Italy's tactics to be tested vs. Spain in Euro 2016 last 16 tie
Four years ago, in the final of Euro 2012, Italy made a crucial mistake: They tried to hang with Spain. They played their game and attempted to out-pass and out-create the 2010 World Cup champions. In different circumstances, it might have worked. Heck, it almost did in the group stage, when they drew 1-1.
But on that July day in the final, it was like trying out-jump shoot Stephen Curry, outsmart Warren Buffett or out-funk George Clinton. It was never going to work, and Italy were road-graded, 4-0.
Four years on and with a far less talented side in midfield and attack, there's zero chance that Italy coach Antonio Conte will attempt anything like that against Vicente del Bosque's Spain in Paris. But that doesn't mean Conte ought to revert to what was the Azzurri's bread-and-butter for most of the post-war period: slow the game to a crawl, defend in numbers and strike on the counter.
It may be in keeping with the trend of this tournament and it may be playing to the strength of the one area of the pitch where the Azzurri are world-class (back three and keeper), but it would also be a betrayal of the philosophy Conte has worked so hard to drill into his group and, in many ways, it would suit Spain just fine.
Del Bosque's sides are as comfortable with the ball as the Azzurri, traditionally, were without it. Sit back and give them time and, odds are, they'll eventually pick you apart. It may take a while if the finishing isn't good, but most likely you'll be conceding chances from the very first few minutes. And then it becomes a case of how many miracles Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has left. And while you may get a couple of chances on the counter, you won't get many. More importantly, the ones you do get will be falling to Eder and Graziano Pelle, not Paolo Rossi, Roberto Baggio, Gigi Riva and the other Azzurri striking legends of yesteryear.
I'd like to think Conte will approach this differently, more in the matter of what we saw against Belgium, particularly in the first half: Raise the tempo; move the ball quickly. When you don't have the ball, make the strikers and the Marco Parolo-Emanuele Giaccherini partnership run themselves into the ground (or until "they're spitting blood," to use one of Conte's favorite terms) harassing Spain midfielders Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and whoever else is responsible for circulating the ball. And, when Italy are in possession, attack quickly and crispy, using the synchronized movements and pre-arranged mechanisms they've supposedly absorbed through Conte's endless repetitions.
Is it risky? To some degree, yes. Spain now have a speed and directness in the shape of Alvaro Morata and Nolito which wasn't there before. But equally, it's not really in Spain's DNA to boot the ball over the top either. Plus, what's the alternative? Concede a goal and spend the rest of the game desperately chasing the Spanish in possession and collecting card after card?
The other factor in this is that while Del Bosque started the same XI in each of Spain's three group games, eight of Conte's likely XI were rested in the last group game against Ireland -- those who watched the game might suggest the others also took the day off and were there only in spirit, so insipid was the performance. Can you leverage that extra rest and recovery into more energy? Conte believes they can.
As for Spain, the main difference relative to 2010 and 2012 is probably in midfield. Back then, you had Xavi and Xabi Alonso alongside Busquets. Now it's Iniesta and Fabregas. The drop in quality may be slim, if it exists at all, but you do lose in physicality (Alonso) and althugh Xavi wasn't a holding midfielder, he had plenty of positional sense and a knack for clogging passing lanes. That's why some have suggested Del Bosque should go back to the old "double pivot" formation by calling on Bruno Soriano to slot in alongside Busquets.
The other tactical theme concerns Morata. The missed chances against the Czech Republic in the opener got him some stick, but since then he has scored three goals. While it's true that he's undoubtedly more accustomed to playing with a partner up front and that a second striker could help neutralise Italy's main play-making threat -- Leonardo Bonucci's passing from the back -- it's equally true that Morata is settling into this role nicely -- and why wouldn't he with the likes of Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva setting the table for him?
Once upon a time, Italy were Spain's bogey side. Euro 2008 and Spain's quarterfinal victory changed all that and the Azzurri are playing catch up now. There's no reason for La Roja to change their ways, it's up to Conte to figure out how to outsmart Del Bosque and give his team a fighting chance.
On Monday, at the Stade de France, that will mean playing a style of football unlike Spain's -- as his predecessor, Cesare Prandelli, tried to do in Kiev -- but also unlike the age-old Linus blanket of defend-and-counter that Italy relied on in the past. The question is whether he has the courage to do it and the charisma to sell his players on it.