Italy – England: Set-Pieces Make The Difference (1-2)
England took a fairly early lead thanks to Declan Rice’s goal from a corner, before another set-piece late in the half led to a penalty which Harry Kane dispatched. Italy would go on to dominate the ball in the second half as England sat deeper, but England’s low-block was able to hold out for a win.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
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England returned to action in Naples for their first game since their World Cup quarter-final defeat against France. Their last meeting against Italy was a low-quality affair, but both teams had incentive to get their EURO 2024 Qualifying campaign off to a good start here.
Reigning European Champions Italy lined up in a nominal 4-3-3 shape with a back four of Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Rafael Tolói, Francesco Acerbi, and Leonardo Spinazzola, while the midfield was comprised of Jorginho, Nicolò Barella, and Marco Verratti. Up front, Mateo Retegui made his Italy debut, flanked by Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
England also started with a 4-3-3 shape, as Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, and Luke Shaw were in defense. Declan Rice was the deepest midfielder with Kalvin Phillips and Jude Bellingham ahead of him, while Bukayo Saka, Harry Kane and Jack Grealish were in attack.
England grow into the game
The first half saw England take a fairly early lead through a corner which eventually fell to Rice who finished from close range. This lead helped England gain momentum as they built good control over the game as the first half went on, eventually earning them a second goal as Kane’s became England’s record goalscorer with his penalty.
England started in a 4-3-3 shape, but this could sometimes become a 4-2-3-1 arrangement in their pressing phases due to the man-orientations in midfield. Bellingham would often step onto Jorginho in the Italy number six zone, while Phillips and Rice would then track Verratti and Barella respectively. Verratti of course also dropped deep often, and Phillips would follow these movements, bringing England into a 4-1-4-1 shape.
England’s pressing was conducted with a good level of intensity in the first half, helping them establish a strong footing in the match. There were a couple of occasions where the man-orientations in midfield allowed an Italy center-back to step into midfield with the ball without being pressured well, but Italy were not able to make good use of this. Italy’s individual play with the ball in the first half was slightly careless at times, which England benefitted from.
When England were in possession, they showed a fairly standard 4-3-3 shape. There was double wing occupation in most cases, with the fullbacks looking to keep the width in the second line and the wingers also not inverting too much.
England built with a fairly standard 4-3-3 shape.
Phillips and Bellingham then looked to pin Italy’s midfield back, leaving Rice alone as the number six. Italy pressed against this in a 4-4-2 shape in the early stages, as Barella would vacate the midfield to go alongside Retegui and press the England backline.
England became increasingly confident throughout the half in these situations, able to start finding the angles for Rice behind the Italy front two, or more often finding the fullback when one of Italy’s wide players tried to press diagonally towards an England center-back. Walker and Shaw became reliable outlets for England to then force Italy to retreat. When Italy got forced out of high pressing, they would return more often to a 4-5-1 shape, with Barella going back into midfield.
England found it difficult to get through the center except in more transitional moments, and instead used the wingers’ one-versus-one and ball retention abilities to try and gain territory. Saka and Grealish were asked to receive with their back to goal on many occasions, from which they would then look to wriggle free of their marker, or facilitate a third man combination with an onrushing fullback or midfielder.
It was a fairly simple gameplan for England, and they were unafraid to look for Kane with long balls when appropriate too. The strategy was enough to gain them a comfortable position going into half time though, as they went into the break two goals up having had the majority of the ball.
Italy gain momentum, England hold on
With the game state as it was at half-time, the pattern of the match in the second half would naturally need to change, as Italy looked to get back into the game. They were able to reduce England’s lead fairly quickly, as they won the ball back in England’s half and transitioned quickly to find Retegui in the box who scored his first international goal to make it 2-1 ten minutes after the break.
This goal helped Italy’s momentum and they were able to gain good control of the possession now, forcing England deep. Italy’s system when they were in established possession phases was similar to the one they employed in their winning EURO 2020 campaign.
This meant that their initial 4-3-3 shape would turn into more of an asymmetric 3-2-4-1 system, as Di Lorenzo remained fairly deep as the right back, while left back Spinazzola would push forward. Pellegrini would come in off the left side into the left halfspace, while Berardi held the width on the right. Barella then pushed up in the right halfspace while Verratti stayed deeper alongside Jorginho to dictate the game.
Italy were able to force England deeper in the second half.
England were now mostly in 4-5-1 low-block shape. Due to the aggressive positioning of Spinazzola on Italy’s left side though, England could often end up in a situational back five as Saka dropped back to cover Spinazzola’s runs, allowing Walker to remain close to the center-backs when Pellegrini moved inside.
The deeper role of Saka contributed to it being more difficult for England to spring counter-attacks. Indeed, they would go on to end the second half without taking a single shot. Italy were building pressure, circulating the ball for longer spells and allowing the likes of Verratti to have influence on the game around England’s box.
Italy made changes going into the last twenty minutes or so, firstly with Bryan Cristante and Matteo Politano replacing Barella and Berardi. Shortly afterwards, Sandro Tonali and Wilfried Gnonto replaced Jorginho and Pellegrini. Gareth Southgate also made a change, bringing Foden in for Grealish.
The impact of Gnonto on the left side was notable, as his smart movement and one-versus-one skills posed problems for Walker and Saka trying to defend that side. Cristante’s presence had also released Verratti to drift forward more often.
With ten minutes left, Shaw received a second yellow card and England were down to ten men. Southgate sacrificed Foden only minutes after bringing him on to reinforce the left back position with Kieran Trippier. More substitutes followed to add energy to help defend the wide areas, as Reece James and Conor Gallagher came on. James played the role that Saka had previously played on the right, while Gallagher was to the left of midfield.
Italy carried on loading the penalty box as Tonali and Cristante began joining Retegui to attack crosses, and Verratti was also sacrificed to add Gianluca Scamacca to the attack. England’s defense held firm though, and Southgate’s side took a 2-1 win.
England gave a competent performance here. The football was not too spectacular, but they were stable in possession in the first half and took their chances when they arrived. In the second half they ended up quite passive, but the penalty box defending was good as Italy had to work hard to create anything.
For Italy, the first half performance was quite poor, particularly on the ball, but they showed flashes of their ability in the second half. Their possession game with Jorginho and Verratti controlling the center still has the potential to dominate games, although they were not able to find the required breakthroughs on this occasion.
Match plots to be added shortly.