Italy’s tactical versatility comes up big against England
People love stereotypes, especially in football. The Germans are a well drilled machine, the English are terrible at penalties and the Italians play horrible, anti-football. Nothing could be further from the truth with this Italian squad though. Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy have looked to cast aside the aspersions of their famed Catenaccio of the past in favour of a more steady, possession based approach.
The tactical changes that Prandelli has made during the course of the tournament shows how versatile his team are and if anything, is an explanation of why this team is adapting to their opponents so well.
In the opening group stage match against Spain we saw Italy line up with a very unorthodox looking 3-5-2 formation that utilised Daniele De Rossi to the fullest. The Roma man’s free role within the team over the course of this tournament has been the deciding factor in most of these matches as he’s able to cover the defence as he sees fit.
Against a team like Spain, it was vital. Their game revolves around looking for the extra man but with De Rossi shoring up the gaps in defence they just weren’t able to pick the Italians apart as they would do against many other teams. The same could be said of the match against Croatia and Ireland, although they had switched to a more conventional formation for the latter.
Things looked positive coming into the quarter finals against England. People understandably expected a fairly boring game, not because of Italy’s involvement for once but ironically due to Roy Hodgson’s own brand of defensive football. Be that as it may, it was an entertaining affair and Italy predictably got off to the better start.
This was all down to Wayne Rooney’s blatant refusal to close down Andrea Pirlo, meaning that he was creating chances left, right and center. England’s line was far too deep, relying a lot on the players sticking to their positions on the pitch. Wary about stepping out of line and creating open spaces for Italy, they chose to stand off Pirlo instead.
Even so, “Hodgball” seemed to be going according to plan after a flurry of Italian chances brought nothing. The Italians’ main problem throughout the course of the tournament has been their finishing. Mario Balotelli, explosive as he is, simply wasn’t able to put in the same performances that we’re used to in the Premier League. Fortunately, Prandelli’s tactical prowess made a huge difference later on in the match.
The Azzuri had followed a pattern in the group stage matches, putting on a strong showing in the first half only to forget to bring the same level of performance out of the dressing room for the second. This definitely seemed to be in the back of Prandelli’s mind as his squad came out more motivated than ever and after weathering an early storm they were quick to get on the front foot.
Clearly struggling to penetrate the wall of English defenders and taking frustrated shots from distance though, Prandelli decided on a different approach. Going through the middle just wasn’t working so why not break England down from out wide?
Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Diamanti were introduced into the match. The impact may not have been immediate as Italy struggled for a small spell without the presence of De Rossi in their midfield but the new substitutes didn’t take too long to get into the game.
The eventual penalty hero, Diamanti was the only player the entire match actually running at defenders rather than trying to pass through them. While Nocerino on the opposite flank was able to finally allow Frederico Balzaretti to sit back to nullify the threat of Theo Walcott instead of bombing forward like he had been doing for the entire match.
England were lucky to get away without conceding any goals given the shocking amount of chances that Italy had created. Unfortunately for them, one of those great stereotypes did come true with Italy turning over a deficit in the penalty shootout, sending them through the quarter final stage for the first time since Euro 2000. They now face Germany, putting the chances of them repeating their run to the finals from twelve years ago in some doubt.
Still, Italy are infamously known as Germany’s bogey team although now may be the time for Germany to finally put an end to that. The two teams’ last meeting was in 2006 on the way to Italy’s 4th World Cup trophy. Of course, at the time Italy played a different game and that was the kind of football that Germany had really struggled against.
Whether Prandelli’s decision to attack England down the middle in the first hour of the match was a conscious one or not, it would have been a perfect drill for the semi final clash. Germany’s fullbacks are far too strong, meaning their main weakness is down the middle. But Germany are also a team that actively close down the man in possession and every possible passing option, becoming possibly the first team in the tournament to really cause Andrea Pirlo some problems.
This major feature of their style is mainly because they have spent the last few years in Spain’s shadow. Löw and his men have obviously worked very hard to shape their football in a way that could counter the World champions’ possession game, hoping to finally end years of frustration. So the two teams could completely cancel each other out.
German fans are more optimistic than ever in this tournament, seeing Italy as just another speed bump on their run to the final. Nevertheless, Spain’s predecessors stand in their way and they will stand strong.