Italy and its new Spanish nemesis – adaptability is the key
For the second time in two years Italy made it to an international final – a feat worth celebrating – but for for the second time in two years they were blown out by international football’s undisputed kings, Spain.
In Euro 2012, the seniors were not billed as favorites, but beat England and Germany on the way to meeting Vicente Del Bosque’s team in the final, but Cesare Prandelli’s valiant effort to try and play Spain at their own game resulted in a catastrophic loss as the World Cup holders found holes in Italy’s defence, took the lead after 6 minutes and never looked back.
A year later, Devis Mangia took his side to the last game of the U-21 equivalent, beating the much fancied Holland in the semi finals to meet the holders but a decision to stick with the 4-4-2 proved fatal, as the five man Spanish midfield dominated proceedings and once again, took the lead after 6 minutes and never looked back.
Italy’s return to prominence in international competition following the decadence that was the 2010 FIFA World Cup, is a huge positive, especially considering the comparably poor Serie A in continental tournaments but unless Italy learn to swallow their pride then perpetual silver medals await.
With the likes of Mario Balotelli, Stephan El Shaarawy, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi in the senior team mixing with future stars Lorenzo Insigne and Marco Verratti Italy look to have one of the strongest and deepest talent pools in the world to pick from, and will no doubt be a competitor in Brazil in 2014. However, like with Bayern Munich against Barcelona, you have to learn to change your game when playing against the Spaniards.
As ironic as it is to criticize an Italian side for not being defensive enough – that’s exactly what is needed. An abundance of attacking talent in the peninsula mixed with the evolution of the game away from dour international fixtures means that defensive control is not how the Azzurri win games anymore. But against a side like Spain, it becomes a necessary tactic.
Whenever Spain or Barcelona have slipped, it has not been to a side that has tried to match them pass for pass. When Bayern Munich put four past Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions semi-final at home, they did it with just 34% possession and five men in midfield, hounding the Catalan’s every move. Hell, even Arjen Robben was a defensive asset over the two legs. Jupp Heynckes recognized that possession of the ball is battle that is lost to Barca the moment the draw is announced, and created a plan that didn’t centre around territorial control.
Before completely fluffing his lines in the second leg, Massimiliano Allegri managed to beat Barca with a Milan team that is dwarfed in quality by Tito Vilanova’s side, as well as Bayern Munich and the Italian national side. The key to the victory was not possession, it was where Barcelona’s inevitable passing triangles took place. If they were at the half way line – great. If they were a the 18 yard box, we’ve got a problem. The Rossoneri remained disciplined, clinical and won 2-0. It can be done.
Spain are no different. Made up of between five or seven Barcelona players, the Spanish system is widely regarded as tiki-taka without Lionel Messi. The 4-2-3-1 covers more ground than the La Masia’s 4-3-3, but stylistically is very similar. You cannot attack Barcelona from the 1st whistle or else they’ll pick you off on the counter, and you can’t play 2 centre midfielders against a team that playing five.
Italy has much to be proud of over the last two or three years. Thanks to Cesare Prandelli’s forward thinking, youth-centered mentality Italy has turned into a vibrant, exciting side that is far removed from the aged embarrassment that was the Andrea Pirlo-less 2010 outing, with a foundation of young talent just waiting to break through. It is a side that deserves a trophy to reward the transformation. However, unless stubborn Italian minds adapt to their rivals, the closest the Azzurri will get is second.