 2020? Spain.
Of the 655 pressures Spain has made, 37.4% have been successful, compared to Austria’s 35.7%. Spain are the third most aggressive team in the final third when pressing at Euro 2020 with 193 pressures. What does this mean for Italy?
With a PPDA of 8.3, Spain will win the ball quickly. Austria gave Italy a torrid time, most notably due to their aggressive pressing nature; Italy failed to grab a hold of the game. Spain are more aggressive than Austria, while also better at maintaining possession and full of more technically talented players in every position.
Spinazzola’s absence will be deeply felt. Italy are likely to attack in the same manner in which they have all of Euro 2020, so expect chance creation to continue to come from the left flank with Insigne, Emerson and Verratti all swapping positions when in possession.
This tactic Italy have used all tournament resembles a 3-2-5 when in possession. It creates an overload in the left wide space and half-space, while forcing the central defenders to man-mark players like Immobile and Barella who have the freedom to join the forward line, all while Berardi/Chiesa acts as a wide passing option.
Against Belgium and Austria, Italy only needed to defend when in transition from attack to defence. They defended well but Emerson is not known for his defensive capabilities for his country, and has made Chelsea’s bench his second home. If Emerson is to start, I would not be filled with confidence when they go forward or defend. There is another option however. More on that later.
Italy’s xG at Euro 2020 is 8.4, despite scoring 11 times. This leads me to believe that Italy creates fewer chances than expected but are adequate enough when finishing their chances. It’s hard to remember any major blunders for Italy in the final third, meaning that this trend of continued high quality finishing will continue if the chances are created.
It is worth mentioning that their xG against Turkey and Wales was 1.7 and 1.8 after winning both games by a score of 3-0. This shows that Italy are capable of taking advantage of low quality goal scoring opportunities which will likely present against Spain.
Similar to Italy, expect little, if any, change in the structure Spain uses to play out from defence. While similar to Italy, Spain differs slightly. Both shapes offer a four versus one, but there are some noticeable changes. For starters, Chiellini plays in a more advanced central role, while for Spain, Busquets drops deeper. They both occupy the same position but the structures are different.
Spain’s fullbacks are wider, forcing the Italy wide players to press the central defenders while screening both fullbacks. The likely target of attack for Spain will be Olmo, Alba, or whichever player does start on the left for Spain, as this is the flank that often sees Di Lorenzo tuck inside to play in a central role, leaving space in the right wide area vulnerable to direct passes from Spain.
One of Italy’s fullbacks provides width, which was Spinazzola, while Spain uses both fullbacks to provide width. All this does is force the Italians to take on more defensive responsibilities than they have in their previous matches regarding pressing, screening and final third defensive actions.
Mentioned earlier was the Spanish press and how they were the most successful pressing teams at Euro 2020. While intimidating, it’s worth analysing why the Italians have done so well from defending from the front. Italy are leaders at Euro 2020 for final third pressures at a whopping 232. For comparison, the second most frequent final third pressing team is England at 195, followed by Spain in third with 193.
Of these final third pressures, 26.5% of them have resulted in Italy winning possession in the final third. While Spain are the most successful pressers at Euro 2020, Italy are the most frequent final third pressers, leading me to believe that Spain will not have as easy of a time playing out from defence.
Spain’s structure in the final third is similar to Italy’s but with a few caveats. Both teams will play with a front four made up of the three starting forwards playing narrow, followed by one of the fullbacks adding width, while the ball sided central midfielder joins the forward line forming a front five. The differences lie in the versatility Spain has going forward.
Both Alba and Azpilicueta are capable of going forward and adding width while the other remains a part of the “back three” in possession, forming a sort of 3-2-5. This strategy is effective for the same reasons as it is for Italy: overloads, players moving into different positions and playing in different roles.
Where Spain trump Italy is how they’re able to achieve this shape. We’ve seen against Switzerland how Spain got their shape. The width was provided by the central midfielders; Pedri and Koke would move into the wide areas while the starting forwards moved centrally.
This allowed the backline to remain relatively flat and ready to defend against more direct counter-attacks. It was largely ineffective going forward due to Koke’s lack of creativity and versatility, so expect the width to come from the fullbacks against Italy.
