Italy – Greece: Italy’s Winning Streak Continues But Work Stays In Progress (2-0)
Italy’s dominant possession share was not met by a dominant offensive performance, as has been the case for Mancini’s men’s in their latest outings. Greece, on the other hand, put up a diligent defensive performance but struggled to do anything notable on the ball.
Tactical analysis and match report by Kareem Bianchi.
Italy stood in a commanding position when they faced Greece in what could have settled their European Championship Qualifiers three games beforehand, launching them into Euro 2020. Seven wins from the same number of games certified Italy’s superiority over their competitors, but not all has been smooth for Roberto Mancini’s men. More than once did their opponents push the four-time World Cup Winners with their back against the wall. It has become something of a routine for Italy to start slowly, often falling prey to their rivals, only for them to progressively grow into the game when the stakes are raised.
Although performances have not always been an accurate representation of the happenings on the pitch, the positive results have given the Italy staff and players the time to work without the burden of pressure his predecessors had to deal with. For what probably was the most important game in the new managerial spell thus far, Mancini went with the most classic of elevens, only making changes in defense. Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho started as the untouchables of Mancini’s roster. Danilo D’Ambrosio, Francesco Acerbi, and Leonardo Spinazzola joined the Juventus defender to complete the backline following their club performances while Nicolò Barella and Marco Verratti started alongside Chelsea’s regista. Ahead of them, Federico Chiesa won the race into the starting lineup against Federico Bernardeschi.
Second to last in the group Greece, instead, had to make do without their two best defenders: Kostas Manolas and Sokratis.
Italy’s last round
Italy immediately took proceedings into their own hands by employing a direct approach, while Greece sat back, ready to hit the home side on the counter. Italy’s directness somewhat portrayed the Italian movement’s need to qualify for a major tournament after the World Cup disaster.
Nominally in a 4-3-3, Italy’s positioning during buildup resembled a 3-5-2 shape. D’Ambrosio stayed deep as a third center-back, whereas on the other side Spinazzola pushed into a higher position to provide width. Ahead of the two nominal fullbacks, Insigne tucked aside Immobile and Chiesa hugged the touchline.
Verratti often moved near Jorginho to aid the buildup, to which Barella reacted by moving behind the midfield. As a result, the Inter midfielder provided a diagonal option between the lines while squeezing Greece’s midfield line to free Chiesa out wide. Lorenzo Insigne, too, ensured Italy kept access to the space behind the opposition’s midfield by making himself available in the left 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. Consequently, by packing the center with men, Italy could constantly free their wide men on the wing for a cross or individual duel against the opposition fullback.
Italy’s 3-5-2 shape against Greece’s 4-4-2 block.
Defensively, the central compactness in possession guaranteed that at different heights, Italy had enough men close to each other and their opponents for counterpressing After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. actions. Like in the eighth minute, when Chiesa recovered possession immediately after losing it just ahead of the penalty area. Unfortunately, the winger’s technical imprecision and decision making disrupted a potentially dangerous short counter, something Fiorentina fans have learned to accept.
Greece only controlled 29% of the ball throughout the game, well and truly assisting to Italy’s possession dominance. Even so, the first shot of the match came from the visitors after a finely organized action. After circulating the ball in defense around Italy’s pressing John van’t Schip’s side calmly passed the ball back and forth to invite the Italians out of their position and subsequently attack the vacated space. What followed was a powerful shot by Dimitris Limnios from inside the box that Donnarumma saved with a strong left hand. This was the first and only alarm for Italy since Greece were unable to replicate the move over the course of the first half.
Overall, Greece defended quite efficiently, especially in the center. When a pass was played to one of the central midfielders, the closest man to Italy’s player would immediately step forward to prevent him from getting the ball under control. Therefore all the Italians could do was play on the wings. The only player allowed to hold onto the ball was Bonucci, since both the players ahead of him and beside him were immediately pressed.
Consequently, Italy’s direct approach was in many ways emphasized by their opponent’s 4-4-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. that would turn into a high press after a back pass. However, as the half progressed, Greece’s strikers became increasingly focused on covering the midfield line, rather than disturbing the center-backs’ circulation. Therefore, with more time at the ball-carrier’s disposal, Italy started finding passing lanes into the opposition’s defensive block – which, meanwhile, had transitioned into a 4-5-1 shape – to trigger combinations.
The final ten minutes of the first half saw the game open up, with Italy progressively committing more players in deep buildup to draw the Greece midfield with them. The hosts showed good resistance to pressure in these instances, and easily bypassed the opponents to find space to carry the ball forward.
Italy easily bypasses Greece’s disjointed press.
Ironically, even though Italy controlled the majority of the ball during the first half and created interesting dynamics, it had been Greece that created the only and most dangerous chance. Ten minutes into the second half, Greece had another opportunity to score on the counter. Italy’s possession had not been incisive enough, as well as the final passing, which often lacked precision, and thus could be dealt with by the Greek defense.
The script in the second half vastly followed the one written during the first though, and it was not surprising to see how both Italy’s goals came from extemporaneous situations. One from a penalty after a good combination between Verratti and Insigne, and the second from a deflected Bernardeschi long shot. Two goals that summarized Italy’s difficulties at creating clear chances against deep defenses, an aspect Mancini’s men had seemingly solved halfway through the group but that recently emerged again as a systemic issue; in addition to the counterpressing’s inconsistency. Italy can keep possession, create one versus one dynamics on the wings, bypass the press, but they ultimately lack the quality to consistently make the right decisions and seal the deal when the chance arises.
At the end of the match, Mancini must have been filled with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the joy and satisfaction to have qualified for the European Championship, on the other hand, the awareness that Italy’s football must improve greatly if they want to compete at a higher level. The buildup is already looking efficient, with good maneuvering of the ball from the backline and midfielders when pressured, however, the real difficulties start arising near the opposition goal. Once the Azzurri reach the final third, they have very little creativity to create goal scoring opportunities. The wide men either compulsively whip in crosses, or Italy’s combinations end one step too early.
Personnel evaluation is another discussion the manager has to consider. Federico Chiesa might offer intensity without the ball and valuable moments on the ball, but his performances have lacked the consistency needed to make a difference and be considered an undisputed starter. Likewise Bernardeschi, who was expected to take the final step in the National Team but has not been up to par so far.
Mancini will have enjoyed his wins, but it would be very naive not to assess the replicability of the current results long term especially since the manager has three games to test new solutions or adjustments.
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