Blog Written by Alessandro Pugliese (@Sandro_Pugliese):
All stats via FourFourTwo and WhoScored
A world-class performance from Antonio Conte and his squad conquered two-time Euro Cup defending champions, Spain. I think it’s more than fair to say Conte has perfected the 3-5-2 formation and is outstanding at preparing his squad for a single must-win match. This Italian performance was quite similar to the one against Belgium but even better.
The Italians may have surprised some folks with how they approached this match. They did not sit back, allowing Spain to possess the ball while playing catenaccio. Instead, Italy started the match on the front foot as Conte had his team attacking wisely and efficiently. If it was not for some brilliance from Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea, Italy could’ve easily ran away with the game in the first half. Granted, De Gea gave up the rebound, which lead to Chiellini’s goal but he still played very well and kept Spain in the match.
Italy dropped a forward, usually Graziano Pellè, to mark Sergio Busquets, making it difficult for Spain to build up play from out of the back, as they love to do. In the first half, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas didn’t find the ball in dangerous areas and had very little impact on the match.
Even when they played long and over the top, Morata struggled to win the ball against his former teammates. Spain played 41 long passes, nine more than Italy, exemplifying how Italy’s tactics worked, not allowing the Spanish to develop their typical tiki-taka rhythm. Two attackers, Nolito and Morata, who were both substituted, combined to complete only 33 passes, just one more than Gigi Buffon. Spain may have had the edge in possession but Italy proved what matters most is what you do with the ball and not how much you have it.
While Spain did have their fair share of chances, Buffon was up to the task each time and the Italian defense held firm. Buffon showed us once again, at the age of 38, why he’s considered one of the all-time greats. As the leader of Gli Azzurri, Gigi stepped up when his number was called upon, especially in the 90th minute on a Pique shot from eight yards out. This Spanish side just did not seem up to the task while Italy played impeccably as a team in unison. The Italians played as a compact unit showing true desire and a will to win, which Spain was lacking.
It really can’t be said enough how remarkable the Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini partnership is. They’ve all played together for the past five years and have formed an impeccable chemistry. Each of them are standout defenders while also possessing the ability to comfortably play the ball around the back and build the attack. Barzagli and Bonucci, in particular, are phenomenal at finding diagonal passes into the midfield. The leadership characteristics of these three along with Buffon are the backbone for this Italian side. As long as this defense plays up to their high standards, Italy will have a chance in this tournament.
Conte has formed a well-oiled machine with the squad he’s brought to France. Everyone who steps on the field gives 110% and works hard on both sides of the ball. Italy do a fine job of playing out of the back, utilizing the wingbacks, finding the central midfielders and then linking up between the two strikers. This Italian team has done a superb job of utilizing the wide areas, working the ball out wide and then whipping in crosses or cutting in to shoot.
Graziano Pellè’s stoppage time goal was splendidly orchestrated. As Giaccherini laid the ball off to Lorenzo Insigne in the attacking third, the Napoli winger exchanged a give-and-go with Tiago Motta. Instead of just heading towards the corner to waste time, Insigne then picked out an exquisite ball to switch the play to the right side, allowing Matteo Darmian to find Pellè inside the box and finish off the game; a lesson that you can finish off a match with skill and intelligence rather than just time wasting.
Italy performed brilliantly and thoroughly deserved the victory against Spain. Conte outcoached Del Bosque, who never made any significant changes to his team’s approach when it was needed. Pellè and Eder created all sorts of problems for Pique and Ramos; Spain’s midfield was largely ineffective while BBC shut down Morata and the rest of Spain’s attack. Conte has earned all the praise he is now receiving, being hailed as the coach of the tournament thus far.
Next up for Conte and his warriors are the defending World Cup champions, Germany on Saturday July 2 at 3:00 p.m. EST. Interestingly enough, most Germans preferred to face Spain in the quarterfinals as Germany have never beaten Italy at a major tournament (four wins for Italy and four draws). Antonio Conte will be cooking up his next tactical setup in hopes to keep Italy marching on at Euro 2016.