Italy, the main hosts of the 2019 U21 European Championship, came into the tournament as one of the favourites due to the strength of the squad which boasts a multitude of Serie A regulars, many of which have already collected caps at a senior national level.
And what awaited the Italians in their Group A opener was Spain who were also billed as one of the favourites to win it all and the team that knocked them out of the 2017 tournament. A side boasting a strong squad of their own led by Dani Ceballos who was the player of the tournament for the 2017 edition.
And with so much talent on offer, the game did not disappoint, with the spectacular goals on show culminating in a reversal of the 2017 semi-final result as Italy came back from a goal down to claim a 3-1 victory. Below is a tactical analysis of some of the themes seen on display and looking at the key moments that led to the Italy victory.
Line-ups and initial set-up
Initially, Di Biagio called on a 4-3-1-2 to start the game. The midfield setup was as expected with Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Pellegrini flanking Rolando Mandragora to make up the midfield three with the Udinese player taking up the deep-lying role in the group. In the more advanced positions ahead of them, Nicolo Zaniolo was set up behind the front two of Juventus’ Moise Kean and Federico Chiesa of Fiorentina. But in reality, Zaniolo would operate more on the righthand side to form more of a 4-3-3 shape as the game played out, with Chiesa operating on the lefthand side.
Luis de la Fuente on the other hand, had Spain start out in a 4-2-3-1. The defence would be marshalled by captain Jesus Vallejo, the midfield pair of Fabian Ruiz and Igor Zubeldia would initially sit behind the exciting trio of Carlos Soler, Ceballos and Mikel Oyarzabal who would often interchange positions between each other. They would have freedom to roam between occupying wide areas, dropping into midfield or supporting lone striker Borja Mayoral.
Italy without the ball
Italy employed a man-orientated pressing system in order to disrupt Spain during their build up from the back. The press can clearly be seen in the images below. The goal was either to force Simon to play a long ball towards the forwards which he resorted to many times or for the ball to be rotated amongst the defenders until a mistake is made under the pressure. Simon on a few occasions did well to successfully find a free man in either the full-back or a player that drifted into the space between the Italian defence and midfield.
And when Italy weren’t able to press effectively, they dropped back into multiple shapes. In either shape, they looked to deny passing lanes and looked to reignite the aggressive pressing whenever Spain moved the ball into certain areas where the Italians had a potential overload.
One of the shapes was a 4-5-1 shape which then became a 4-4-2 as one the midfielders advanced with Kean in order to disrupt the Spain build-up. The midfield line of four would then back them up. Here is an example with Pellegrini being the one to advance but the role wasn’t exclusively his own.
Other times the shape would look like their initial 4-3-3/4-3-1-2 setup. This approach didn’t lead to any clear-cut chances/goals but Italy managed to win the ball back multiple times in threatening positions and these recoveries could’ve been more significant to the outcome on another day.
An example of that is below where we see Zubeldia with possession of the ball. Kean is positioned to press Vallejo who is out of the frame and is also blocking the passing lane to Mere behind him. Now with the all options up the field marked tightly, Zubeldia looking to circulate the ball moves to his best option which is Aguirregabiria. This is the cue for Chiesa to start the press with his teammates following suit.
The right-back quickly plays it back to Zubeldia who, while under duress, cannot play it to the open Mere as Kean goes to press Vallejo and block a pass to the goalkeeper. He then loses it under the pressure in a dangerous position which eventually leads to a decent opportunity for Italy and Chiesa firing the ball just wide.
Spain building up
Spain often used three-man combinations to find space between the lines. In the two following images, we see Oyarzabal drop at an angle to make himself available for the ball while taking Di Marco with him. Aguirregabiria plays him the ball and immediately starts running into the space Di Marco would normally be patrolling, Oyarzabal plays the ball first time to Fabian Ruiz who just as quickly plays a through ball to Aguirre.
Spain also managed to find Ceballos drifting behind the Italian midfield line as they pressed. Below is an example where Zubeldia pulls Mandragora as Ceballos drifts into space where Aguirregaribia expertly finds him.
