Italy – Spain: parasitoid meets pest

Everyone remembers the EURO 2012 final, where the Spanish golden generation won a third trophy in a mere four years. But as one mission came to an end, another had begun. From then on, Italy swore itself to a path of vengeance. Antonio Conte would engineer a 2-0 victory four years down the line to dethrone Spain’s golden generation. But, though his managerial exploits took the limelight, a broader covert operation was yet to reach its conclusion.

Match preview by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.


In the north of Italy, scientists were at odds with an exotic pest: the Drosophila suzukii. Small, swift, and invasive, it was too much for most antidotes to handle. Eventually, they turned to the help of parasitoids. The darkness to the pest’s light, the evil to their good, this solution had a crude twist.

The parasitoid makes the pest its home, relying on it as a life source. The forces of life and death, so often depicted as antithetical to each other, become one. So close you forget that you ever thought of the two as enemies… until death strikes a deadly blow. Today Italy seeks to deliver that fatal blow. 


Italy: two sides of the same face

After half a decade out of the limelight, many had expected the Italian side to conform to dogged, defensive football. Instead, taking EURO 2020 by storm, an attractive style of play has spearheaded their run into the last four. Apt then that the crowning display of their run was the most recent against Belgium in the quarter-final.

Roberto Martínez banked on his usual choice of a 5-2-3 shape off the ball. But his men do not shine in this phase of the game. The midfield often lacks cover from the front three, the defensive quality from the wing-backs is not there, and the central defenders are a fading force. Succinctly put: this squad of players has seen better days, and Roberto Mancini’s men made their opponents look every bit their age, no more emphatically than for their second goal.


44th minute: Italy break Belgium’s disjointed attempt at a high press. The three midfielders overload their double pivot, while the width and depth Spinazzola offers leaves the channel Insigne free inside. Dribbling to target open spaces is then the perfect antidote to the instability of Belgium’s approach.


Drifting to the halfway line, Lorenzo Insigne receives the ball, picking up speed with only one intention in mind. Too elusive for Youri Tielemans, too spritely for the back five, the diminutive dynamo jinks to the edge of the box, from where he wraps his signature finish into the back of the net. This team is his team, one whose approach has granted him a home he could not find in other setups.



However, this dynamic is not a marker of a radical change, rather the extension of traits so typically Italian. Insigne grabbed the headlines, but the actions of those around him give the forward the license to blossom. His teammates embody the values that have grounded the success of their predecessors.

Self-sacrifice from Federico Chiesa to maintain width and depth on the right side away from the ball, keeping the back five at bay. Alertness from Leonardo Spinazzola to balance the plays of his partner. And above all, organization from the three in midfield to open the game for their mercurial magician.

Italy’s triumphs have rightly been a defining story of the EUROs. But the miraculous narrative of metamorphosis obscures the reality of what is happening on the ground. This outfit is evolving, not transforming. Mancini has adapted tactics to suit his talent, showing the other side of the same face. And as Insigne showed, this move has given the team an explosive gear that is yet to meet its match.


Spain: no risk is the maximum risk

Back in 2012, Spain had that gear. Nine years later, it is no longer the case. 

If control of the ball were the chief objective in football, they would stand head and shoulders above all others at EURO 2020. In their five games at the tournament, they have tallied an average of 74% possession, over 10% more than any other nation. But the stark reality is that goals are the currency that decides games, and in that regard, Luis Enrique’s men have frequently come up short.

Indeed, it is all too easy to accuse this side of having ‘possession for possession’s sake.’ However, there is no smoke without fire, and their display in the quarter-final was an ideal case in point.



The silver-haired, wily fox in Vladimir Petković switched his course of action. The hybrid Swiss 3-4-1-2 system, so central in the shock win over France, made way for a classic back four. But Enrique’s men responded to the ploy almost seamlessly. From the hold-up play of Álvaro Morata to the crafty movements of the central midfielders, Spain developed a variety of escape routes to push their way into the final third. No matter the ruse of the prey, it almost always finds its way into the Spanish lair.

