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Spain vs. Italy a Confederations Cup reaction

We are now around about thirteen hours removed from the climax of yesterday evening’s Confederations Cup semi-final clash involving Spain and Italy and I am still not quite sure how the Azzurri aren’t in the final. Before the game I gave Cesare Prandelli’s side, perhaps unfairly, very little hope of overcoming Vicente del Bosque’s Spain side who have looked more or less untouchable so far this tournament however I was left astounding by the quality of performance Italy put in last night, as well as the way they played when on the ball in order to disrupt Spain’s game plan.

The Italians reverted to Prandelli’s well rehearsed three at the back system which left the team set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation with Christian Maggio occasionally dropping back into the right full back position and Chiellini shuffling to the left back slot when Spain counter attacked.  Claudio Marchisio would also end up dropping deeper into the midfield as the first half progressed with Italy essentially playing a 3-5-1-1 system which very much reflected Antonio Conte’s Juventus side during their injury crisis last season.

Andrea Pirlo who was a monumental miss against Brazil, eased back into his pivot position sitting just in front of the Italian backline which gave Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli an escape route if you will which they hadn’t had the luxury of in Salvador on Saturday evening. The Italians confidence on the ball which was left in the dressing room in the opening stages of the match with Brazil returned to the Azzurri almost from the off with Daniele De Rossi also dropping deeper, essentially alongside Andrea Pirlo to give the Italian defenders multiple options to move the ball quickly. One of the main cruxes of Spain and Barcelona’s success over the past five years is their ability to press so far up the pitch when they are not in possession of the ball, this forces opposition defenders to panic and often lose the ball which gifts Spain possession in what is usually a very dangerous area, last night however was different, I stated before the game that Italian would have to play at an increased tempo to stand a chance against Spain and they did just that with Buffon taking every single goal kick short to one of his centre halves who would just as quickly move the ball to either Pirlo or De Rossi, and the ball would then be moved on again very quickly.

Whilst in possession in their own half Italy very seldom took more than three touches on the ball with one being to control, the next touch to set the position of the ball and move it into a iota of space and the third and final used to pass the ball. This quick, constant movement of the ball prevented Spain’s pressing game from having any real impact and as a result Italy could keep the ball and control possession for long periods in the match which was definitely the case even though the match statistics show Spain had a far greater possession percentage, this was mainly due to the one touch passes within a triangle the Spanish do in the middle of the pitch.

It must said that Spain were not at their best last night, defensively they were poor with Jordi Alba being given a torrid time all evening long by Christian Maggio and Antonio Candreva along the right hand side with the energetic Barcelona fullback often giving away cheap free kicks in good areas, born out of sheer frustration. Italy with the quality of delivery provided by Andrea Pirlo really should have done more with the copious amount of set pieces given to them by Spain. It was a look of ill discipline which we have rarely seen from a Spanish side during del Bosque’s tenure.

Italy will be heading back to Salvador for their third place play-off with Uruguay contemplating just how they didn’t manage to score against Spain yesterday evening, especially in the first half where Prandelli’s men created the clearest cut of their opportunities. Emanuele Giaccherini forged an opening for himself through some smart footwork before firing a shot wide of Casillas’ goal and closer to the corner flag if truth be told whilst Iker Casillas was to produce two outstanding saves, the first from a Christian Maggio header which perhaps could have been a penalty due to a push from Jordi Alba, and the second being from a Daniele De Rossi half volley inside the penalty area following Spain’s inability to successfully clear an Italian corner kick.

Many thought the absence of Mario Balotelli through a thigh injury which ruled the powerful AC Milan forward out of the tournament, would be the first nail in Italy’s coffin however Italy if anything had a more measured approach and could utilise the quick tempo passing game which really knocked Spain of their game as a result of not having to look to play in Balotelli so often. I myself was sceptical about the impact Alberto Gilardino could have on a match where Italy would have to play at a quick tempo to be successful however the Bologna striker played his part admirably in what was a brilliant Italian effort.

Gilardino was asked to hold the ball up when he received it and then move it to one of Marchisio, Giaccherini or Candreva on the flanks, very much like how Fred is asked to play in the current system for Brazil with Neymar and Hulk on either side. Gilardino’s ability to hold the ball up meant the Spanish defenders would have to come and attempt to close him down or win the ball off him and in the intense heat of Fortaleza last night this would have sapped energy levels sizeably. Gilardino’s hard work was instrumental in Italy’s ability to keep the ball in the final third with the Italians consciously taking longer on the ball in that area than in their own to force the Spanish defenders to come and close and as a result become more fatigued more quickly and whilst the experienced striker didn’t really have any chances to score himself he had pretty much run himself into the ground by the time he was substituted at the beginning of extra-time and credit to him for taking the place of Balotelli and minimizing the impact of his absence.

Spain-Italy passing tempo diagram

Here we see the effectiveness of Italy’s increased passing tempo when in possession of the ball within their own half. The yellow arrows indicate the passes that were being made in the shown areas by the Italian defenders and holding midfielders Pirlo and De Rossi. The quickness with which these passes were executed with three touches being the maximum taken made it near enough impossible for the Spanish to execute their pressing game with the red arrows showing how much running Pedro and Silva were having to do to close down the Italian defenders. It was essentially a trainign exercise similar to ‘piggy in the middle’ which did Pedro and Silva no favours in the intense heat as both had to be subtituted. This increased tempo of passing really allowed Italy to keep the ball for long spells which is the only way you can cause Spain any trouble. Hopefully other teams will look at the way Italy approached this match and see if they can replicate the Azzurri’s successes.

In truth the match was fitting of a semi-final with two European giants battling it out for a place in the final of a competition which has really risen in public interest and stature over its past two editions and like every great contest the match was not one sided with Spain gaining the upper hand through two substitutions as the match headed to extra-time. The first was on the hour as del Bosque introduced new Manchester City winger Jesus Navas and the second came just ten minutes from time with Juan Mata replacing Pedro. The pace of Jesus Navas was blistering, especially against a tiring Italian defence with the former Sevilla winger making Giorgio Chiellini’s evening that much more difficult with the Juventus central defender having to continually shift to the left back position to try and defend against Navas’ wide play and as the game progressed Navas was finding his way past Chiellini with more and more regularity.

This wing play coupled with Mata’s pace on the ball through the middle made extra-time a Spanish dominated affair with the exception of Emanuele Giaccherini’s shot ratting the inside of Iker Casillas’ near post before bouncing to safety and after all their efforts to keep the ball moving quickly to hinder the Spanish, the Italians look oh so content to take the game to penalties with Italy for large parts of extra-time just passing the ball between goalkeeper and defence. With the Fortaleza heat taking its toll on both teams extra-time became like the twelfth round of heavyweight boxing bout, with both fighters thinking they have enough points to take them to win and not really looking to come into contact with the other and the metaphor didn’t end there with the last thirty seconds of extra-time being an end to end affair with both teams looking to snatch a goal before penalties very much like the last thirty seconds of the twelfth round where both boxers scramble to produce a surprise knockout or gain as many points that will stick in the memory of the judges.

If ever a penalty shootout reflected the match that had gone before it then the shootout between Spain and Italy last night was it, the first five penalties on each side were converted with expert aplomb starting with Antonio Candreva’s ‘Panenka’ to fool Casillas right through to Sergio Busquets rolling the ball into the bottom corner. One team had to lose however and it was Juventus central defender Leonardo Bonucci who couldn’t hold his nerve, firing his spot kick into the crowd allowing Jesus Navas to nonchalantly slot Spain into the Confederations Cup final against hosts Brazil in Rio this Sunday.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

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