Italy – England: Low Risk, No Reward (1-0)
Gareth Southgate once again tried to manage risk with a back three focused on stability. However, a lack of solutions when it came to ball progression meant that England struggled to threaten the Italian defense as the home side ran out 1-0 winners in a cagey affair.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
England arrived in Milan looking to avoid Nations League relegation against their EURO 2020 Final opponents, Italy. With this being the last international break before the World Cup, the performances here also come under scrutiny as a barometer for how the team is shaping up in preparation for Qatar, and team selections might be seen as an indication of what Gareth Southgate is planning for the tournament.
England lined up in a 3-4-3 system with Kyle Walker in the back three alongside Eric Dier and Harry Maguire. Bukayo Saka was deployed in a wing-back role on the left, with Reece James on the right and Declan Rice partnered by Jude Bellingham in midfield. Phil Foden, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling were the front three.
Italy have had their own problems since being crowned European champions as they missed out on World Cup qualification after being beaten by North Macedonia in the playoffs. Their Nations League form more recently has not been sparkling either, highlighted by their 5-2 thrashing at the hands of Germany in the summer.
Roberto Mancini opted for a 3-5-2 formation for this match, with a back three of Rafael Tolói, Leonardo Bonucci and Francesco Acerbi. Jorginho played as the number six with Nicolò Barella and Bryan Cristante ahead of him, while Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Federico Dimarco were the wing-backs. Giacomo Raspadori then partnered Gianluca Scamacca up front.
England’s unthreatening attack
England did not register a shot in the first half an hour of the match, a stat which speaks volumes about their possession game. England generally took a low-risk approach and ended up with a lot of u-shaped circulation in the middle of the pitch, without gaining good entries into the final third.
Italy defended in a 5-3-2 shape, and their mid-block created a cage for Bellingham and Rice in England’s buildup play. They were marked by Barella and Cristante who still had Jorginho for cover behind them, while Italy’s strikers also often dropped off to keep England’s central midfielders in their cover shadow and allow England to circulate along the backline without much harm.
England struggled for ideas in these situations. The vertical pass to Foden for Bellingham’s subsequent third-man running was their best option.
Italy’s wide central defenders Tolói and Acerbi were also fairly aggressive with the dropping movements of Foden and Sterling in the halfspaces, who were almost always pressured heavily when receiving the ball.
This then required third man runs from the midfield to try and solve the situation, which was where Bellingham shined. His proactive nature in midfield was essentially England’s only means of moving the ball forward in good condition.
Bellingham often pushed slightly higher than Rice to connect with the attack. His relationship with Foden was most productive, able to move on the blindside of Cristante when Foden dropped in to facilitate a third man combination.
Having only one way of progressing is not sufficient to build an attack at the top level though, and apart from Bellingham driving the game forward, England looked without ideas when it came to progressing the ball and looked quite rigid in their formation at times without sufficient rotation to disorganize the Italian defense.
Part of this likely has strategic roots. It has been clear in the last two major tournaments, especially EURO 2020, that Southgate understands the need for a low-variance approach at international level due to the low number of games a team gets to play in a tournament. Risk management is key. However, risk aversion obviously has its limits, and when you seek stability as England do, you trade off some creativity.
Italy take their chance
Italy’s attack also did not create that many chances, however they were at least marginally better than England at moving the ball into dangerous areas. In particular, the movement and link-up play from Scamacca and Raspadori enabled helped them to break the England press a few times in the match.
In the first half there were some early scenes where Italy broke the England press with a direct pass from the backline into the feet of a striker dropping deep, who then was able to set Italy on the attack with smart link-up play.
England had some high pressing phases early on, but as the game went on were often happy to be somewhat passive as well. Bonucci in the center of the Italian defense was given time to scan for passes towards the forwards, which is always somewhat dangerous given his long-range passing ability.
England learned this first hand just before the seventieth minute as Bonucci picked out Raspadori with a chipped pass over the defense. The Italian striker was able to compose himself on the edge of the box and find the corner of the England net to put Italy 1-0 up.
Southgate responded to going behind with a double change, bringing on Luke Shaw and Jack Grealish in place of Saka and Walker. England now switched away from the back three, instead playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape for the final twenty minutes or so. Reece James and Shaw were the fullbacks, while Grealish joined Sterling and Foden as attack midfielders behind Kane in attack.
The addition of Grealish did help slightly for England, as it provided an extra connection in the attacking midfield areas. Italy were now also sitting deeper, so England were able to get more attackers in close proximity for combination play in the attacking half.
Italy were still an active threat on the counter-attack though, with the speed of substitute Wilfried Gnonto being particularly useful in these situations. So England were not able to sustain the pressure in the final third as well as they wanted to, and although their attacking play was slightly better, they were not able to create the chances they needed.
England will need to find attacking solutions if they want to make serious progress in the World Cup. The big question is how Southgate will be able to engineer this given the strategic inclinations he has shown so far in major tournaments.
Italy gave a solid performance, with their 5-3-2 defensive scheme playing a part in England’s struggles in possession. With the ball, there was some decent combination play up front, and they looked more dangerous than England for large parts of the game.
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