Spain also utilised overloads created on one side with attackers drawing the attention of the Italians, leaving the fullback on the opposite flank in acres of space. It was clear in the build-up to the opening goal although it didn’t directly lead to the goal. The image below shows Oyarzabal vacates the right side to join a cluster of Spanish attackers centrally with the left-back Martin also pushed up the field to support. This successfully shifts the formation of the Italians. Now Zubeldia has the ball but instead of finding Aguirregabiria directly, he chooses the longer route and passes back to Vallejo who has the better angle to then move the ball to the right-back. This allows Italy the time to rotate in defence and recover to stop the threat.
They then forced Spain to recycle the ball through midfield where it is swiftly moved to Ceballos in the left half-space with Soler on his left and Martin storming forward. Barella stood off him and Ceballos shifted across Barella with the ball, setting up for a right-footed strike and eventually leaving Meret with no chance as he slotted the ball into the top corner.
Italy building up
Spain also used a man-orientated press and Italy found themselves knocking the ball long on many occasions as well. But unlike Spain, Italy had didn’t have much joy building up their play when faced with the press and often weren’t able to transition into threatening situations whenever they managed to retain the ball under pressure. The Italian fullbacks would often move forward in line with Mandragora to form a sort of 2-3-2-3.
This gives them superior numbers to bypass the pressure of the 6 Spanish markers but they couldn’t do so consistently and Spain were often allowed to drop back and reorganize after a failed press. The next image shows that every Spanish player except for Oyarzabal has a clear assignment to man-mark during the press. Here he has two options to mark but only Italy only manage to play the ball amongst the players at the back and cannot make headway into the Spanish half.
When not pressing, Spain would form a 4-4-2 shape with Ceballos often the one found next to or around Borja while the two wide players dropped to flank Ruiz and Zubeldia. This shape can be seen in the next image.
Whenever one or even both of Pellegrini or Barella dropped to receive the ball the Spanish pressure didn’t have much effect, but as a result, there weren’t many options in the central areas behind the Spanish midfield line, so they would usually build up on the flanks using the fullbacks and wide players. This would often lead to low quality crosses towards the box where the striker was usually isolated.
For the equaliser, they managed to beat a minor press from a throw-in and immediately reaped the rewards. Zaniolo and Kean drop towards the throw, drawing the attention of the Spanish backline and therefore leaving space for Chiesa on the opposite flank. Under pressure from Soler and Martin, Zaniolo manages to play the ball to Barella. The midfielder can they play a long ball towards Chiesa.
Chiesa brings it down expertly and proceeds to attack the recovering Aguirregabiria one-on-one, backing him up into the box where Chiesa shifts the ball to his left foot and beats the keeper with a near-post strike when the Simon seemed to have been anticipating a cross.
Italy would often find themselves with either one of Mancini or Bonifazi on the ball and with the constant threat of an ensuing press from whoever made up the Spain front two. Both of the centrebacks would try to find their midfield teammates between the lines with more vertical passes. But of the two, Mancini was the more successful in performing this task. His influence on the ball helped produce many of the best situations Italy had throughout their attempts build-up play from the back.
In the image below, Mancini drives forward with the ball past his marker and successfully finds Pellegrini who can then turn and drive towards the Spanish backline.
Below Soler gets slightly drawn in by Mancini advancing into midfield and Zaniolo pulls Martin with him as he moves towards the central area. This gives Mancini enough of an opportunity to thread a ball for Calabresi directly into the Spanish final third where he can then deliver a cross or drive into the box.
For their second goal, it was Mancini who strode forward, finding Orsolini who had earlier come on for the injured Zaniolo.
And although Orsolini loses the ball, he quickly recovers it, then moves inside to send a cross into the box towards Crutone who had just come on for Kean. After the ball bounces around in the box, a chance is presented to Chiesa who finishes calmly. Mancini was even involved in the third, as he remained composed under aggressive pressure from Oyarzabal to find an open Calabresi. The right back then feeds Orsolini, who’s great skill and cross leads to Italy getting the penalty which Pellegrini converted.
Both teams had to deal with the man-orientated pressing for much of the contest and it was Spain who dealt with the pressure the best, and as result, they were the most threatening of two sides. Spain were too often let down by poor quality in and around the Italy box and will still count themselves unlucky not to walk away with at least a draw. Italy on the other hand, were more clinical with the opportunities they were presented with. And even though they weren’t as fluid as their opponents going forward, they managed to grab a result that had them firmly in control of a tough Group A.
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