Roberto’s Redemption On Wembley Way?

Staging the FA Cup Final, Wembley Stadium has given many an immortal status in the game. Roberto Mancini knows this only too well: etching his name into the history books in 2011 with Manchester City, his success was the first of many to follow. What can England do to prevent another trophy for Mancini in the final?

Match preview by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

That Sergio Agüero moment everyone knows then followed a year later. But all was not perfect on the blue side of Manchester. Explosive fallouts and a poor title defense left everything on the line in the 2013 FA Cup Final. An unleashed and tactically well-prepared Wigan Athletic delivered and the Citizens did not. In a cruel twist of fate, the place where everything began for Mancini would now bring his tenure at the club to a bitter end.

Eight years later, Mancini makes his return. Suave as ever, he cuts a much more relaxed figure on the sideline than he did ever before on English shores. Exuding such calm to his players, another blue and white outfit will take to the hallowed turf of Wembley under his tutelage. Today he looks to right the wrongs of years past, to bring football to Rome not home, and attain redemption on Wembley Way.

Italy: tough times reveal your true colors

Dire straits call for radical measures. Three years ago, the Italian football association called on the services of Roberto Mancini for one reason alone: to revive the national team. Taking on the mission with aplomb, he placed Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Verratti among those at the forefront of the side. Misfit toys had found refuge in a settled home, leaving the Azzurri waiting in the wings to take EURO 2020 by storm.

Flying out the traps, the fruits of the project that Roberto Mancini had set in motion were coming to bear for all to see. Neither a rugged Austrian rear nor a soft Belgian center stopped this outfit in the knockout stages, handing them a spot in the last four. Here, a wholly different task was in the offing.

Spain and Italy’s clash pitted two powerhouses with an antagonistic past together in a celebration of a shared ideal. Yet, the sides do not stand side by side on their path to reach perfection. The former still looked bereft of the imminent menace that defined its former glory. The latter had won the hearts and minds of Europe in a 3-2-4-1 system befitting a slick club team. Italy seemed to hold the upper hand.

But Luis Enrique’s men had no intention of bowing out from the EUROs meekly. From the off, their high press was the embodiment of risk. Taking the chance of leaving Jordi Alba and Aymeric Laporte one on one in a high offside trap, Spain barely let the Italians settle into their rhythm in possession.

37th minute: Olmo drops very deep, creating a bucket shape in the midfield. Leonardo Bonucci steps off, allowing the false nine to receive and turn away from Nicolò Barella to drive into the final third.

An offensive masterplan to match then set the two outfits apart. Dani Olmo fell back into the midfield, thriving as a false nine. A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. A four-on-three overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. in the middle of the park thwarted the Italians, who could not rival the off-ball aggression of their opponents. Mission aborted. Cue a new plan of action.

The thorn in the Italians’ side.

Mancini’s men soon dropped off more into their half of the field. But where one problem seemed to be under control, another one then came to the surface. Shielding Olmo proved to be merely one part of the riddle, giving Sergio Busquets even more room to orchestrate the play. Italy eventually shifted to a 4-5-1 defensive block, forcing Ciro Immobile to shadow the conductor at the base of the midfield.

Conforming to type, the Italians suffered their way over the line. The state of affairs forced them to show their true colors as a nation that does not imbibe the philosophy of the Spaniards. Pyrrhic victors, but worthy finalists all the same. A model of consistency and organization, these principles have paved the way to past and present success. Principles that their opponents know all too well.

England: self-knowledge is the greatest form of knowledge

June 2016 was a dark month for England. On the field, a Round of Sixteen exit to minnows Iceland was a new low. Off it, the fallout of the Brexit referendum gripped the nation with fear. Plunging from one crisis to the next, chaos took hold. But, amid the disorder, one key question for the country emerged. 

‘Who do we want to be?’

Perhaps the politicians should look to the national team for inspiration. Fast forward five years, and Gareth Southgate has led the team to a first competitive final since 1966, backing up the World Cup semi-final run of 2018. The team now operates with a clear intention. No matter the opponent, one idea conquers all: stability. Their drawn-out win over Denmark did not stray from the norm.

Kasper Hjulmand’s men lined up in a 5-2-3 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. switching to a 5-4-1 shape if they retreated near to their box. The onus was on England to crack the bulwark of the Danes. From the right, Kalvin Phillips moved up to act as a second central midfielder next to Mason Mount. Kyle Walker flexed from inside to outside lanes. Both the wingers could drift inside between the lines. But the result was a familiar one. 

8th minute: a typical possession sequence against Denmark. Harry Kane drops deep to transition the play forward. But generally, options behind the midfield line were staggered too flatly and passive in their movement, leaving attackers stuck in the cover shadows of their opponents.

England produced another dreary pass map. Southgate’s men flashed their offensive potential from the wings. Twice in a minute, incision from the right drew the team level. But, in the end, the players submitted to the mantra of stability. For their manager, the U-shape When a team has possession on the sides of the pitch and with their own central defenders, this is called a ‘U-shape’, because it resembles the letter U. . of death is a means of survival.

