"Familiarity breeds contempt" goes the old idiom but, as Italy faced off against Spain on Wednesday night, it seemed their regular meetings had done nothing but increase the mutual respect between them. The game at the Vicente Calderon Stadium marked the fifth time the pair had faced off since August 2011, and the home side’s victory has leveled their all-time head-to-head record at 10 wins apiece with 13 draws.
Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli had bemoaned the scheduling of the fixture, saying he would have preferred a different opponent as he prepares his team for this summer’s tournament. “If I’m honest, it is a game I would rather avoid,” he told Marca earlier this week. “Three months before a World Cup, it’s a high level match that may cause us some difficulty.” (h/t FootballItalia)
The former Fiorentina and Roma coach also had one eye on a potential meeting with the holders in the knockout stages, saying in the same interview that he wouldn’t be revealing any tactical plans he may have for La Furia Roja.“I don’t want to give any clues of new ideas,” he told the Spanish newspaper, and it is perhaps Italy who have caused Vincente del Bosque’s all-conquering side the most problems in recent years.
Spain were considered somewhat fortuitous to escape the opening match of Euro 2012 with a draw against the Azzurri, Prandelli judging the match perfectly from a tactical standpoint. He strangely abandoned the 3-5-2 used in that game for a four-man defence in the Final, his plans destroyed by an incredible performance by the holders as they comfortably retained their title.
Almost four years into his tenure however, the Italy coach has never appeared to settle on a single formation, switching constantly as he tailors his side to the opposition. Yet—against seemingly everyone but Spain—they do possess a clear identity, playing in a thoroughly modern style which brings the best from the players available.
With incredible depth in midfield, Prandelli has built a team who play in much the same manner as his beloved Viola, pressing in numbers, constantly passing the ball around and striking at speed whenever possible. That would always prove difficult against Spain though, and especially when a combination of injury and ill discipline robbed the Azzurri of certain starters Mario Balotelli, Giuseppe Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi.
Imposing your own style and tempo when faced with the current World Champions is an arduous task, and the decision to rest Andrea Pirlo only intensified that as Spain dominated possession. At full-time, stats site WhoScored showed that Italy retained the ball for just 30 per cent of the game, and were out-passed by a 839-332 margin.
Yet Italy would start the game positively, pushing forward wherever possible and when Alessio Cerci drove into the box in the fourth minute, he was far from alone. As the above image shows, the Torino striker’s run carried him into the box where no less than four players were offering themselves as options. His eventual cross-cum-shot looped over Iker Casillas and struck the far post, unfortunately bouncing away before any of his team-mates could capitalise.
That willingness to move up the pitch was also evident without the ball, as their advanced numbers occasionally allowed Italy to press the Spanish defence. Another run—this time from Antonio Candreva on the opposite flank—ended with the ball being lost, but the Azzurri would not retreat into their own half as many teams do against del Bosque’s men.
Prandelli instead urged his players to close down the space and force less gifted players to keep the ball, eventually seeing them win it back once more. The image below, taken just after the Lazio midfielder’s attacking foray, shows no less than seven Italians pressing into the opposition half, a rare sight in a game against Spain.
With 70 per cent possession however, it was inevitable that Spain would eventually force Italy back into their own half, but the Azzurri were well prepared for when that happened. Dropping into a 4-5-1 shape, they got numbers behind the ball and denied their opponents the time and space to create openings.
The home side would end the game with just five shots on target, testament to that excellent discipline, and despite the constant ball movement, they remained well organised. Prandelli noted before the game that Spain’s quality “can also be their undoing,” in that same Marca interview, adding that “they have conceived this idea of tiki-taka football, but constantly fall into that same idea.”
It was evident here that that was the case, particularly when Spain’s wide players—Andres Iniesta and Pedro—came inside to search for the ball. The left-hand image below shows both Italy’s well-drilled tactical shape when their opponents pressed forward, while the right highlights how narrow and congested the game became at times.
To counter that congestion in the central area, del Bosque utilised the pace and directness of Pedro down the right flank. The Barcelona forward—supported by full-back Cesar Azpilicueta of Chelsea—often hugged the touchline, and was given far too much room by Domenico Criscito in the first half.
The 26-year-old Spaniard enjoyed a stand-out 82 minute display, completing 59 passes at a 90 per cent success rate, making two tackles and three successful take-ons before netting the only goal of the game. Zenit defender Criscito suffered a torrid time, completing just eight passes and losing the ball twice before being replaced at half time. As highlighted below, he stood off Pedro much too often, allowing him to run at him far too easily.
It would not be Pedro alone who decided the game however, as the resolute Italian defence bent but did not break, thanks largely to debutant Gabriel Paletta. The former Liverpool defender looked excellent for the Azzurri, filling in well for the injured Chiellini, and may have done enough to earn a place in Brazil. Italy Captain Gigi Buffon was full of praise for the 28-year-old Parma man, telling RAI Sport (via FootballItalia) at full time:
“It’s the first time I played with Gabriel and I have to say his performance was extraordinary tonight. Many of us realised why he had been linked with the Azzurri jersey for such a long time. He didn’t just surprise me, but he surprised everyone with a sumptuous performance amid so many difficulties.”
Paletta made one tackle, four interceptions and five clearances as he marshalled the back line with Andrea Barzagli, while also completing a team-high 48 passes. Unfortunately, he was unable to prevent the eventual winning goal as Iniesta linked with substitute David Silva to create an opening for Pedro to steer past Buffon.
This much-changed Italy side may not have taught us anything new in terms of how to beat Spain, but they showed once again that—even when heavily depleted—they are a challenging opponent for any team. With new faces like Paletta and Cerci impressing, Prandelli might have one or two more names on his shortlist for Brazil.
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