Italy and Spain have been the two most interesting teams from a tactical perspective in Euro 2012.
With the majority of the teams in the tournament employing the in vogue 4-2-3-1 formation, Italy has used a three-man backline and alternatively a diamond midfield behind two strikers.
Spain has even deployed a 4-6-0 strikerless formation, utilizing a "false nine." This is the first time the cutting edge tactic, made famous by the likes of Roma and Barcelona, has been used in a major international tournament.
So what can we expect to see Sunday?
Since their convincing 2-1 win over Germany, Italy has faced questions as to whether they will stick with the 4-3-1-2 or return to a 3-5-2. Using a three-man defense, Italy played well against the defending European and world champions, arguably giving them their toughest test of the tournament, while also being the only team to score on the Spanish.
However, Italy has used the 4-3-1-2 in its last three matches, including the win against the Germans, as well as the quarterfinal against England, in which they dominated every category except the score line.
In terms of what formation they will use in the final, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli has ruled out a switch back to the three-man defense, according to Football-Italia.
There would have been merits to reintroducing the 3-5-2, including its use of wingbacks that can take advantage of Spain's lack of width, but the reality is Italy have been playing well in the 4-3-1-2, so it makes sense for Prandelli not to change something that is working.
Then there are the Spanish. In its match preview, the tactics website Zonal Marking reports Spain is likely use Cesc Fabregas as a false nine again.
The Spanish use of the false nine has produced mixed results thus far, as there have been some positive moments (including Fabregas's equalizing goal vs. Italy), but overall it has left something to be desired.
The 4-6-0 can certainly be effective, as evidenced by Barcelona's recent success using a false nine. However, this success hinges on forward runs from the midfield and the flanks to take advantage of the space created by the withdrawn forward. Otherwise, the team runs the risk of cluttering the midfield, as was the case at times in the first Italy-Spain match.
On paper, there will be three Spanish “forwards” against the Italian back four. However, with Spain wanting to control the game, it is probable the front three of Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and David Silva will spend considerable time dropping deep to allow Spain to have greater numbers in the midfield. As a result, Italy will have numerical superiority at the back.
Considering the two formations, it will be interesting to observe how the outside of the pitch is utilized. Both sides are narrow, relying on their fullbacks to provide width. The Italian diamond midfield uses four central midfielders, and while Andres Iniesta and David Silva may initially line up on the outside, they have spent most of their time cutting inside.
Spain would be well served to play Jesús Navas, a true winger who could cause serious problems for Italy. Italy’s formation lacks wide midfielders, so Navas working in conjunction with an overlapping run from a fullback would create a two vs. one situation on the outside.
Playing Navas would also allow Spain to stretch play laterally, opening up more space for forward runs from the midfield. Given these difficulties he could cause for Italy, though he is not currently slated to start, expect to see Navas introduced as a sub.
On the other end of the pitch, given the strike partnership they face, Spain must be careful of how aggressively they deploy fullbacks Jordi Alba and Álvaro Arbeloa. Strikers Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli are both adept at drifting wide and working in the space behind the fullbacks, so if the Spanish fullbacks are caught high up the pitch, the defense as a whole will risk getting spread thin.
Finally, there is the question all teams must ask when facing Italy: how to handle Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo has arguably been the player of the tournament, and can be a thorn in the side of teams who give him too much space. In the last two games, neither England’s Wayne Rooney, nor the Germany duo of Mesut Özil and Toni Kroos, all of whom played in roughly the same area of the pitch as the Italian playmaker, did an adequate job of picking up Pirlo.
Xavi will be Spain’s most advanced midfielder, but he will almost certainly not be asked to come forward enough so that he occupies Pirlo. Rather, the job will likely fall to the nominal forwards, who will have the task of dropping deep to deny the Juventus regista the space he will want.
The first time these teams met, they provided one of the most exciting and tactically intriguing games of Euro 2012. When they meet again on Sunday, it could very well be more of the same.