Vincente Del Bosque once again proved that he is not afraid to change his lineup, going without a central forward in a 4-3-3, with Cesc Fabregas as the false nine, but Spain left disappointed as Italy brought out a 3-5-2 formation and deservedly picked up a much needed point.
Among the surprises in Italy’s lineup were Danielle De Rossi starting out of position at the center of the back three, and the volatile pair of Cassano and Balotelli starting up front. As for the wingbacks, Christian Maggio, who plays in Napoli’s 3-5-2, started alongside international debutant and Juventus winger Emanuele Giaccherini.
Both teams effectively played with six midfielders, with Mario Balotelli dropping back whenever Spain had the ball, leading to an over-congested center of the pitch and few scoring opportunities.
The way the formations matched up seemed to suggest a multitude of one-on-one battles. Neither side had a spare man at the back. Spain had three forwards, or, more precisely, attacking midfielders, against three Italian center-backs, while Italy had two forwards against two Spanish center-backs. Italy’s wing-backs vied with Spain’s full-backs for control of the flanks, and each team played with three central midfielders.
Because they were playing against a 3-5-2, Del Bosque’s false nine system didn’t work. The forwards dropping back into midfield only saved Italy from having to play without a spare man at the back, while the Italian forwards still had a 2 v. 2 situation. The wing-backs, naturally higher than Spain’s full-backs, could press even higher because of this, while the Spanish full-backs were forced to drop farther back to cover for their center-backs. Even so, Balotelli and Cassano ran rampant in the space behind Arbeloa and Jordi Alba, benefiting from the Italians incredibly precise long balls, while Spain’s midfielders stayed narrow and Italy controlled the flanks without effort. Giaccherini and Maggio were easy release points when Spain put their infamous press on Italy’s center-backs. De Rossi had a near-perfect game in defense, while Giaccherini, Maggio, and Balotelli could all step into midfield. The end result was that Spain didn’t have any attacking presence, or a numbers advantage in midfield.
Del Bosque’s striker-less formation has been unfairly criticized by many in the media. Where the Spain coach really went wrong was by not making changes at half-time. If they use this formation in the future, and the early indicators say they will, it will be interesting to see how effective it is. Ireland’s 4-4-1-1 seems to play right into its hands.
The formation, doesn’t, however, solve what has been Spain’s main problem in the tiki-taka era— for all their possession and passing, the team are often at their best on counter-attacks, or when a player decides to try dribbling or shooting from range, as Silva did so often yesterday night. For the first hour, whenever Spain created a dangerous attack, the Manchester City winger was at the heart of it.
For the first hour, then, it was a game between two teams who looked best on the counter-attack, and Italy created far better chances. They took a deserved lead after 61 minutes, when Di Natale, who plays in a 3-5-1-1 for Udinese, scored with almost his first touch after replacing the ineffective Balotelli, who was a threat to pick up a second yellow card. The assist came from Pirlo, who might have been the best midfielder on the field. He played his role superbly, and his precise long-balls started most of Italy’s attacks.
Defensively, Italy played the 3-5-2 perfectly. Even on the goal, they positioned themselves perfectly. Iniesta managed to beat two players on the dribble, and Silva still had to beat four on his exquisite pass. If anyone was to blame, it was Marchisio– he just wasn’t as fast as Fabregas, who made the run.
As so often happened against Spain, a lot of hard work was undone by one moment of genius.
Spain now had the upper hand after 64 minutes of Italian pressing, but, incredulously, Del Bosque took David Silva off for Jesus Navas, and Italy’s three center-backs were predictably able to deal with his crosses.
Meanwhile, Cesare Prandelli, also made an interesting decision, perhaps his first mistake. Perhaps he only trusted the defensive players he had on the field, but, at this point in the game, Italy’s biggest need seemed to be fresh legs in defense or midfield. Instead, he put on forward Giovinco, likely a panic reaction to the goal by Spain, when a tie would have suited Italy quite well. Then, he didn’t bring on Antonio Nocerino until the 89th minute.
The game hit a bit of a lull, until Torres FINALLY came on in the 73rd minute. Even here, looking back, it looks like Llorente might have been a better choice. Torres’ strengths fit the game, however, and with a true center-forward in front of them, Spain were able to create chance after chance.
Torres missed all of them, but, as always, his runs were what had unlocked the defense in the first place. The Torres of old might have scored with the chances he was given, but he certainly wouldn’t have worked so hard defensively, or created as many chances for his teammates.
The last fifteen minutes were incredible. Both teams looked likely to score every time they attacked, and, although Spain dominated, Di Natale probably should have won it for Italy when a long ball landed at his feet, right in front of Buffon. He tried to volley, and shot wide.
Had Del Bosque made another substitution to a lineup that clearly wasn’t working, or even brought Torres on earlier, Spain would probably have won— as it is, the tie was very harsh on Italy.
Some of Del Bosque’s moves made it look like he was playing for a draw, and, while the result means that Spain should qualify for the next round, the game could give a talented team, like France or the Netherlands, a blueprint for defeating the reigning World and European Champions.
More immediately, Torres, Llorente, and Fabregas (as the false nine) can all make cases for starting against Ireland, while Italy must be wary of a Croatia team that looks extremely dangerous offensively.