In the second half, Hjulmand brought on Christian Nørgaard, turning to a 5-3-2 formation in the hope of finding more stability for his own side. The Danes held out till extra time, but their waning powers of resistance yielded to Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. England had seized the upper hand at last.

Cue a symbolic substitution. Southgate opted to bring on Kieran Trippier, organizing his men in a 5-4-1 defensive system. The identity of the sacrificial lamb was almost too easy to telegraph. Jack Grealish, who had only entered the fray midway through the second half, left the field once more.

This Jack the Lad, the heartthrob of the nation, captures the dilemma Southgate faces. Surrender to the will of the masses and put faith in the verve of his offensive roster? Or walk down the unpopular path of shaping an uninspiring, functional collective? For better or worse, he has picked the latter option.

Much like Brexit, judging this England team based on perception from the outside world threatens to miss the point. This outfit is far from spectacular, nor has it always made optimal use of its talent. Yet, Southgate has not aimed to provide a spectacle but rather settle the issue of who this side are. Self-knowledge is the greatest form of knowledge, and it leaves England on the brink of the promised land. 

Maintaining midfield balance

Since the start of the EUROs, the question of whether Southgate would use a back four or five has continually loomed over the manager. A 5-2-3 setup mirrored the Germans in the Round of 16, while a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape appeared in all of the other games. Trifling over which system he picks here, however, could be in vain. Animation supersedes formation, as the tournament has so often proven.

Whether Southgate sticks with a 4-3-3 formation or twists to the 5-2-3 block, several constants exist. His men would line up with a row of three in the first line of the press in front of two midfielders. In addition to this, the synergy between Declan Rice and Phillips is a pivotal aspect of both setups. In the former, the two work in tandem if Mount pushes forward to support Kane higher up the field. In the latter, they operate as a double pivot Two central midfielders next to each other. from the off, shielding the middle of the park.

Though Southgate has devoted trust to this duo throughout the competition, it remains flawed. In stark contrast to the Italians, this team sorely lacks a stellar conductor as a six: a Jorginho or a Verratti. But it is also yet to be clear if they can mimic Koke and Pedri, still finding balance off of the ball elusive.

Pushing their man-oriented high press to the limit, the Spaniards managed to shackle Italy’s midfield. Pedri and Koke were tight to their men high up the field. Behind them, Sergio Busquets would drop to cover the shifting backline, absorbing Barella’s runs from deep. Runs that almost broke England’s defense from Leon Goretzka and Mikkel Damsgaard. An ever willing midfield motor, Barella hit the post from an offside position against Spain. He could cash in if England do not heed prior warning.

Managing Mancini’s asymmetries

Even if Southgate’s men fly out of the traps, they do not stray far away from their stability mantra. Willing to concede territory and defend more passively, they are likely to defer the play to the Italians. Mancini’s men will relish the chance to get back into their more familiar role at the EUROs as the game’s protagonist. From here, a central question for Southgate, just like every other manager whose side has faced the Azzurri, will be how to manage their asymmetries on the ball.

Perhaps Franco Foda’s Austria will be a source of inspiration. Working from a higher 4-4-1-1 pressing scheme, his men moved into a neat medium block. Xaver Schlager continually shuttled to close down Verratti. Kalvin Phillips should relish this duel. To his outside, Konrad Laimer was a tireless worker, retreating to keep an eye on the Italians’ left back. Southgate could assign such a role to Bukayo Saka. 

From the left, Marcel Sabitzer pressed from the front before dropping into midfield. The sort of dynamic defensive job Mount has executed for Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea. Such diligence left Christoph Baumgartner free to lurk forward more to try and exploit Italy’s weaker right edge on the break. License that Sterling would surely not refuse. Should Southgate’s men muddy up the game as well as Austria did, the result could go in their favor. But that is only part of the battle to victory.

Sterling’s appreciating value

To win, England must make their spells on the ball count too. A 4-3-3 structure with a dropping striker already posed Italy all manner of problems in the semi-final. Just like Olmo, expect Kane to have a say if Southgate’s men can pry the Italian block apart. But England are not Spain. Where the latter looked to the center in this setup, the former have looked to the width.

Here, one name stands out above all: Raheem Sterling. Scoring three goals in the first four games of the EUROs before forcing the own goal that drew his team level in the semi-final, he has been the talisman in the attack for England during the tournament. In this system, Southgate’s men are far more active in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. from the flanks. Here, sudden changes of pace to attack the box, dribbling, and a dynamic supporting cast are the primary tools they use to break teams down. 

Refining his game under Pep Guardiola, Sterling has internalized how to use these weapons to deadly effect. Straying off the radar of his markers, the winger then guns his accelerator, bursting into life out of nowhere. If he evades the glare of the Italians at the right moment, he could deliver a killer blow.


Ninety minutes stand between one of these teams and immortality. England have arrived at this stage methodically and cautiously. Italy have leaped back to the forefront of European football. But both remain indebted to the work of their managers, for whom a win would hold deep personal value.

The devotion of his compatriots would surely wipe the memory of the FA Cup final loss for Mancini. In the other dugout, Southgate has woes of the past to banish. The agony of EURO 1996 still looms large over him and his nation. So who will the gods shine mercifully upon at Wembley Way today?

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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