From false nine to no nine: Spain selected six midfielders in their side for this game, four of them from Barcelona, with Fabregas notionally supposed to supplant the centre forward, albeit with opportunities to rotate. This system can be thought of as similar to the Barcelona approach, where Messi evolved from an inside right into a line-leading forward. However, this works because he is the focal point, occupies defenders, has fantastic close control so is able to hold the ball up and play in his teammates, and his moves deeper in search of the ball allow other midfielders to burst forward into space. Oh yeah, and he’s the best player in the world. Fabregas thrived so well in his first few months at Barcelona due to playing in and around Messi, now he was being asked to effectively replace him in a similar system. All too often there was no focal point, as Fabregas naturally drifted deeper, and Italy’s back three was able to adapt by allowing De Rossi to pick him up while still leaving two centrebacks and thus no space for forward runs from the Spanish midfield. This is why Spain could only turn their 62% possession into two shots on target in the first half, neither troubling Buffon.
Italy’s back three allows them to build from the back: Usually the Spanish front three press high up the pitch, preventing their opponents from playing out of defence and increasing their chance of winning the ball back high up the pitch and breaking at an unsettled defence on the transition. However, as Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva pressed, the Italian back three were covered but Giaccherini and Maggio were always available for simple out balls, and if one of the Spanish pressers moved on to one of these wing backs, it allowed Italy to play through into midfield.
The only method Spain had to counter this would have been for Alba and Arbeloa to push forward and close down the Italian wing backs, something which they were obviously not prepared to do. This availability of an out ball helped Italy to maintain possession, settle into the game and ultimately become the better side on the night.
The wings have it: Giaccherini and Maggio were perhaps the most important players on the pitch. They ran each wing, with Maggio in particular causing all sorts of problems for Alba when taking him on. They provided width for Italy, and ensured that they were not simply playing on the break, the Italians were a genuine presence in this match to the point that the possession statistics belie the true nature of the game.
At the other end, Silva wasn’t so much out-to-in as simply “in”, and Spain had very little threat down the right. Iniesta was the best player in red, playing his usual inside left role, taking players on and causing problems, but Spain were narrow. Alba and Arbeloa’s aforementioned reluctance to push forward meant that Spain rarely got to the byline on either side of the pitch, and ended up playing across the pitch in front of Italy, with little penetration. Compare this performance to Barcelona with Alves bombing up and down the wing all day long.
Goals don’t change games: Having seen Balotelli remain on the periphery of the game, get an undeserved yellow card, then get through on goal and take so long deciding what to do that Ramos recovered, Prandelli introduced Di Natale and within a minute he had opened the scoring. Pirlo moved past Busquets with ease, and played a beautifully weighted throughball for Di Natale making a run in behind, and he didn’t wait a Balotelli longer than he needed to before curling the ball into the far corner. It wasn’t long before Spain equalised, with Silva picking the ball up with his back to goal on the edge of the area, and sliding it in behind to meet Fabregas’ out-to-in run as Giaccherini hadn’t tracked his run quickly enough.
Both goals came from a player making a run in behind and turning the defence, which didn’t happen nearly often enough throughout the match.
Torres: poor decisions, poor execution: Torres replaced Fabregas to introduce a genuine centre forward to the Spain lineup, and the positions he found himself in showed how threatening Spain could have been had they avoided the Barcelona-lite approach and played a more standard game. But only if that centre forward had not been Torres himself. He received the ball in good positions, but the sum total of his output was being tackled by the goalkeeper in open play and putting an attempted lob well wide as Navas was free and facing an open goal.
Italy were the better side, were comfortable against the Spanish midfield and created chances themselves. They took the lead with a great goal and at the time were full value for that lead. Once Spain introduced a centre forward, Italy didn’t manage to react well and a better player in that role for Spain would probably have won them the match.
Del Bosque fell into the trap of wanting to use the Barcelona players to play like Barcelona, but on this evidence it can’t be done without a particular Argentinean. Spain dominated possession but, like Barcelona, they were reliant on a little piece of magic, which eventually came from Silva. However, it didn’t look like this system was ever going to break Italy down through conventional means, until Torres came on and the game opened up. But Torres showed no signs of putting his 18 month run of dire form behind him, so look for another Fernando Torres – Fernando Llorente Torres, to start Spain’s next game.
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