Euro 2020 final: Spain provided the blueprint to dull Italy's strengths, now England must rise to the challenge

By Sports Desk July 10, 2021

There was a sense of justice and vindication about Italy reaching the final of Euro 2020. They had been arguably the most entertaining side at the tournament and attracted near-universal levels of acclaim for their performances.

Added to that, there was an inspiring narrative that followed their every step, how they'd recovered from the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, started from scratch with a new coach and philosophy, and seen it all come together at their first major tournament since.

But they were fortunate to get beyond Spain in the semi-finals, eventually coming through on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

La Roja did more than enough to win the match, their 1.5 xG almost double the 0.8 that Italy recorded, highlighting the greater quality chances created by Luis Enrique's men.

Although Spain's almost trademark – at this tournament, anyway – wastefulness eventually caught up with them, they at least did Gareth Southgate and England a service in pinpointing ways to hurt Italy.

 

Thinking outside of the box

The chief alteration Luis Enrique made to his side from Spain's previous matches at Euro 2020 was the decision to disregard Alvaro Morata and Gerard Moreno for that central striker berth.

Now, some might have suggested it was about time, given they were two of the three players with the worst xG underperformance ahead of the semi-finals – Morata had two goals from 3.95 xG, Moreno had no goals from 3.27 xG.

But the reason for their absence, and the presence of Dani Olmo as a false nine, quickly became apparent. The RB Leipzig attacking midfielder withdrew into deeper positions so as to not directly engage Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci in physical duels, but at the same time this helped create midfield overloads in Spain's favour.

This was obvious on numerous occasions, but one of the most notable saw Olmo actually drop in front of Jorginho, a clever flick in the centre-circle seeing him release Pedri into space as Spain cleverly picked through the Italian midfield.

Granted, it didn't necessarily lead to a goal that time, but it highlighted how uncomfortable Italy sometimes found themselves, and the fact Olmo's combined total of seven shots and key passes (five attempts, two chances created) was the most of any player against Italy at this tournament cannot be a coincidence.

Morata's equaliser off the bench came from a situation not too dissimilar to the previous one as well. This time it was he who picked the ball up in a deep position, before charging straight through the Italy midfield and playing a one-two with Olmo, leaving him with a simple finish. Although he might've missed a few of those already in this tournament, he finished with aplomb on that occasion.

 

The blueprint

You know how in some video games there are unusually fearsome enemies who only unleash their wrath upon the player if they don't keep their distance? Well, that seemed to be how Luis Enrique saw Chiellini and Bonucci, and maybe he has a point.

Ahead of the final, Chiellini's 71.4 per cent duels success has been bettered by only six defenders (involved in 10 or more duels), while Bonucci's 12 interceptions is the best of all of them. Together, there's not much they don't possess.

That's why playing around them, rather than through them, seems to be the way to go.

While England don't possess a midfield that's as capable – in almost any sense – as Spain's, mirroring their set-up could at least make things trickier for Italy's core: that centre-back pairing and the three-man midfield.

Jorginho, Nicolo Barella and Marco Verratti have been largely excellent at Euro 2020, but at Wembley on Tuesday they were overrun.

 

Jorginho found it particularly tough going, the Chelsea man completing just 26 passes and only five of those were in the Spain half. To put that into context, his previous match low for accurate passes at the Euros was 50, and he'd not gone below 29 in the opponent's half of the pitch.

 

Verratti and Barella also recorded tournament lows in the same metrics, but it was Jorginho's lack of influence that was most notable and, given he is generally the deepest-lying of the Italian midfield, it lends further credence to the idea that Olmo operating slightly deeper ensured the former Napoli star was uncomfortable and unable to truly dictate.

Instead, that was done by Sergio Busquets and – to a slightly lesser extent, but no less impressively – Pedri, while Koke spent much of his time marshalling Verratti in something of a man-marking role.

Of course, an important distinction to make is that Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Mason Mount aren't Busquets, Pedri and Koke, but if England are to limit the influence of the Italian midfield, all three will need to play the games of their lives.

Kane holds the key

If Phillips and Rice can establish some form of control, the second key factor for England will be the role played by Harry Kane.

While Kane is undoubtedly capable of causing Bonucci and Chiellini problems, mimicking Olmo's performance could be a smart move, and there are few strikers in world football more capable than the Tottenham man at dropping deep and impacting the match in withdrawn spaces.

Jose Mourinho would know all about that, given it was under the Portuguese coach in 2020-21 that Kane enjoyed his best season creatively, reaching double figures for Premier League assists for the first time.

Mourinho told talkSPORT: "[Spain] was the only team that managed to unbalance that Italy midfield, because they had three and Spain had three plus Olmo, almost in a diamond. It was really difficult for Italy to cope with it. I can see Harry Kane doing that a lot. I can see Harry dropping and being away from Bonucci and Chiellini.

 

"For Bonucci and Chilellini, to have a target man in there is what they want. By not having a target man there, it's an extra midfielder, Harry Kane does that better than anyone."