Alas, once in range, the Spanish firearm invariably jams. This side is still looking for the shoe that fits in the final third. Abundantly evident in Enrique’s reign: the attack does not seek to induce risk. In this contest, the central midfielders held back too much; the punctual occupation of the halfspaces was too little. Enrique’s men missed the moment to shift into high gear, leaving the Swiss with time to breathe. 


 

31st minute: Pau Torres breaks the lines to find Morata, who lays off the ball to Sergio Busquets. As Ricardo Rodríguez drops to cover Pablo Sarabia, Spain could gain space if Koke were higher…


So they turned to the wide men in the form of Ferran Torres and Pablo Sarabia. A go-ahead goal stemming from a Torres dribble seemed to point the way forward. But Spain would not shake off the failings of their attacks with such ease. All in all, the play from here was too rushed, too improvised, too prone to the aimlessness that held back the sides of Enrique’s recent predecessors.


31st minute: but his position lets Stefan Zuber commit less cover to the halfspace. César Azpilicueta faces immediate pressure, leaving Spain to try and fail to continue the attack from the right flank.


Scraping over the line, Spain once again failed to assert their advantage in the knockout stage. Playing in the knowledge that teams are aware of your aversion to instability is a gamble in itself. Short of that last gear to keep others guessing, this team should be wary of succumbing to the greatest risk of all in the final third: no risk.


Who will gain the upper hand?

Yet, for all the progress Spain must still make, one skill casts the outlook of this game into doubt. Unlike no other team so far at EURO 2020, they have exercised an ability to impose Plan A on the game. Both teams desire the ball as a strategic basis; neither waits to see what happens without it.

And both have their reasons for this approach. Thanks to their frankly hegemonic control of the ball, Spain’s frailties have rarely ever come to the fore. Clumsy mistakes at the back remind others of their fragility: this team is dominant, not destructive. The Italians, too, have not mastered the art of the high block. In the end, classic gamesmanship killed the contest as the Belgians looked to pick up the pace.

Will Spain’s style pay dividends? Will Italy’s lack of big-game experience prove costly? Can Spain cope with the dynamic of Mancini’s men in full throttle? Many key questions, few clear answers. This contest is not a clash of contrasting styles but rather the celebration of a shared ideal that leaves both with room to develop. More alike than ever before, inherent biological differences could be decisive.


Personnel puzzles

The return of Marco Verratti posed a question of selection to Mancini at the outset of the knockout stages. Now he faces an altogether different prospect. In a tournament where inverted fullbacks have shone, Spinazzola has been a central part of the offensive axis on the left side of Italy’s attack.

Playing on the wrong side inclines Spinazzola to look to the center, and he feels at home if he moves inside. Thus, the wide men could continually change lanes, always posing Belgium a new question. Mancini had mimicked a dynamic reminiscent of the legendary trident of Faouzi Ghoulam, Marek Hamšík, and Insigne at Napoli. An irrepressible dynamic that we will no longer see at this EUROs.

Rupturing his Achilles tendon, Spinazzola faces months out of play on the sideline. Emerson Palmieri will likely step into his role at left back. A more conventional profile for the position presents a painful blow to the Italians. But Mancini’s men play chess, not checkers. The manager has already adjusted the pieces to find a use for Verratti and Emerson in the same eleven. He will not shy away from the challenge of doing it again.

Enrique also faces questions at the back. His defenders have not exuded the order and calm that he demands. The partnership of Aymeric Laporte and Pau Torres does not always work in tandem, while Eric García is not an ideal fit either. Further afield, Sarabia’s absence paves the route for Dani Olmo or Gerard Moreno to work their way back into the starting eleven. Can either provide the spark their manager will crave?


Takeaways

All the signs for this semi-final suggest an incoming spectacle. Two teams brimming with quality will relish the challenge of stamping their mark on this game with control of the ball. Tonight, two nations of apparently contrasting DNA will take center stage under a common identity. This edition of an age old rivalry has one question on everyone’s lips: will the parasitoid or the pest survive?



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