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Antonio Conte once again fielded the tactically organized 3-5-2 formation on Monday against Spain. It was an impressive display of technical football by the former Bianconeri boss, particularly for what he was able to lay out in the middle of the park. His five-man midfield were handed an assignment, and delivered in the 2 nil victory. We explain.

The titanic Round of 16 clash, perhaps the most mouthwatering of it’s kind, saw the Azzurri perform with tactical brilliance to a 2 nil victory. The win over the defending two-time UEFA European Champions Spain showed just how gifted a tactician Antonio Conte truly is. In fact, it also showed how special a motivator Chelsea could expect to get once the tournament crowns a winner and he takes the bench for the Premier League giant.

On Monday, Conte fielded a five-man midfield to expectation. Most of the same faces remained, however due to the unfortunate absence of right-winger Antonio Candreva, Conte was forced into shaking things up. So, here is how his Italy and Del Bosque’s Spain took the pitch at Stade de France:

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For this article, the focus shall remain on the midfield battle. As you can see, technical midfielder Alessandro Florenzi replaced the injured Candreva out on the right, while Mattia De Sciglio got the starting nod on the left over the underwhelming Matteo Darmian of Manchester United. Offensively, both players are capable of getting forward to supply crosses into target man Graziano Pellè and Èder, which is what we saw a fair amount of in the first half. The Italian fullback, while surrendering possession carelessly at times, did swing in his fair share of quality crosses and in fact, impressed many Milan supporters including myself in the process.

When you play a side like Spain, possession will be scarce. This keeps the opposition’s defense on their toes, but that has never been a task too tall for an Italian side to overcome. Defensively, Florenzi and De Sciglio dropped into the three-man defence of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli, forming a five-man barrack. The width was welcomed and it really limited Nolito and Silva out wide.

As for the war within the midfield trench, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta were combatted and well contained. Daniele De Rossi neutralized Iniesta for the 55+ minutes he featured in this one before Thiago Motta relieved him. The 2006 World Cup winner pressed the Barcelona man and never gave an inch. Iniesta is a world class passer who does not need much space to thread a ball and De Rossi ensured that Iniesta was unable to dictate play from the midfield.

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Often times, La Roja’s midfield expanded too much and it opened up massive gaps for Italy to exploit. In this match, not only were Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini up for the challenge of pressing the likes of Fabregas and Iniesta, Pellè also dropped deep into the midfield to help the cause. Italy’s number nine man-marked Busquets out of this match and that, in my opinion, was one of the key factors for the Azzurri’s success. Busquets is one of the world’s best midfielders; he is exceptional at starting up play and is a nuisance on the defensive end. Because Pellè made things uncomfortable for the Blaugrana man all night long, Spain were thrown off their game and unable to create many chances from the midfield.

When you have box-to-box, hard workers like Parolo and Giaccherini, you can present a different look. Giaccherini caused some issues for the Spain defence as well. Aside from his curling effort which was miraculously saved by David De Gea, the Bologna playmaker always seemed to be in the ideal location on the pitch when he was needed. Yet, in my eyes, it was De Rossi’s work on eliminating Andres Iniesta from the outcome that decided things in the midfield, and that is out of pure respect for Iniesta as a long-time string puller.

Take a look at this graphical data below, courtesy of Four Four Two and Opta Paolo:


Sure, Iniesta passed to a successful 86% rating, but that is due largely in part to their style of play which is centered around possession dominance. Look at the amount of horizontal balls played versus the amount forward. It’s also worth noting that when he tried to play something into the box and onto Alvaro Morata, it was quickly cut out by BBC and the midfield men behind the ball. Possession means little when little is made of that possession. I know, catchy phrase ain’t it?

Antonio Conte’s squad selection was dragged through the mud by many, and admittedly myself. However, it must be said that tactically, he is as good as any manager currently left in this tournament even when his squad may seem “unsexy.” Personally, I think Conte is the only manager who could pull off these performances, especially with this group of 23 comrades. It speaks volumes to the quality he oozes as a world class coach.

Last night, it was once again a masterful performance by the Azzurri, with the midfield unit at the heart of it all.

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