EURO2016: Italy – Spain 2:0, analysis: Conte makes two key moves

First big match in knock-out phase at EURO saw an extraordinary clash between Italy and Spain that, as today newspapers notice, finished an era of Spain football dominance in Europe. Both teams came in after losses in final minutes of group stage last matches, however with different attitude. As one twitter user noticed, “Italy almost considers it bad manner to push in a match that means nothing to them”. Spain, however, the reigning champions have a mentality to win every match and win it with class. No doubt loss to Ireland meant little to Italians while Spain was a bit shaken after losing first time in Euro since 2004.
While Italy has already shown they can defend in the tournament while patiently waiting for a goal by long passes to two center forwards from defensive line, Conte came up with a surprise for Spain. A surprise Furia Roja didn’t recover until about 70th minute.

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Unlike previous games, Italy  actively searched to retain the ball in own defensive third to negate possession to Spain and did so perfectly

In group stages Italy had 51 pass in defensive third, however, for match against Spain they upped the passing in front of Buffon goal by 20 per cent. More over, they had 4 misplaced passes on average in that zone during group stage. However, in the first knock out match against Spain famous for their pressing from front, they didn’t have a single misplaced pass.

This was a huge surprise for Spain and completely threw them out of their comfort zone as they are not used being unable to recover the ball, and what was even more hurting, they aren’t used not having the ball longer than it is required to take the throw in.

That was exactly what Conte was hoping for when he decided not to shy off from possession battle, a practice no manager had tried since Inesta took that number six shirt in Spain dressing room a decade ago.

This back third possession trick Conte pulled out served two goals. Firstly, Spain didn’t have the ball and couldn’t hurt Italy with their possession. Second goal of Conte’s approach came as a result of well achieved first goal. Spain was obviously shaken from unexpected situation where they couldn’t get on the ball. As a result, as time passed they became ever more nervous, de concentrated and unsure as what the match will bring while they, as champions, should win nonetheless.

To make things worse for Spain, their opponents executed perfect pressing in offensive zone. Italy wasn’t as much interested in winning the ball high up the pitch (while that would surely be a bonus), but more concerned how to disrupt the distribution into the middle third where Spain attacks get formed.

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Disruption of transition into middle third, a second key aspect of Conte’s approach and a novelty compared to group stage games

Above you can see a typical situation where Spain isn’t allowed easy transition of the ball from defence into middle third as all passing options are covered. Instead, De Gea is forced into uncharacteristical punt. Key players here are two forwards who are marking Busquets and one of the central defenders while the other is picked up by Giaccherini or Parolo, depending on which side is the ball. At the same time Italian wing backs, Florenzi and De Sciglio are positioned to get in time to cover the full backs.

How effective this pressing was are telling the statistics. While in first half Spain averaged 196 passes in middle third during the group stages, against Italy they were missing roughly a third of those passes. Another fact is striking, while their passing average in middle zone during group stage was 93 per cent, against Italy Furia Roja was red of fury as they got only 85 per cent. This might still be very high for your average team. However, combined with 30 per cent less passes made, almost 10 per cent more mistakes and almost identical possession, it had to be frustrating. Even if players on the pitch weren’t aware of the numbers they felt them in their heads, in their feet and in their conciousness.

Key points of Conte’s approach to a match against defending champions were in this two things. On the ball, retain possession in defence to minimize opposition possession and off the ball, disrupt the distribution of the ball to middle third.

Once on the ball and through the Spain pressing Italian game didn’t significantly change compared to their group matches. They still went for direct balls to one of the center forwards, usually tall and strong Pelle who could hold up the ball and pass it either to his partner Eder or to one of the wing backs who would then put the cross in. Important roles while on the ball had Giaccherini and Parolo who drifted wide to further liberate space in the middle for dropping center forwards or to overload the wide areas and make life easier for overlapping wing backs.

Little really changed deep into the second half when after 70 minutes Italy started to drop off till the point at 80th minute when Conte essentially dropped wing backs to full back position for more solidity in defence. By that time Spain was already so disrupted they couldn’t do much. If you look at @11tegen11 diagrams you can see how much different Spain approach was. More due to Italian game than their volition. There was a huge hole where once stood links between Busquets, Ramos, Iniesta and Fabregas. Essentially, the link between defence and midfield, a famous half back Busquets was outplayed from the game compared to a match against Croatia six days ago. As a result Silva, Fabregas and Iniesta have much less ball at their feet while their attacking positions are higher in the lap of Italian block.

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Spain was denyed the middle third and it shows as the link between the lines, Busquets, is completely cut off  Diagram source: 11tegen11.net

Although famous for their movement off the ball and precise short passing, Spaniards were in disbelief after game developed so different to what they are used to and Vincent Del Bosque failed to adapt. In the end once again a tactical genius of Antonio Conte prevailed and it will be interesting to see how he prepares for Germany. Since Die Manschaft plays somewhat similar to Spain, it shouldn’t look too different either. However, Germany will have a strong tall striker to battle in the middle of Azzurri defence and much more diversity in their approach to final third compared to Spain.

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how did Croatia upset Spain

Every now and then there is a match of football played somewhere that you should tape only to show it to any doubters of beautiful game. You have teams that are expected to win each time they get on the field and then you have Croatia. They are capable to dominate the game and lose it in last five minutes (Czech Republic, anyone?). Very next match against Spain they go on and field a reserve side and win against the most dominant team of a decade. They don’t only represent the best tradition of erratic Yugoslavian football genius, they surpass it.

