Italy – Portugal: Mancini’s Italy finally clicks but can’t break down the Portuguese wall (0-0)
Italy’s possession game outplayed a conservative Portugal in the first half thanks to the efforts of the Jorginho-Verratti-Insigne triangle. In the second half, Portugal defended more aggressively to successfully stifle Italy’s attack.
Tactical match report by José Perez.
Roberto Mancini was handed the unenviable task of restoring Italy after their historic failure to quality for the 2018 World Cup. In surprising contrast to his past conservatism, Mancini has opted to rebuild Italy around a philosophy of pressing and possession. This decision is clearly aimed at making the most out of Italy’s most talented players: Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne.
Results are still not going Italy’s way—with only 2 wins in their last 11 games—but at least Mancini seems to be slowly settling into a well-defined starting eleven. Against Portugal, Italy lined up with an almost identical 4-3-3 lineup to the one used last month against Poland.
Gianluigi Donnarumma started at the goal, with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as the veteran center-back pair and Alessandro Florenzi and Cristiano Biraghi as fullbacks. The midfield trio was composed of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Cagliari’s young talent, Nicolò Barella. The forward line is the only one that saw changes compared to the Poland game: Lorenzo Insigne was moved to the left wing, with Federico Chiesa on the right and Ciro Immobile as the striker.
On the other hand, Portugal (or at least the Portuguese FA) seem to have little interest in renovation. The national team is still in the safe and capable hands of Fernando Santos, who led Portugal to the biggest triumph in their football history. However, one wonders whether a team with so much offensive talent should play a more proactive and ambitious brand of football, especially if we consider that Portugal is struggling to renew their defensive line.
Against Italy, Santos and Portugal aimed to secure qualification to the Nations League Final Four with almost the same 4-3-3 lineup they have been using throughout the tournament. The only significant change was a forced one, with José Fonte taking the place of a suspended Pepe at center-back.
As such, Portugal had Rui Patrício at goal, Fonte and Ruben Días at center-back, João Cancelo and Mario Rui as fullbacks. The midfield trio was composed of Ruben Neves, William Carvalho and Pizzi, and the front three were Bruma and Bernardo Silva as wingers and André Silva as the striker.
A free-roaming Insigne leads Italy’s possession game
Portugal opted to play the first half with a conservative approach, using a low-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 only timidly pressed Italy’s buildup from the back. Bonucci and Chiellini were given plenty of freedom to pass to Verratti and Jorginho. Once those passes reached the talented Italian midfield pair, Portugal would often move even further back, conceding even more space and time for Italy to string possessions together.
Italy’s structure in possession against Portugal’s 4-3-3 low block.
Italy took full advantage of this Portuguese concession. Verratti and Jorginho constantly exchanged passes to beat the timid pressing of Portuguese forwards and would then get the ball to the man of the night: Lorenzo Insigne.
The small Italian forward was the key player that allowed his team’s possessions to cut deep into Portuguese territory and create chances. Mancini gave Insigne license to roam freely throughout the entire attacking front. Insigne could stay on the left, cut inside, drop deep or run into space, with Verratti and Immobile often adjusting their positions and movements to adapt to Insigne’s.
Immobile was particularly outstanding at reading and compensating Insigne’s movement. Whenever Insigne moved to the center, Immobile would drift left and attack the space between Portugal’s right fullback (Cancelo) and center-back (Fonte). If Insigne attacked spaces instead, Immobile would try to drop deep and provide a passing outlet in between the lines.
The constant mobility and positional exchange of Verratti, Immobile and Insigne—helped by left back Biraghi staying wide and pinning down rival Cancelo—was a problem that Portugal’s low block did not figure out how to solve in the first half.
Portugal’s attack is shut down by Italian pressing
Italy’s possessions often made it to the final third, so when they lost the ball, it was straightforward for them to counterpress and prevent any Portuguese counters. The Italian defense was sharp at winning their duels against the isolated Bruma, Bernardo and André Silva, who often had to beat two or even three Italian players on their own.