Spain comes into this game with an xG of 14.4 with 12 goals scored, which, you might not have believed given the amount of people talking about Alvaro Morata and his poor finishing ability. While yes, he’s made a few blunders, he’s begun to come good.
His finish against Croatia in extra time to give Spain the lead is that of a proper #9, one that will surely fill him with confidence. Spain have had the unfortunate pleasure of playing Switzerland, Croatia, Slovakia, Poland and Sweden, all teams who look to defend from the first minute to the last where chance creation is scarce. In a more open game against Italy, Morata should thrive.
With Spinazzola out for the rest of Euro 2020, Emerson is likely to be the one to replace him. We won’t pretend to know more than Roberto Mancini, but we will make the case for one of the best young defenders in the world to start for his national side.
If we look at Italy’s structure in the final third, the left fullback is used as an attacking option, meant to add width to the Italian forward line. The same can be said about Italy’s right fullback, Di Lorenzo or Florenzi. Florenzi was as much a wide player as Spinazzola was in Italy’s game against Turkey.
This is likely because Mancini instructed him to play this way. Whether Florenzi or Di Lorenzo starts is hard to debate as Di Lorenzo is the fullback that tucks inside, so we haven’t seen him get forward for Italy.
The structure remains the same as always, 3-2-5, but with a focus on attacking from the right rather than the left. It’s up to Mancini to decide if Florenzi or Di Lorenzo starts, but this is the first example of how Bastoni can, and should, be used against Spain.
Bastoni is more than capable of joining the attack. Perhaps not as strong as Spinazzola, but it’s a role he played in for Inter in the 2020/21 season that saw them win the Scudetto. Here we’ve analyzed every aspect of Bastoni’s game. One of the best young defenders in the world and for good reason: astute defender, high IQ, capable of playing in different roles as the game progresses. He is a capable solution to this unfortunate Spinazzola injury.
Below we can see a photo from Inter’s game against Napoli. In possession, Inter moved into a back four with one of the central defenders moving into midfield, if not, one or both of the central midfielders drop into Inter’s first third. This structure closely resembles that of the Italian one during the build up phase.
This would be a seamless transition for Bastoni. He is capable of defending, attacking, dictating play and can play in different roles based on what the game asks him to. All of which Emerson cannot do. Emerson, with respect, will essentially play as a wide player for Italy and nothing else. Bastoni can offer that and more due to his versatility.
Italy: Donnarumma, Di Lorenzo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Emerson, Jorginho, Verratti, Barella, Insigne, Immobile, Berardi
Spain: Simon, Alba, Laporte, Garcia, Azpilicueta, Busquets, Koke, Pedri, Olmo, Torres, Morata
This has been one of the harder games I’ve had to predict at Euro 2020 so far. Both teams are here on merit. Spain have consistently chopped and changed their lineup, which has clearly caused imbalance and uncertainty.
Defensive cock-ups from Spain seem inevitable with the swapping of Garcia and P. Torres, with just Laporte the only certain starter in central defense. Garcia has been the most impressive of the two, although it isn’t saying much, it’s a case of Pau Torres being “Poor” Torres, rather than the defender we all expect him to become. Otherwise, with Sarabia possibly out with injury, Olmo is the likely replacement. The rest of the team picks itself.
Italy has two possible changes: Emerson and Berardi. I’ve chosen Berardi to start over Chiesa because other than the goal against Austria, he has not offered enough going forward when compared to Berardi. With that said, he also hasn’t had as much of an opportunity to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chiesa starts, but after being largely invisible against Belgium, I see no reason for him getting back to back starting berths.
Emerson will likely start ahead of Bastoni. If Emerson starts, Spain will certainly punish him for how little he offers in transition and when out of possession. Bastoni is, in my opinion, the difference between Italy winning and losing.
In a game where both teams are expected to press like mad-men while also aiming to maintain possession, this game will likely be decided during a counter-attack, of which there will be plenty. I expect it to resemble the opening 30 minutes of the Belgium versus Italy game, or Italy versus Austria game due to how similar in nature Spain and Italy play.
Prediction: Spain to beat Italy during transition. Emerson will notably not be able to be relied on.
I’m a Canadian soccer/football coach and analyst with a bias towards Manchester City. Follow me on twitter for more football content @CamH___