Kane's 14 assists (12 in open play) in 2020-21 came from 3.6 xA (expected assists). Granted, that 10.4 over-performance – which was by far the best across the top five leagues – suggests a hint of fortune or that he was helped by good finishing from team-mates, but the idea he got lucky on every single occasion is far-fetched. He is clearly a fine link-up player.

Seven of those assists came from deeper positions, and the role Raheem Sterling plays for England isn't too dissimilar to that of Son Heung-min at Spurs, and we all know about Kane and Son's on-pitch relationship.

Italy's midfield is their strength, but all three of their regulars are players who want the ball – none of them are destroyers, and Spain have provided England with the blueprint to dull their impact.

Whether the Three Lions are up to the challenge will define if 55 years of hurt finally end on Sunday.

 

Related items

  • Al-Nassr 4-2 Al-Ittihad: Ronaldo breaks Saudi Pro League scoring record in final-day win Al-Nassr 4-2 Al-Ittihad: Ronaldo breaks Saudi Pro League scoring record in final-day win

    Cristiano Ronaldo claimed a piece of Saudi Pro League history after scoring twice in Al-Nassr's 4-2 final-day victory over 10-man Al-Ittihad on Monday.

    The five-time Ballon d'Or winner was on target in either half at Al Awal Park, moving to 35 goals across the 2023-24 league campaign in Saudi Arabia.

    Ronaldo opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time after receiving a long ball from Mohammed Al-Fatil, before doubling his tally – and Al-Nassr's lead – with a header from Marcelo Brozovic's corner.

    That second finish after Suwailem Al Manhali was dismissed for the visitors saw Ronaldo eclipse Abderrazak Hamdallah's 34-goal tally – in the 2018-19 season – for the most strikes in a single campaign.

    Abdulrahman Ghareeb then added another from the penalty spot before Meshari Al Nemer made sure of three points after late goals from Farhah Al Shamrani and Fabinho had pulled Al-Ittihad back into contention.

    Having already been unable to stop Al-Hilal secure the title, Al-Nassr finish second in the table – ending on 82 points after 26 wins from the 34-match campaign.

    Data Debrief: Al-Nassr dominance pays off

    Much will be made of the record-breaking Ronaldo, who has scored 50 goals in as many games across all competitions this season.

    Yet Al-Nassr were dominant from the off in this one, mustering nine shots on target to Al-Ittihad's three, while accumulating 2.73 expected goals (xG) – far superior to the visitors' 1.43 xG.

  • Sakkari crashes out in French Open first round after Gracheva upset Sakkari crashes out in French Open first round after Gracheva upset

    Varvara Gracheva produced an eye-catching upset after sending Maria Sakkari crashing out of the French Open on Monday.

    World number 88 Gracheva battled to a 3-6 6-4 6-3 victory on Court Simonne-Mathieu, claiming a notable Roland-Garros scalp in the first round.

    Gracheva clinched five of six break points in an impressive fightback after falling a set down in Paris to sixth seed Sakkari.

    Her reward will be a second-round meeting with Bernarda Pera, who overcame Japan's Nao Hibino in straight sets on the same day.

    Data Debrief: Gracheva earns top-10 scalp

    Gracheva will be bidding to make the third round in Paris for the third time in her career after Sakkari became the first big-name exit in the women's draw.

    This victory against world number eight Sakkari marked Gracheva's fourth top-10 win in her career, and second win against such opponents in major events.

  • Van Dijk welcomes Slot arrival as Liverpool captain commits to Reds future Van Dijk welcomes Slot arrival as Liverpool captain commits to Reds future

    Virgil van Dijk insists his future remains solely with Liverpool as the Reds captain welcomed incoming Dutch compatriot Arne Slot.

    Slot will replace Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool manager, with the Dutchman expected to take charge at Anfield from Saturday after sealing his switch from Feyenoord.

    The soon-to-be Liverpool boss leaves the Netherlands after three highly successful seasons with Feyenoord, having led them to the league title in 2023.

    Slot will be welcomed by two fellow countrymen on the red side of Merseyside, with Van Dijk and Ryan Gravenberch eager to link-up with their new manager.

    As Netherlands began their Euro 2024 training camp on Monday, Van Dijk told a news conference: "I still have a year left on my contract.

    "I am club captain and I have made it clear I am there for the new coach and enthusiastic over the next season.

    "Obviously, there will be a lot of changes but I am confident we will make a big success of it.

    "I congratulated [Slot] of course and I'm really pleased for him and his family. We spoke about the team and the future but now my focus is fully on the national team."

    Slot's reign ended with six straight league wins and Feyenoord did not lose any of his final 20 Eredivisie matches at the helm, their last defeat coming against PSV on December 3.

    The 45-year-old oversaw exactly 150 games in charge of Feyenoord across all competitions, winning 98 of those contests (65.33 per cent).

    Slot also won the KNVB Cup glory in April, overseeing a 1-0 win over NEC Nijmegen in the final of that competition, and Gravenberch believes that success has earnt his Liverpool move.

    "I think he can be good for my career, he's a coach who wants to play good football," added Gravenberch.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.