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.
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.