Before the kick off it seemed that last round match decided little. Both teams were through, Croatia sided weakened team and Spain was one goal up after only seven minutes. However, by the end of the game the whole outlook of group, and tournament dare I say, changed.

It all began as expected. Croatia without Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Marcelo Brozovic and Domagoj Vida, was unable to cope defensively against robust Spain. High pressing they employed only contributed to disjointed lines and acres of space Spain is so fond of exploiting.

7 goal esp

Take a look above you will see several individual tactical errors Croatia made prior to conceding. First, Rakitic is pressing Ramos, and fails. As ball arrives to Iniesta, Rog decides to press again and makes wrong decision as he is late. Now, since Rakitic pressed Ramos, Bousquets remains alone in circle. Now look how wide is Croatia left winger Pjaca and you see the unopposed space Busquets can take the ball to. That is where the goal chance was made possible. Rest is down to what Spain does best – moving into space. It would be much less dangerous if Croatia paid more attention to the most dangerous part of the field – the middle, instead of being occupied with Juanfran who is out of the picture and couldn’t significantly influence the play at that moment.

From then on it seemed like a downhill ride from a Balkan nation as they had a lot of trouble organizing any sound attack. Only Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj was dropping down to connect the defence with midfield and as result Croatia was unable to take the ball in opposition half in any organized manner due to Spain pressing.

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Above you can see why Croatia had problems taking the ball out of their own half. Badelj is dropping back but he is marked by Fabregas and Rog (in circle) is completely isolated not helping at all with ball circulation as Spain presses high.

Additionally, It seemed every time Spain got the ball over to Croatia half, they had time and space to turn towards the goal or to shift the ball to one of their free players. In a word, Croatia was unable to cope with frequent changes of positions Spain does and was very prone to through ball. It seemed very easy for them to break the midfield line once they broke through the initial pressing in their own half for whole first period. After all, that is how they scored.

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Now take a look at above picture and note where are all Croatia players looking. They are all occupied with Morata who receives the ball and all nine players are looking at him. Not only they aren’t paying attention to other players, they aren’t paying attention where they stand. Srna, right back, has left Nolito alone. Pjaca, the right winger, has left Alaba alone and whole right flank is exposed while potentialy Iniesta and Busquets can get to back pass.

Result of this chaotic defending is that Spain was able to connect quite a few balls from centre field to wings that were dispatched back to centre. Nolito failed to convert one of those chances only a minute after they scored but they had plenty of occasions to push through whatever ball they liked.

space

Above you see typical situation where David Silva receives the ball, has time to turn and pick the best option. Morata fails to control and only minute later they get punished for this as Croatia scores.

Now, while Croatia was quite poor on defence at the time, that was a result of high pressing of Rakitic and Kalinic who weren’t followed well by midfield four as seen when Spain scored. However, it is precisely this high pressing that gave Croatia most of their chances. They could have equalized as once Ramos was caught in possession and the other time De Gea’s poor touch led to a great chip from Rakitic which ended on the bar.

Finally, Rog swept one deflected ball unopposed, passed it to Ivan Perisic who managed to send in a great cross from left which Kalinic was able to convert. Apart from robbed balls and occasional deep cross from Srna, Croatia posed little threat to Spain and they were fairly confident they could score more. However, things changed a lot in the second half.

Whatever was said in Croatia dressing room worked wonders. First thing noted was Rog who started dropping deeper to help Milan Badelj getting the ball into final third. Then Perisic was finally transferred back to his preferred left flank and most importantly, the biggest weakness, the defensive shape, improved a lot.

After the half time marking from Croatia became much stricter and they weren’t dragged out of position as it was the case in first half of the game.

47 better marking

Croatia is set up much deeper as Rakitic and Kalinic press only when they really have the chance to get to ball or force opposition to clear it aimlessly. Spain is still able to get the the ball forward but they are limited to rushed long shots or crosses that don’t connect. To be fair they manage to pull one good chance as David Silva breaks on the right and sends low cross for Morata who misses the goal.

Del Bosque recognizes Croatia is more compact in defence and sends in strong and tall Aduriz to profit from crosses, however, it doesn’t work. As the game progresses Croatia builds confidence and the real changer was penalty that Monaco goalkeeper saves. From then on Spain is more and more frustrated and in the end Croatia gets the winner as Inter winger Ivan Perisic quickly breaks down the right and scores on near post to grab the Man of the Match award.

Few things made the game, apart the goals of course. Once Croatia got level, they got the opportunity to stay deeper waiting for a break and that change in half time really brought them the chance to win as time went on and Spain became frustrated. Changes Del Bosque made weren’t enough to break Croatia in second half and psychological aspect of the game which might have been just the decisive factor.

It all started well for Spain and according to expectations. They had the game where they wanted and due a wobbly Croatia defending, they had to believe it was only the time they score second time. However, Croatia managed to level and a bit of doubt went in. Maybe not at the moment, but certainly after the half time as Croatia started to play more disciplined game. Breaking point came as they were unable to convert the gifted penalty and were essentially unable to threaten the opposition goal as they are used.

On the other hand, Croatia had a lot to prove, they had luck and overconfident Spain on their side as well. The result however proves Spain isn’t invincible under right circumstances and pushes Croatia into the line of favourites for the tournament. After all, they managed to win even if they played without the best player Luka Modric and half a dozen other first team players.