Spain vs. Italy: Analyzing the 'False Nine' and 3-Man Central Defence
Spain and Italy played out an incredibly entertaining 1-1 draw on Sunday, 10 June in Group C of the 2012 European Championships.
We saw two very different styles of football come head-to-head. Spain utilised a free-flowing system with no discernible strikers, while Italy looked as if they'd overcompensated by using three central defenders.
The truth is, with Andrea Barzagli out injured and Domenico Criscito withdrawn, the switch to three centre-backs was premeditated. Luckily for Cesare Prandelli, Spain's decision to use Cesc Fabregas in a "false-nine" position meant Italy's three defenders often had no one to mark.
Intrigued? Thought so. Here's how they lined up.
With Fabregas playing the false striker role, Spain's most advanced players were often wide forwards Andres Iniesta and David Silva.
Italy's three at the back were supplemented by two roaming wing-backs in debutant Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio. Andrea Pirlo anchored the midfield in his usual "regista" role.
Three at the back vs. "false nine"
Much of the pre-match intrigue surrounded the impending battle between Italy's three defensive brutes and a complete lack of a Spanish front man.
Vicente del Bosque fielded six midfielders in an attempt to (loosely) recreate Lionel Messi's role at Barcelona. He awarded this task to Fabregas, who played the same role against Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League semifinal.
Italy coped well with this, although this was partly due to a lack of incisive runs by Fabregas or, for that matter, anyone else.
It often ended up three vs. three during Spain's counterattacks, meaning Italy's wing-backs didn't need to drop back into the defensive line unless they found themselves under sustained, tiki-taka-induced pressure.
This rarely happened, but when it did, Maggio and Giaccherini were happy to slot in.
Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta then dropped into a line of three to shield the defence, leaving almost no space whatsoever for Spain to conjure something up.
Giorgio Chiellini's job was pivotal here, as he carefully monitored the runs of Fabregas and decided whether to push up and pressurise him or stand off and let him have it in a less-threatening position.
There was only one conceivable way for Spain to make ground. They needed to counterattack with pace and hit Italy when the wing-backs were high up the pitch.
This was never going to happen with Fabregas in the deeper "false-nine" role, so del Bosque turned to Fernando Torres.
This image details the difference between Fabregas' time up front and Torres'.
In the first instance, Fabregas is very, very deep. As a result, Italy's defensive line felt at liberty to push up high and try to pen Spain in their own half. There is no chance that Spain can be penetrative enough in this scenario to catch Italy out, and they can't outnumber them either.
In the second instance, Torres is introduced and you can see his starting position is quite different.
He put himself just inside Chiellini and played on the shoulder of the defence—a dramatic change which Italy weren't ready for. The high line is now ineffective and somewhat dangerous, as there is clear space in behind for Torres to run into.
Indeed, Torres ran through with intent no less than five times having received the ball to his feet and turning.
One time he blazed a chip over when it was easier to square the ball to Jesus Navas; another he hesitated due to no discernible options. The old Torres would have buried one, winning it for Spain.
The "false nine" could have worked if Fabregas had been a bit more direct and incisive with his runs, but overall the limited space made it hard for him to do his elusive job.
Switching to a centre forward was needed and effective, and perhaps Alvaro Negredo would have bagged a winner.
Italy's three-man central defensive system was born out of need, not tactical nous, but worked nonetheless. Had Spain started with a striker, though, it may well have gone horribly wrong.
Either way, Italy's system should have enough to see off Republic of Ireland and Croatia, while Spain's tiki-taka will be too much for them as well.
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