Following a historic Teemu Pukki inspired Finland win, to qualify the Scandinavian nation for their first-ever major tournament, this match descended into a bit of a dead rubber.
Still, Roberto Mancini’s Italy wanted to continue their incredible qualifying campaign against a Bosnia and Herzegovina side looking to gain a scalp in their home territory.
After a comprehensive win over minnows Liechtenstein, where Mancini rotated heavily, here however he recognised the potential strength of this Bosnia side and fielded a much stronger 11. Stars like: Jorginho, Lorenzo Insigne, Leonardo Bonucci and Emerson all played in this game after being absent previously.
It was a similar story with Robert Prosinečki’s side. On-loan Sheffield United midfielder Muhamed Bešić returned to the centre of the park. The front three was all change. Ex-Manchester City striker Edin Džeko had Edin Višća and Rade Krunić either side on the wings.
When in possession in deep areas the Italians had two lines to offer support for ball progression. There were three defenders, excluding left-back Emerson, and two deep-lying playmakers: Jorginho and Sandro Tonali.
The two full-backs roles in this stage of play were very contrasting. Alessandro Florenzi maintained a much more conservative position, and defensively he provided protection in the case of any Bosnian counter-attacks.
When goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma had the ball, or if it was being rotated around the defensive three, the primary aim was to bypass the Bosnian press, however half-hearted. Florenzi’s role is important because the Bosnia defensive structure was typically 4-4-2, thus by placing himself to the right of Bonucci he offered another option, a pass a lot shorter, with more chance of being successful.
Emerson, on the other hand, kept the attacking instincts he so likes to use at his home club. His overall partnership with Insigne is a dangerous one, and here Tonali was also regularly seen coming across, creating a passing lane into the left half-space. Unlike Florenzi, the Chelsea man adopted a modern full-back role. High and touchline hugging he stretched the Bosnian defence vertically and horizontally – opening up pockets of space for a half space-occupying Insigne. You can see the difference in the two full-backs positioning in their respective heat maps below.
We’ve come to expect the metronomic nature of Jorginho in recent years and under Mancini, he does no different – a 94% pass accuracy rate here. Florenzi’s deepness, in conjunction with Emerson’s forward-thinking, meant it was usual to see a T shape form when building up attacking moves. Jorginho’s intuitive positioning and ability to break lines, receiving and passing resulted in a, at times, farcical Bosnia press, being ineffective.
The third goal also shows the difference between Nicolò Barella and the two other central midfielders in this game. I refer back to Florenzi, in order to prevent right-winger Federico Bernardeschi getting isolated in absence of Florenzi Mancini instructed Barella to advance and shuttle into the right half-space to combine with Bernardeschi and also open up space for him to take advantage of his dribbling ability. For the third, shown below, Barella was in acres of space, exploiting a lack of compactness in the Bosnia press – Jorginho had cleverly drawn the midfield out. The 22-year-old lets it go across his body and plays an incisive pass through to Belotti who swiftly finishes the chance, and the game as a contest. The Inter player ended the game with four key passes, the most on the Italian team.
Italy preferred to be aggressive in their defensive approach and try to win the ball back in high areas of the field. The two wingers added energy while narrowing to minimise space that could be played through, therefore encouraging the play out wide where Bosnian players could be caged more easily, and a turnover could occur.
Another interesting aspect of the Squadra Azzurra’s defensive intent was the willingness of Tonali and Jorginho to commit with the attacking players, especially considering they were the more defensive midfielders employed, plus their defensive abilities are not their speciality. Problems that arose with this approach could have been better exposed if the Bosnian’s had been clinical in forward positions after the initial counter-press had been broken.
When the third goal was scored, both team’s approach altered. Bosnia, in desperation, became the protagonists pushing forward consistently, though to no avail goal-wise. When this inevitable onslaught occurred, we saw the other face of Mancini’s side; it’s tenacity and doggedness. They repelled attacking efforts with simplicity while retaining a threat on the counter.
The Bosnian’s were content to relinquish possession and instead focused on being a threat in transition. Their main intention was to try and get the wingers one-on-one situations against the Italian full-backs. Attempting to progress the ball on the ground was largely unsuccessful because of the aforementioned organised and aggressive Italy press. Their most dangerous moments using this winger-based strategy was instead when: they nicked the ball with the opposition unorganised, played over the press into target-man Džeko, or, after a quick switch of play.
The majority of attacks came down the right, attempting to capitalise if Emerson was caught up-field or, on his defensive deficiencies. However, the right-winger Višća had a very poor game. When he was substituted on the hour mark he’d only made five accurate passes, and no key passes – the other winger Krunic completed five key passes overall. In the graph below we can see although more shots came from the right, there is a notable 0.34 xG differential between the two sides.
In situations when Emerson was caught out, the Bosnian wingers are in their prime, but they were generally careless, especially Višća. Two examples of a poor final ball are seen below.
But what did cost them in this game was the inadequacy of their defensive organisation. Most of the time, two committed to pressuring the first stage of Italian build-up: Džeko and Krunic. Višća did get involved in parts, but the Italians always had numerical superiority and an open passing lane due to Jorginho and Tonali’s neat positioning, and the passiveness of other Bosnia players to close space down and push on together. Although, people like Bonucci’s exceptional technical ability allowed them to go long accurately, which the statistics prove. Bonucci completed 12 of his massive 17 long balls attempted (a pass >25 yards). This build-up situation below portrays what I mean.
In the deepest third, it wasn’t much better. The first goal showed just how poor they were.
After right-back Zoran Kvržić had Bernardeschi go past him the ball was cut back to centre-back Francesco Acerbi. With no obvious passing option plus the fact he’s not a forward player, it’d be expected that a Bosnia player would dispossess him. However, despite the four potential Bosnia players that could either tackle the Lazio defender or block the shot, Acerbi resisted Miralem Pjanić’s half-hearted challenge and placed the ball into the corner.
This analysis has emphasised the difference between the two sides technically, tactically and organisationally. Italy’s superior players essentially proved too strong for the Bosnian’s this time around.
Mancini’s side is in a good place ahead of next summer championships, with a settled squad and system, whereas it’d be fair to say Prosinečki’s Bosnia is in a state of transition themselves.
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