Portugal’s issues were made even worse by Italy’s aggressive man-to-man pressing scheme when off the ball. Italy’s front three would aggressively try to push back against the attempts of Portugal’s back four to play out from the back, even going as far as to press Rui Patrício. The Portuguese keeper was perhaps the player who struggled the most under pressure, with 31 out of his 33 passes being long balls, and Italian defenders usually winning the ensuing aerial duels. Patrício finished the match with only a 42 percent pass completion rate.
Despite Patrício’s struggles under pressure, his saves against Insigne and Immobile prevented Italy’s first half superiority over Portugal from translating into goals. All in all, the first half left Portugal with only 31 percent of possession and a meager two shots, with no shots on goal.
Portugal finally presses and recovers with João Mario
Manager Fernando Santos clearly understood that his team could not be so passive in defense if they were to prevent Italy from creating chances. As such, he ordered the forwards to aggressively press Italy’s keeper and center-backs in their attempts at playing out from the back, with central midfielders rushing towards the Italian fullbacks in case they received the ball, too.
Using central midfielders to mark wide players was a curious pressing approach, probably used because Santos thought it was too risky to send his fullbacks to press. This scheme stifled Italy’s buildup attempts and allowed Portugal to have more of the ball, but also came at a cost. With Portugal’s central midfielders moving wide, Verrati, Barella and Insigne often had bigger spaces to exploit in the middle if the Portuguese press was broken.
Portugal had not improved enough for Santos’ liking, and so he subbed João Mario for Pizzi at the 68th minute. That’s when Portugal finally clicked.
João Mario came in with a different set of pressing instructions: instead of pressing the left back Biraghi like Pizzi did, he was trying to prevent the ball from getting to Jorginho and Verratti. In possession, João Mario would often exchange positions with Bernardo Silva, finally allowing the talented playmaker to drift closer the central positions that have seen him explode in Manchester City. The ten minutes that followed João Mario’s entrance saw the most dangerous Portugal of the night.
Italy runs out of steam?
On the other hand, Italy did not manage to reproduce the outstanding play of the first half. Portugal’s pressing takes most of the credit for this, but Italian players also did not seem to be as sharp as in the first half, too. Neither Verratti nor Insigne were as active as in the first half, and perhaps Italy’s man-to-man pressing had exhausted the team.
Mancini’s substitutions did little to improve on this. Kevin Lasagna came in for Immobile at 74th minute, and the Udinese striker was much less aggressive in his forward runs than his Lazio counterpart, and did not have such a good chemistry with Insigne. Meanwhile, Roma’s Lorenzo Pellegrini and Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi replaced a tired Verratti and an underperforming Chiesa, respectively, but had little positive impact.
All in all, Italy finished the second half with only five shots and one shot on goal, barely intimidating Rui Patrício’s goal.
Despite the disappointing result and the chances missed, Italy will gain confidence from their outstanding first half, which featured some of the best football they have played in years. Mancini’s proactive proposal seems a bit countercultural to the traditional Italian game, but Jorginho-Verratti-Insigne showed against Portugal that they can be a solid base to build upon.
However, there is still much work to be done. Italy will have to find ways to not run out of steam in second halves due to their aggressive pressing, and there are still doubts as to who should accompany Insigne in the forward line. Chiesa had an outstanding game against Poland in October, but a lackluster one against Portugal. Meanwhile, Immobile is the most in-form striker in Italy, but is he the right fit for Italy’s game plan or do they benefit more from a target man figure?
Portugal survived a tough game and made it to the Nations League Final Four, played out next summer at their home ground. However, there are still questions to be answered in this new cycle.
The defensive block is not as solid as before, and Italy constantly succeeded attacking the spaces in between their fullbacks and center-backs. Meanwhile, the team’s attacking structure still suffers from the more rigid and conservative schemes used by manager Santos. One wonders if perhaps Bernardo Silva should have more freedom in the center—like he does with Manchester City—instead of being confined to the wing, where he is less effective.
Despite these tactical doubts, Portugal keeps showing every game that they are an incredibly competitive and mentally tough team and defeating them will never be an easy task.