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The way Italy played Sunday night may not be a template for the future – few other sides play in such an idiosyncratic style as the Spanish – but a point against the reigning world and European champions is a start.
This was a tactical triumph for manager, Cesare Prandelli. Yet questions still remain unanswered before Thursday’s game against Croatia.
Italy’s back three worked in part because of Spain’s striker-less system. One of the reasons a back three has declined in popularity over the past decade is the increasing prevalence of single-striker systems.
The formation initially featured two man-markers picking up the opposing two strikers with a spare man mopping up behind and perhaps stepping into midfield to help create the play. With only one player to mark, though, that leaves a spare man and a redundant player – and if there is an extra player in one part of the pitch, that means there is one short somewhere else.
Excepting the very particular case of teams who play a radical possess-and-press game – such as Barcelona or Universidad de Chile – Italy’s back three focused heavily on defending, allowing the opponent the ball and then looking to frustrate it.
The challenge posed by Spain, though, is very different. It began the game with no strikers – a logical extension of the logical of playing with a single striker: that is, to increase fluidity and options from midfield, making it easier to cycle possession while retaining bodies behind the ball to defend when necessary. This wasn’t the sort of strikerless practiced at times by Roma, Manchester United and Barcelona style. This was a true no-forward formation with six midfielders in two banks.
If there is no obvious solution, it’s because this is a problem never faced before in a major international tournament.
And yet, Prandelli’s system worked. Andrea Pirlo was able to operate as a deep-lying creator, fulfilling his defensive duties by occupying space. Claudio Marchisio and Thiago Motta were excellent at snapping into tackles, never letting Spain settle. When Spain did break though that line, it found another line of three waiting.
“We really tried to press the Spaniards from the start of their attacks,” said Prandelli. “We tried to avoid one-on-ones and for 60-70 minutes I think we played very well at the back. What disappoints me was that we allowed them to equalize very quickly. We should have made them work harder to get back into the game.”
That’s where the first couple of questions arise for Prandelli ahead of their next match against Croatia.
Prandelli used De Rossi as his “libero,” the free-roaming sweeper position made popular by Franz Beckenbauer. This was a gamble given that De Rossi is a midfielder who, although he has played as a defender at times for Roma this season, didn’t play the role in a three-back system. For much of the game it worked. In the final 15 minutes, after Fernando Torres had come on and Spain at last had a proper striker, he was badly exposed.
“The problem we had with Torres is that we gave him the ball,” Prandelli said. “We caused problems for ourselves."
The other big issue is with the forward line. While Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano did combine well at times, there was a noticeable increase in threat once Balotelli had been replaced by Antonio Di Natale, who scored the Italian goal four minutes after coming off the bench.
It’s not that Balotelli played badly – his single touch to take down a high ball by the touchline near the end of the first half was superb. He probably should have had a penalty when he tangled with Gerard Pique as the two tussled to reach the loose ball after Iker Casillas saved Cassano’s first half shot.
Balotelli was warned after that incident – bizarrely given he appeared the one fouled – and was booked a couple of minutes later for a marginally late challenge on Sergio Busquets, who, made the referee aware of the foul. The warning, perhaps, was indicative of Balotelli’s reputation, and he encouraged the booking with his attitude after the foul. That self-destructiveness must count against him – and opponents know of his combustibility and will look to exploit it. It should also be said that photographers at that end of the ground reported Balotelli was racially abused from small numbers of Spanish fans. If he heard that, he showed admirable restraint.
From a purely football point of view, there are arguments in favor of Di Natale. Six minutes before he went off, Balotelli dispossessed Sergio Ramos by the touchline, leaving him with just Casillas to beat. The Manchester City man dallied, though, for an implausible length of time, allowing the defender to get back and make the tackle. The contrast to Di Natale’s smart scooped finish when he was paid clean through 10 minutes later was obvious: it’s the older man who appeared the player in form.
“When he missed that chance I already had decided to bring on Di Natale. We needed to be a bit better going forward, it was not a punishment at all," Prandelli said. "I just wanted one of the strikers to go deeper. Mario just has to remember how he created that chance, he pressed, won the ball back and created it."
The questions are not unrelated. If Prandelli opts for a back three, he needs a front two that will chase and harry, foraging for chances as Balotelli and Cassano did rather than waiting for them to be created. Di Natale may be the most natural finisher of the three but the fact is, a forward’s job is not merely to score goals.
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