“It is stuff dreams are made off”, said Robbie Brady after the match Ireland had, and did, win against sturdy Italy’s Conte side that reinvented “catenaccio”. Sides played a match in very different circumstances in Lille. While Ireland had to win or die trying, Italy already knew it was through, it was first in the group and no matter what, will play Spain in next round. The few doubts were only in the head of Antonio Conte who still wasn’t sure who is his first team left wing back and how to make Bernardeschi, a natural wide striker, play as a right wing back. That was the context that shaped the game.
Conte sent eight new players on the pitch searching for answers about his reserves and made little changes to his overall tactical approach to the match. He knew Ireland will have to come onto him and he was more than happy to let them do it. After all, it is the same scenario from the beginning and great win against Belgium that imposed Italy as a formidable opponent in the tournament.
Martin O’Neill, though, had everything to play for. It is rarely so evident when the players in the team occupy relatively different positions in offensive and defensive phase of the game.
Above is the defensive diagram for Italy in the first half. You can see all the work that had to be done on the side where Bernardeschi, Sturaro and Barzagli were operating. It is doubtful O’Neill was targeting especially Fiorentina striker who has been playing out of position. I’d guess it was just lucky coincidence as Ireland has Ward, McClean and Brady who are all left footed with prolific cross. What wasn’t a lucky coincidence was that O’Neill picked all three of them to overload the Italian right side and it was working well from the first whistle.
Although primarily a winger or left full back, Robbie Brady had a very distinguished role in the team once O’Neill set him to play as a central midfielder. He was constantly overloading the left flank allowing McClean to push further forward and occupy Barzagli. Depending on Brady’s movement, he would either drag away Sturaro or let Ward ping his deep crosses into the box. McCarthy played an important covering role for him, but also for Hendricks who was always surging in the centre midfield from the left wing leaving space for Coleman to widen the pitch and keep De Sciglio occupied on the far flank.
Lovely diagram from 11tegen11 (twitter @11tegen11) above shows the Irish game plan clearly. Players who have seen the ball the most have the biggest circle and you clearly see that Brady and Ward were the players looked for by their team mates. This overload created a lot of pressure on Italian right flank and produced numerous crosses into the box.
Despite crosses weren’t connecting it still kept Italians on their toes. This pressure didn’t subside even when Ireland didn’t have the ball. They would press high up the pitch, once again compromising their “default” 4-4-2 shape. Long and Murphy were instructed to close down Ogbonna and Bonucci while McClean piled off his nominal left midfielder position and went closing Barzagli. Thiago Motta, Italian player designated for connecting the defence with midfield was kept in check by Hendrick while Brady was allowed to drop off and conserve the energy for other tasks.
The pressing forced some errors in possession for Italy but Ireland wasn’t able to use them to any significant effect. The same happened when Ireland had the ball in their defensive zone. Technical weakness of their defensive line showed every time they had to circulate it behind but Italians were more worried about their own shape so that went by just well for Ireland. In fact, everything went well for them as they had everything they wanted and planned except the goal.
Paradox is, Conte felt absolutely the same. Above all he was interested to see his reserve players in the game and how would Bernardeschi fare as right wing back. They were more than content to keep Ireland pinging the crosses into packed defence and concentrated on direct long passes to their centre forwards. The pattern from the first two games reappeared whenever Italy got the ball. It was either direct long ball to one of the strikers that went to flank just to be crossed back again, or long pass directly to one of the wing backs to the same effect.
As Conte had Thiago Motta instead of De Rossi in the line up he was happy Motta did the distribution alongside Bonucci. However, all these balls (39) failed to connect but Conte was perfectly happy with it. As in all previous matches he was patiently waiting for that right one. Except changing the personnel he really didn’t change anything in his overall approach and that continued in the second half.
Conte was aware Ireland has to open up more as the time comes and he was confident the team can weather the crosses and overload on his right flank. To up his chances in 60th minute he subbed Daniele Bernardeschi with Darmian who is more adept in playing defensively and that was his last defensive move.
O’Neill on the other hand had to do more as the time passed and ordered his right back Seamus Coleman to go more offensive. Attacks down the overloaded left died off and his approach was more balanced as Coleman also provided an option up the pitch.
Chasing the game O’Neil made several changes and shifts as the end was getting closer going all out attack in last 15 minutes when he brought Hoolahan. As soon as Conte sensed this he came out of his nutshell. Not that he changed his game plan but he first subbed Insignie for Immobile and after Hoolahan entered on pitch Conte ordered EL Shaarawy to substitute De Sciglio on left wing back.
He was right thinking those pacey offensive players will have more time and space once Ireland open and he was gambling theirs skill, and one on one ability, will give him opportunity to finish off Ireland that went gung-ho. However, despite sound approach it all went the other way as often does in football. The man with very special task Robbie Brady connected with Hoolahan cross.
What we can conclude in the end is that Conte anticipated exactly the game and played it very well. He was confident his defence could wait and soak the pressure. He anticipated once that happens Ireland will open up and then he swung his daggers with Insigne and El Shaarawy to finish them off. However, sheer passion and will from Ireland prevailed over cunning plan of Italian master tactician and rightfully so.