Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers Italy are not, yet going into their first match of Euro 2016 the Azzurri were not heralded as what they once were.
Gone are all but one of the players that started in the final of the 2006 World Cup, of course that man being the irreplaceable Gianluigi Buffon. He started and captained his side once more in Lyon against a so-called “golden generation” of Belgium players, yet despite all the hype surrounding one team and negativity surrounding the other, it was Italy who came out winners in a match that could prove to be pivotal in Group E.
How they lined up
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi, Giaccherini, Darmian, Pellé, Éder
Belgium (4-2-3-1): Courtois, Ciman, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Witsel, Nainggolan, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard, Lukaku
Result: Italy 2 – 0 Belgium
Speaking last week amidst suggestions that his side would be defensive and hoping to score on the counter-attack, Italy manager Antonio Conte ruled out the possibility of his side playing such a style of football.
“I do everything except counter-attacks. I do not play on the counter. I never even train counter-attacks. It is not in my concept of football.”
Fifteen or so minutes in it became quite clear that Conte wasn’t joking. Italy took the game to Belgium early on with use of their exceptional width. Early on Antonio Candreva looked dangerous, as he probed the Belgium backline and the much derided Emanuele Giaccherini even looked threatening bombing down the left-hand-side against Laurent Ciman.
Italy lined up in the familiar 3-5-2 formation, but as and when Belgium began to apply pressure they reverted to a much more solid 5-3-2. With the backline being built upon the foundations of the five-time Scudetti winning back three of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini, the Azzurri were always going to be going into into Euro 2016 with the strongest defence of the lot. Against Belgium their class shone through, even when Belgium came a little too close for comfort later on in the match.
In front of the defence Conte opted to play Daniele De Rossi alongside Marco Parolo in favour of PSG’s Thiago Motta. Offering less as a ballplayer and more as a physical barricade, the decision to start De Rossi showed that Conte respected the threat provided by Belgium in midfield. However, throughout the match De Rossi recycled the possession well enough, but the game seemed to pass him by in many respects. The Roma midfielder finished with just two interceptions and zero successful tackles.
In the centre of the park it was Marco Parolo who had the larger impact for Italy. The Lazio man finished the match with four completed tackles and 25 out of his 30 attempted passes completed. Parolo’s favoured passing combination came with Antonio Candreva, with 11 of his passes being sent to his Lazio teammate.
As the match wore on it became clear that Italy were attempting to utilise Candreva as much as possible, and the right midfielder acted as the primary outlet for almost all of Italy’s attacks.
For many observers Belgium were indeed the favourites going into this match, despite their drawbacks. A team overflowing with talent, it is expected of Marc Wilmots to get the most out of his plentiful options. However, the coach never seemed to take his side out of first gear until it was too late.
Belgium lined up with Kevin De Bruyne oddly shunted out on the right-hand-side in order to accommodate Marouane Fellaini in the hole behind Lukaku. It was also then strange to see Belgium not play to the strengths of their striker, who ghosted throughout the game until he was subbed off 17 minutes from full-time. Even more bizarrely, after Lukaku was brought off Belgium seemed to shift their focus from attempting to play the ball into their striker, to build-up down the wings and high balls into the box, a style of play that almost paid off immediately if it weren’t for Divock Origi fluffing his lines.
Ultimately the match was killed with Graziano Pellé’s late volley, but it was Emanuele Giaccherini’s first-half strike that set Italy on their way to victory. The Bologna winger’s inclusion has come under much scrutiny by many observers, but he silenced his doubters with a vital goal, that was gifted to him by the skill of Leonardo Bonucci. Strangely it wasn’t a midfield or forward player that set-up Giaccherini, but instead Bonucci, who sent a lofted ball from inside his own half right into the feet of Giaccherini inside the Belgium penalty area. Losing his marker as the pass floated in, Giaccherini stopped the ball dead and poked it past Courtois to give Italy the lead. In a moment of beautiful redemption, it was the little man who came up with the big moment.
In defending their lead Italy did indeed begin to exhibit some counter-attacking tendencies, with the utilisation of Candreva, Giaccherini and Éder’s pace being key. On multiple occasions the Azzurri found their way into the final third within a quick series of three to four passes, pinging the ball in, out and all around the Belgium players.
Despite not using the likes of Florenzi, Insigne or El Shaarawy, Italy looked sharp up front and full of energy. The high intensity of pressing from all of Italy’s front three was key to suppressing Belgium building up any head of steam when on the ball.
Up next for the Azzurri are Sweden, who offer a real threat in Ibrahimović, but no alternative action plan when their captain is suppressed. Expect a similar if not the exact same team to line up against the Swedes, and also expect Italy to once more take the game to their opposition. As a unit, Italy have the ability to do so against any team that they come up against.