Roberto Mancini, tasked with rebuilding the Azzurri after their disastrous World Cup qualification failure, leads his men to challenge for the European crown. In contrast to the usual ways of an Italian side, they will look to harness the midfield and creative attacking talents at their disposal via a measured, possession-based approach. This may need to compensate for potential trouble with their defending.
Written by Julian Chingoma.
Italy go into a summer tournament in the unusual position as afterthoughts when discussing serious contenders. However, after missing out on the 2018 World Cup, it is no surprise they have slipped into the periphery of the general football community.
Roberto Mancini oversaw an uncomplicated qualification campaign and moulded a team that is a far cry from the 2018 iteration. Calling back to shades of the EURO 2012 finalists, the Azzurri look to usher in a new era with a deep tournament run. Their group stage opponents Switzerland, Turkey and Wales will offer the perfect litmus test. This tournament preview looks into a few tactical aspects that may appear in Italy’s matches. This includes some attacking details and problems that may arise defensively.
A quick glance at the squad
Mancini’s 26-man squad mixes familiar veterans with more fresh-faced inclusions. Key components include one of the world’s best goalkeepers in Gianluigi Donnarumma, who will lead the group between the posts, protected by Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The midfield is highlighted by elite options in Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Marco Verratti. Having guys like Manuel Locatelli and Lorenzo Pellegrini in the squad for depth highlights the strength of Italy’s midfield. Ciro Immobile will likely lead the line in a battle against Andrea Belotti, another of Serie A’s premier strikers. Lorenzo Insigne spearheads the wide attackers while Domenico Berardi and Federico Chiesa offer variety on the right side.
In principle, many players are in contention to start, as there are many possible lineups with a negligible drop in quality. And the intense football schedule means rotation is almost a necessity. Last of all, Mancini has not been averse to plugging various player combinations into his go-to 4-3-3 shape.
Mancini’s 4-3-3 formation in possession
Possession-based sides must often tackle being pressed high. Italy usually have three players deep when playing out, as the left back often advances higher up the field, in the person of Spinazzola or Emerson. The right back – Florenzi or Di Lorenzo – remains deeper to assist the center-backs. A double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. drops from the midfield three, an example being Jorginho and Verratti.
Then, one of the many roles of Barella, as the likely third midfielder, is to advance in the right halfspace. 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. This roughly forms a 3-2-5 / 3-3-4 shape depending on the depth of the advancing fullback.
A good feature of their play occurs out wide and Insigne’s inclusion leads to more play down the left. He sits in the halfspace, where he can receive the ball and combine centrally or with his wing-back. His positioning often attracts the opponents’ right-sided defender, freeing the advanced wing-back. Additionally, Insigne combining centrally with players behind the midfield line. Left-sided overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. also creates two-versus-one scenarios with Insigne and the high wing-back versus a single right back.
57th minute vs Poland (2-0 win): Insigne is played in by Locatelli while dragging Bereszyński. He reverses to Emerson, who bursts past Linetty, while Belotti shifts to offer a central option. Emerson is released down the left channel. This also illustrates the construction of the 3-2-5 shape.
On the right, either Chiesa or Berardi acts as the winger sticking wide, albeit in different ways. Berardi usually drops to receive and then move or combine inwards. Chiesa is the more likely to make runs in behind to drag a defender. Barella can be situated in the halfspace to form a central connection, burst in behind to pull defenders away or even swap with a winger more inclined to go centrally such as Berardi.
When working on the right, opponents get sucked in and switches to the left are searched for. Barella and the right winger will then rush to offer support in the box. This all leads to frequent play in the final third where the likes of Immobile can be serviced from out wide or centrally.
Third minute vs the Netherlands (1-1): As Blind pre-emptively presses D’Ambrosio creating a two-versus-one situation against Aké, Bonucci finds Barella. This prompts Aké and F. de Jong to press, allowing Barella to find Chiesa. Thereby, discouraging high pressing by opposition wing-backs.
Italy are very much built for the possession-based style. When the ball is won deep, they often revert to recycling possession and building methodically. Despite the presence of Immobile and Chiesa who thrive in counterattacking situations, this may not be a reliable source of danger. However, when the ball is won high, their transition from high turnovers are solid and this couples well with their aggressive pressing.
A defensive approach led by press
The crux of their defensive approach lies in their pressing. Starting out of a 4-5-1 formation, they often look to equal opponents that are set up deep when building up. The striker is then joined by a press out of midfield, often Barella, forming a 4-4-2 momentarily. A third then follows to mark one of the opposition’s deep players. The wingers monitor fullbacks against a back four but may press the wide center-backs against a back three, allowing the midfield to mark their opposition counterparts.
The pressing players do well blocking off access to the halfspaces. The pressing midfielders may leave free men in midfield, so wingers have to tuck in to compensate, which leaves the fullback free. Thus, a long ball is often available to beat the press, either in midfield or to a fullback, but the distance offers Italy the time to recover. Overall: nothing crazy here, just effective pressing principles that are carried out well.
37th minute versus Poland (0-0): An example of an Italian press as Verratti pushes up to match Poland’s deep buildup while blocking access to Moder. Pellegrini is positioned near Moder while threatening to immediately press Kędziora, limiting Glik’s options.
Despite occasional issues such as poor angles by pressing players, their high pressing is generally effective, forcing long balls or high turnovers. When not pressing high, more common with a lead, they fall into a 4-5-1 shape where they are less effective the deeper they are pushed back.
The success of their high press is not matched when the ball is in midfield or deeper. Poor pressing angles from the double pivot usually lead to access in the spaces between midfield and defense. Furthermore, there are slight issues with their deep defending as, at times, the backline is quite narrow and the wide areas are not dealt with well. Additionally, the one-versus-one defending out wide does not adequately stop crosses into the box. The defending in transition will also be a cause for concern. Related to the midfield issues, they often fail to stall opponents in the central areas. The ball being moved out wide then isolates defensive players and simultaneously stretches the recovering shape.
Some of these hypothetical issues may materialize to real danger against their group-stage opponents. Turkey have a notable aerial threat in Burak Yilmaz and have an elite set piece specialist in Hakan Çalhanoğlu. Wales are the most obvious threat on the counterattack with plenty of athleticism available in the forward areas. Defending in a deep block and drawing out the Italy shape to use the likes of Gareth Bale and Daniel James in behind. And finally, they face a well-rounded Switzerland with a midfield that houses players capable of exploiting the aforementioned issues there. Additionally, they also have the counterattacking capability.
Not much is usually discovered in the preceding months of a summer tournament. However, some games may provide a reasonable gauge of the team’s current status. Relatively recently, Italy tested a 3-5-2 base formation against Lithuania which had been briefly seen in past in-game adjustments. This presents a potential deviation from the norm, which is 4-3-3 and 3-2-5 in possession.
From the final friendly versus the Czech Republic, one can deduce from the 4-0 scoreline that they are in fine attacking form. But the defensive issues reappeared, such as handling wide areas and allowing crosses, with the Czech side just unable to capitalize. This will be a concern going into their opening fixture against Turkey.
To conclude, detouring from detailed tactical considerations, in this system, the already exceptional attacking talents can make a proper impact this summer. Yet, question marks do remain which make the group stage a not-so-simple task. The main one being their ability to impose their possession-based approach against all opposition and dealing with the subsequent defensive transitions that come with it. Despite this, all in all, the final verdict on this Italy side has to be that of genuine contenders.
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