Some performances stick in your mind, perhaps it’s because they resonate personally with you, perhaps it’s linked with a major achievement. This performance from Antonio Conte did neither, but I highly doubt I will forget this absolutely fantastic, team performance for a while.
A really congested formation for Italy, but that’s the plan for Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2. Conte reminded everyone why he’s the coach and we’re the fans with the selections of Giaccherini and Parolo, who had excellent games from a functionality perspective. The defense was as assumed, Darmian would drop deep to create a 4-4-2, with Candreva operating as the offensive wingback as usual. Daniele De Rossi did a great job dropping into the CB line and also closing out angles as a defensive midfielder. Pellè and Éder resumed their target man – finisher combination.
The main talking part here was the inclusion of Maroaune Fellaini, while not a surprise considering Belgium’s historical personnel choices, it was still a surprise to see Wilmots actually do it in a big game. Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were wingers in the formation but both drifted in, KdB more so to act as a secondary number ten. Another noticeable deficiency was the standard of Belgium’s fullbacks, who would be trusted in providing width with Hazard and de Bruyne drifting in.
Italy in the first phase/build-up
With Marco Verratti’s injury, Conte has had to change things up. In the 3-5-2 with Verratti, he operated usually in an advanced role, at the tip of a midfield trio, with Marchisio and whoever behind him. This meant Italy had an insanely creative player in the end of the middle/final third, who could provide for the forwards. With his injury, Italy have had no replacement, and it’s affected their whole gameplan.
With this midfield, DDR sat deep, with Parolo and Giaccherini acting as wide box to box midfielders, the centre forwards had to come close to the MF so there wasn’t a disconnect, as seen in the formation picture. This changed Italy’s whole dynamic.
We can see the central midfield space vacated by DDR deep and both Giaccherini and Parolo making one of their runs. A quick note on Parolo and Giaccherini. What games they had, not the most talented, but fit Conte’s system brilliantly, offering a template box to box performance. They’re both highlighted in the blue, they’re either side of the CFs who have come deep, bringing the defensive line with them.
Alderweireld played loosely off of Pellè, with Vermaelen remaining tight on Éder. With Giaccherini and Parolo pushing up, they usually lost their opposite MF counterparts in Witsel and Nainggolan. In this sequence, Witsel doesn’t pick up the wide player in Darmian, opening a dangerous combination. The ball is played into Éder…
Cimar, who didn’t contribute offensively or complete his defensive duties, simply doesn’t pick up the run of Giaccherini, Éder actually has two options, with Parolo running behind him, but opts for a ball in between the CBs as Courtois saves Giaccherini’s shot. With Giaccherini scoring later on, it seems as though Belgium didn’t learn and adapt early on, a crucial mistake in a knockout tournament (despite it being the group stages).
A lot of Italy’s balls into the final third were mostly to the wings, or were into the CFs who had come deep, Italy were most certainly not following most of the crowd.
As you can see, the central MF space is almost completely empty, in fact the only viable central outlet would be Bonucci -> Pellè. This has been the season Bonucci has finally been spotted by the rest of Europe, especially for his immense ball playing abilities, and this has been crucial for Italy’s build up with Marchisio and Verratti.
The benefit of having two central strikers, which is a rarity for the most part in today’s game, is that they can occupy both centre backs. Éder occupies Vermaelen tightly while Pellè occupies his loosely. However, once again Giaccherini gets goal side of Ciman and Bonucci’s long pass, if accurate, will land straight at Giaccherini’s feet, which it does. And he finishes it coolly, it’s 1-0.
This goal was so important for Italy’s confidence and gameplan, as we’ve seen with Juventus (I mention this as BBC + Buffon are the core), this team can easily grind out results and sitting back for large portions of the game is easy for them.
If Italy had to move through the midfield, with subpar midfield players in terms of creativity and vision, Italy’s performance would have no doubt suffered.
Italy’s defensive actions
In the defensive phase, Italy switched to a 4-4-2 of sorts. With Italy operating in an incredibly deep block, it didn’t matter Barzagli was operating as a RB, especially with Hazard drifting in.
This is where Belgium’s lack of fullbacks, or at least fullbacks that can properly contribute offensively hurt them. A fullback that matched the rest of the calibre of this Belgium team would have been causing a nightmare for Barzagli and would have been able to work balls into the box. As we saw with Bayern – Juventus, a bombardment of overlaps and crosses combined with an emphasis on second balls can be one of Juventus’ biggest weaknesses.
With no real wing presence and going up against probably the best centrally operating defensive, Belgium were going to struggle.
While I enjoyed Parolo and Giaccherini’s offensive display, I also appreciated their defensive contributions.
As the play advanced, Parolo and Giaccherini would tuck in as DMs, this was especially important for Marco Parolo, who helped disrupt Eden Hazard, cutting off his passing lanes and often forcing him to recycle the ball back to midfield. Giaccherini, while not blessed with the best defensive instincts, also helped disrupt KdB, but not to the same extent.
Mousa Dembélé was perhaps the Premier League’s best CM this season, and his exclusion was odd. His ball recycling skills were sorely missed, especially with Italy’s deep block forcing a backwards pass to central midfield.
An example of just how well drilled this Italy midfield is was how quickly everyone was organised after set pieces.
Vertonghen is currently on the ball, and Italy have done well to quickly resume their man marking and cut off most passing lanes.
In just two seconds, Italy have continued to close down the passing lanes and get even tighter. Vertonghen perhaps rushes his decision as he begins to spot the pressing runner approaching him. He attempts to switch play but the ball goes out for a throw in and it’s an easy turnover. Italy completely defused a potentially chaotic situation with relative ease.
For me, it’s always been a tell tale sign of how good a defensive side is seeing how quickly and effectively they recover into their respective defensive duties.
I am going to have to come out and say I was totally wrong about this Italy side. This may not be the prettiest side but Conte has a clear gameplan in place for the team to be effective. There is no star in this side, but they beat one of the most star studded sides in the whole tournament.
This Italy side seems to work best as an underdog, they struggled against Scotland a few weeks ago so when Ireland and Sweden give Conte’s side the majority of the ball, I think it could get ugly. I think Italy may struggle to breakdown both sides but even this depleted Italy side has more quality than the rest of the group.
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An actual match review of Italy 2 Belgium 0 can be found here.