Roberto Mancini admitted after Italy's win against Spain that his players had been forced to 'suffer'
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Roberto Mancini’s thrilling Italy side are as formidable in the flesh as they are on paper. Their recent record speaks for itself, with Tuesday’s semi-final victory over Spain extending their unbeaten run to 33 games, and they possess both the defensive steel and attacking quality to hurt any opponent.
There are weaknesses, though, and Mancini admitted after the win against Spain that his players had been forced to “suffer”. Spain could not secure the result they arguably deserved at Wembley, but they did show that Italy have flaws which can be exposed in Sunday’s final. England’s coaching staff will no doubt have been paying close attention after their semi-final victory over Denmark.
Beware the counter-attack
For much of this tournament, Italy have impressed with their quickfire passing and their dominance of matches. Against Spain, however, they displayed a different face. Mancini’s side defended deep for long spells, withstanding the Spanish pressure and attacking with speed when the ball was won back.
In Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile and Federico Chiesa, Italy have players capable of destroying an opposition defence in an instant. Spain played a dangerously high line at times and were almost undone on two or three occasions in the first half alone.
Federico Chiesa's goal gave Italy the lead on Tuesday night before Spain's equaliser
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It was no surprise that Italy’s goal at Wembley, scored by the excellent Chiesa, was the result of a rapid counter-attack. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma rolled the ball to Marco Verratti, who found Insigne. From there it was played instantly towards Immobile, with Chiesa sweeping up behind him and curling his finish into the far corner. It took less than 15 seconds for the ball to travel from the Italian penalty area to the Spain net.
In Kyle Walker, England have perhaps the best defender in the continent at shutting down counter-attacks. His sheer presence alone might convince Southgate it is worth continuing with a high line, but there is no denying it would be a risk.
Overload the midfield
Italy’s central three — Jorginho, Verratti and Nicolo Barella — were seen by many as capable of out-playing and out-passing the Spanish midfield, essentially beating the Spaniards at their own game.
Instead, Spain manager Luis Enrique tilted the odds in his side’s favour by making a surprise change to his line-up: he dropped centre-forward Alvaro Morata and played Dani Olmo, usually a winger, in a false nine position. Olmo subsequently fell deeper into midfield, giving Spain a numerical advantage in the first half.
Such was Spain’s supremacy in midfield that Italy were largely unable to make the most of the attacking talents of Verratti and Barealla. The pair were often forced to shuffle back into defensive positions, and that in turn meant Italy had far less control of the game: across the full match, Mancini’s side had just 30 per cent of possession.
This reduced much of their attacking threat, with Italy taking just seven shots to Spain’s 16. They played only 387 passes, compared to Spain’s 908. The Spanish midfield is, of course exceptional, but Italy’s lack of control showed that their midfield trio is not quite as terrifying as many had thought.
“They stopped us from playing the style of football that we wanted to play,” said Mancini. “We wanted to play our usual brand of football but Spain were better on that score.”
From England’s perspective, Harry Kane could provide this extra body in midfield. His tendency to come into midfield during this tournament has prompted criticism at times, but this Italian side is a different proposition to anything England have faced this summer.
Target Emerson, the potential weak link
Italy will be without full-back Leonardo Spinazzola, who had been one of the stars of the tournament before he suffered a serious Achilles injury in the quarter-final against Belgium. Chelsea left-back Emerson filled in against Spain and is expected to do so again in the final.
Emerson performed admirably at Wembley but the fact remains that he made only two league appearances for Chelsea last season. He evidently does not have the same quality as Spinazzola, and it was telling that Mancini replaced him with Rafael Toloi as Italy tried to hold onto their lead against Spain.
Emerson (L) is likely to continue in the stead of Leonardo Spinazzola once again in Sunday's final
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Mikel Oyarzabal, Spain’s right winger, saw plenty of the ball on Tuesday and it was his wastefulness, rather than Emerson’s defending, which prevented him from creating or scoring a goal. Emerson looked far more vulnerable on the left of the Italian defence than Giovanni Di Lorenzo on the right.
With the likes of Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho as options on the right wing, Gareth Southgate has players capable of dribbling at Emerson and causing him significant problems. We can also expect Raheem Sterling to pop up on the right flank, the very thought of which could give Emerson nightmares in the next few days.
Use the full width of the pitch
Italy appeared to be at their most shaky in the first half against Spain, when their midfielders were starved of possession and their defence was routinely stretched by Luis Enrique’s wingers. Oyarzabal and Ferran Torres held their width in these opening exchanges, providing passing options for their team-mates and pulling the Italian defence out of shape.
Luis Enrique’s substitutions in the second half, and in extra time, robbed Spain of some of that natural width. Gerard Moreno and Morata were brought on for the two wingers, which allowed Italy to have a more compact defence. They went on to look largely comfortable throughout extra time, despite Spain’s dominance of the ball.
Verratti and Jorginho are superb technicians but they are not the most mobile of midfielders. If they are repeatedly dragged out wide, and then shifted from side to side, gaps could start to appear in the heart of the pitch. Such a scenario would place huge strain on their centre-back pairing of Giorgio Chiellin (aged 36) and Leonardo Bonucci (aged 34).
Bonucci described the Spain match as the “toughest” he has ever played. It was unquestionably a draining evening, physically and mentally, for these ageing defenders. The more they can be made to run, the likelier it is that Italy will be opened up.