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Euro 2016: Italy 2-0 Spain - Tactical Analysis

Let's cast a tactical eye over Italy's 2-0 win over Spain at Euro 2016.

Italy football
The Italians marched on to the quarterfinals

Italy continued their impressive showing at Euro 2016 as they dumped Spain out in the last 16 with a score-line of 2-0 to advance to the quarter-final stage.

In a match that was dubbed defence versus attack by many in the build-up, the reality skewed this self-made truth little as the Azzurri wound up combining both elements together and Vicente Del Bosque’s men floundered to find a way to combat it.

Antonio Conte has worked wonders to get the most out of his team, and the players have responded perfectly to his commands so let’s take a look at why they proved too good for a flabbergasted La Furia Roja and why they should be feared the closer they get to the final, and the more confident they become with their system.

Blanket defence works wonders for Italy

antonio conte
Antonio Conte has worked wonders to get the most out of his team

It’s no secret that Italy have long been a team governed by the sanctity of defensive football, but this back three rearguard plus keeper in the form of 38-year-old Gianluigi Buffon is close to rivalling any prestigious defence from the annals of Italian Calcio history. What’s more, there will be little questioning their place alongside some of the best if they go on to win this competition because they have been the foundation – both literally and symbolically – of this side.

Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have all unquestionably been great so far and they carried out their duties impeccably against Alvaro Morata and company.

Much like they did against Belgium and Sweden, the backs were the first line of attack in so many ways because they set up the breakouts with timely clearances, cut-outs and strong challenges. It wasn’t simple either as they unashamedly employed plenty of old-school defending, often getting quite hands-on in a bid to unsettle and upset any time Spain flirted with anything even barely resembling a rhythm.

Again, they worked as a team. With the Spanish controlling the ball, they had to. Flooding back to shut down any danger, they smothered the normally incisive passing of their combatants with consummate ease. Andres Iniesta was arguably the most dangerous threat to forcing Del Bosque’s charges back into the contest, but even the normally masterful Barcelona star looked bereft of ideas when faced with the blue wall blocking his route to goal.

It wasn’t simply a backs-against-the-wall display either because Italy were the wall – it was more of a case of a human chain of austerity clamping down on the attacking riches of David Silva, Lucas Vazquez and the rest. The first part of Conte’s masterful attacks had worked.

Pelle counter-strike underlined offensive strength

graziano pelle
Pelle scored the second goal for the Italians

They did it time and again throughout the match and Spain simply couldn’t find a way to stop them.

It said a lot about the departing champions that they were unable to change tact to arrest the frequent counter attacks, or indeed that they had not brought a more malleable game-plan from the get-go. The Italians were grateful their opponents had been so unassuming, getting caught up in their own confidence in possession football, because it meant Conte could allow his players to keep playing the way they had wanted to.

Moreover, Spain played right into Italy’s feet by persisting with their high-pressing game, as highlighted by BeIN Sports pundit Matteo Bonetti:


Spain saw the majority of possession for large periods but Italy were well placed to deal with that threat by way of some great interceptions, awareness and generally telepathic play. Over and over again, they broke down the forages that came at them, and did so in a way that allowed them to counter effectively.

In the 25th minute, Bonucci set Mattia de Sciglio away after a lacklustre Spain attack before Marco Parolo headed wide of the target in a breakaway.

By no means did they rely on it as their opening goal showed but it gave them the outlet they needed so often to get down the other end of the pitch to end the siege that seemed camped on their doorstep.

In the end, it’s fair to say that the icing on the cake that was Graziano Pelle’s late strike to double their advantage was emblematic of their counter-attacking style once again, and it was the cut-throat manner of its timing which spoke most deeply about the sort of clinical side the Italians have become. They will hit teams at the cruellest of time.

Stretching the play certainly played its part in seeing this technique work so effectively and, as we’ll see, that was due as much to Italy’s shape with their wide men on the flanks stretching the play as it was to their industry on and off the ball.

Italian intensity too much for Spain

Giorgio chiellini
Chiellini scored the opener

By making use of every player in the best positions possible when either attacking or defending, the Azzurri managed to make the pitch as small as possible. Indeed, it was no coincidence that it was Chiellini, a defender, who got to the loose ball from David de Gea’s parried save to nab the opener.

That was one of the main reasons behind their win.

The flankers of Alessandro Florenzi (who replaced Antonio Candreva for the match) and De Sciglio were pivotal and they were able to stop La Roja from threading passes through spaces. Getting chalk on their boots, they really pressed their opponents out wide and forced them to often go from side to side in vain search of an opening which could see them hook their way back into contention.

Ex-Liverpool defender and Sky Sports analyst Jamie Carragher was gushing about how effective their energy was on the night:

Spain were simply not able to deal with it. Of course, one of the main symptoms behind their defeat was that they either didn’t know how to move the ball quicker or simply didn’t feel like they needed to. In many ways, then, they were a victim of their own stubbornness, blinded by believe in a possession game which was null and void against a side who live to defend.

Had the “away” team with their divisive kits transitioned the play better and played more one-touch football to wrong-foot their nemeses this could have been a much different night but in the end it was one that ended much more than Spain’s reign at this tournament because it has also signalled the need for a new approach, a new philosophy and a whole new perspective.

They will rebuild and come strong again on the international front, but for now, this is Italy’s chance to shine.

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