Match Preview: Can Austria Stem The Irrepressible Italians?

What a difference two weeks can make. Coming into EURO 2020 under the tag of dark horses, Italy’s group stage displays have raised the expectations of what this team can achieve to a new level. As the odds stack up against Austria, this preview looks to explore some of the issues this side will have to counter, as well as the question on everyone’s lips about Italy’s midfield.

Match preview by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.


Italy: transcending the Inferno

The ignominy of failing to reach the World Cup has set in motion a renaissance of the Italian national team. Under the aegis of Mancini, the Azzurri have taken EURO 2020 by storm. Three wins, seven goals scored, and none conceded in three group games have seen their unbeaten streak under his leadership extend to thirty games. But this is not a team in the mold of an archetypal Italian outfit. Instead, the tactical basis for this stark turnaround has been a flexible and progressive style of play. 

The usual setup of a 4-3-3 system converts into an asymmetric 3-2-4-1 shape on the ball. From here, the left side of the attack is more ball dominant, gifting Lorenzo Insigne the license to roam between the lines or drift back out to the flank. The back three, and above all Leonardo Bonucci, look for line breaking passes into the halfspaces. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Shifting the point of attack to find Nicolò Barella toward the right frequently helps the team get into the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. where chipped balls behind the defense are common.

Automatisms run from back to front, leaving Mancini free to mix and match without risking the loss of cohesion. Add their 4-1-4-1 high press into the mix, and the final product is a highly organized unit. From the destructive approach of the Turks to the more aggressive strategy of the Swiss, nothing thus far has been much more than light work for Mancini’s men. Indeed, their matured game model ultimately begs one question. Why had this team slipped under the radar going into the EUROs?

In truth, even though Mancini had long planted the seeds of change, an accurate appraisal of this outfit ahead of the tournament was not a straightforward task. On the one hand, stood a shift in approach at the outset of his reign, an eagerness to hand chances to new players, and an impressive run of results. On the other hand, Italy have met few elite teams during their streak. So, now facing a side that has coasted to this stage, where does Austria’s punch stack up against Europe’s heavyweight division?


Austria: new system, new approaches

Off the back of a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands, Austria manager Franco Foda went for a new formation. Ditching the back three setup from the first two games, his men took to the field in their duel with Ukraine in a 4-4-1-1 shape.

Facing a passive 4-1-4-1 block, the Austrians had a lot of joy. From left back, David Alaba could help put the shackles on Andriy Yarmolenko, an astute move in light of the winger’s displays to date. But above all, Florian Grillitsch could take the reins for his side in possession. Drifting into the space on the side of the striker, his languid style on the ball helped tease open gaps into Ukraine’s block.

From here, more ideas flowed. Marcel Sabitzer roamed over to the left halfspace while Xaver Schlager moved up higher between the lines into the right halfspace. Cue another neat trick: Stefan Lainer would often pull off into deeper positions on the right in the buildup, opening room for Konrad Laimer. As his teammates looked to overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. this zone in the early stages of the game, there were a few moments where the winger, or Schlager, could explode in behind with their intense running style.

For all of the criticism that Foda has accrued, he has shown an ability to adapt to the opponent. Here, their enterprising spells on the ball were a positive sign before facing the Italians. Though their desire to engage high up the pitch is commendable, Mancini’s men are still prone to errors arising from their compactness off the ball. Should the lion’s share of the play swing in Italy’s favor, as one would expect, the relief such sequences can offer their rearguard will be valuable. 


4th minute: possession sequence from the game against Ukraine. Grillitsch picks up the ball deep in the left halfspace, delays a little on the ball and then punches a pass into Marko Arnautović. Austria will hope to find similar gaps in front of the back four against Italy’s defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block.


Sassuolo’s star or the established epicenter?

This probable game state will be indebted in no small part to the men in the middle of the park. At the heart of Italy’s success so far has been an outstanding midfield, a pleasant surprise given the outlook of this area of the pitch just a few days out from their opening game. Marco Verratti, the epicenter of the outfit, was already out of the picture due to a knee problem. Stefano Sensi and Lorenzo Pellegrini ended up falling foul of injury, too, leaving the identity of Verratti’s deputy up in the air. But Mancini had little to fear, as his trio of choice excelled against both Turkey and Switzerland. 

Jorginho sits at the base of the midfield. A master of the metronomic short passing game, he keeps the flow of the game ticking over. In the meantime, higher up the field, the dynamic all-rounder Nicolò Barella has found a home working from the right halfspace. The final piece, on the left of the three, has been Manuel Locatelli. Far from a mainstay in the starting eleven at the outset of EURO 2020, his prudent playmaking has proven to be a valuable asset. In turn, the midfielder has only helped elevate his standing in this setup, at least prompting Mancini to consider his selection.

But whether Locatelli features from the off or not, one huge positive is clear. Italy’s manager can look to two men to execute the central role in this construct. Assign the pieces around either the correct tasks, and he can place different demands upon his players that could make all the difference.


Pick your poison

The variation of the buildup phase from the Italians has made this contrast evident, raising a pivotal question for Austria going into today’s game. As the Azzurri’s superstar, Verratti sees this role as one where he can direct the show. The buildup structure from the back against Wales showed a marked change from the opening two games of Italy’s campaign. The concept of the 3-2-4-1 shape was still in use, but players occupied different roles and spaces.

From the off, some of the asymmetries in the back three had flipped over. Verratti would drop off into the left halfspace to demand for the ball, never letting too much time elapse without his presence being made known. In turn, though Alessandro Bastoni is a central defender, he would act as a deep full-back from the left in the way the right back often did in Italy’s first two games of the EUROs.


Italy’s adjusted offensive structure against Wales: Verratti drops in, splitting Bastoni wide, Jorginho pivots higher to give him license to roam and Pessina flexibly moves between the lines.


In a word, Verratti executed the role in a ball dominant manner. As he roamed laterally to receive passes, Jorginho often moved up higher, thus creating an asymmetry between the double pivot. Two central midfielders next to each other. Pinning markers to give Verratti space for his elaborate pirouettes and dribbles, he had around half of his partner’s touches on the ball. At just 57 to 103, the metronome bowed to Verratti’s ball mastery. For better or worse, once the PSG midfielder has a hold of the ball, it is hard to separate him from it.

On the other hand, Locatelli is content not being at the heart of every phase of play on this team. His contribution focuses more exclusively on the left halfspace. As was the case in Italy’s first two games, several new buildup structures can then emerge. Jorginho can hold down the center while Locatelli stays deep on the left. The former can drift far over to the left halfspace to offer a short passing option to the latter. Or both can stay narrower, letting one of the back three step into the midfield and engage.


53rd minute: Buildup sequence leading to Demiral’s own goal. Locatelli and Jorginho double up on Çalhanoğlu, allowing the former to pivot on the ball and progress the play. Before Chiellini picks up possession, Locatelli scans and moves higher to open up the diagonal pass to Jorginho, playing a key role in pinning the attacking midfielder to initiate the attack.


Locatelli shows readiness to fill spaces where he won’t get the ball, and his ability to make line breaking runs into the final third have displayed his value off the ball too. With Locatelli, Italy have an extra level of unpredictability in the attack. With Verratti, they can monopolize the ball at ease. Austria must be ready to face not just an asymmetric back three but all the subtleties that then come with it.


Takeaways

Austria are not wholly out of the running for this contest. Foda may find yet another neat solution to counteract some of Italy’s strengths. But where one solution arises, another problem can equally emerge. Mancini’s men are stern favorites to win this game for a reason, and there is nothing to suggest yet they will not be able to deliver.



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