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.
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.
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.
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.