Preview: Italy V Spain
Find out which of these European Giants will be going on to the final and which will be packing up their bags and going home.
There are just four teams left in the Euros. Each of those sides will be weighing up their odds and considering the possibility of going all the way. Italy has arguably been the most convincing side so far and clearly appear to be a formidable force that no side will wish to face. Spain has utilised an "Us vs Them" mentality between the camp of players and the pessimism of the fans and media alike and whittled down their competitors to face the Italian’s in the semifinals. They are now just 180 minutes away from potentially lifting the European trophy that was last in the hands of Spain when Xavi and Iniesta graced the pitch. Denmark had the most disruptive start to the tournament with an awful incident in the first match that saw CPR performed on Eriksen. Since they have kicked on to put in several impressive performances in the lead up to the last four. Last but not least, England has gone the whole tournament without conceding a goal. While two home games in the final run to the trophy gives the three lions the home advantage. However, these sides still have to make it past the semi-finals if they wish to go all the way.
All of these nations deserves serious praise for making it to the semi-finals and for bringing something different to the tournament that should make for an exciting conclusion to the tournament. However, semi-finalists rarely make it into the record books and so each side will be desperate to make it to the final stage of the tournament. The first semi-final match, Spain V Italy, sees the most creative side and the tournament’s favourite face-off.
Most people have highlighted Denmark’s progression from the semi-finals as the underdogs overlooking Spain due to their history of being winners at International tournaments. However, very few people in Spain believed that they were set to be serious challengers for the Euros with some arguing that progressing to the quarter-finals would be considered as a massive success so their place in the last four should also be thought of in a similar light to Denmark’s incredible tournament. In fact, their chances of success were further disregarded when a bout of Covid-19 brought their pre-tournament preparations to a screeching halt. However, they have remained undefeated following three draws and two wins over the length of the tournament (excluding penalty shootout victories). While this is solid form coming into the game against Italy it becomes more intriguing when it's put under the microscope.
Spain started their tournament with two draws and there was a serious possibility that the side could crash out in the group stage however a 5-0 drumming of Slovakia secured their progression into the next round in second place. They next faced Croatia, a side that was wholly unconvincing in the group stages, managing to spread their results evenly across all the possibilities (one win, one draw, one defeat) and needed a win over Scotland to secure their place in the next round. However, Croatia gave a strong fight against Spain forcing the game into extra-time at 3-3 when Spain ultimately dispatched Luka Modric’s side 5-3. Finally, their last outing ended in another draw, 1-1, with Switzerland with the side that triumphed over France on penalties then succumbing to the same — of football.
There are a few patterns that can be taken from their run in the tournament to this point:
1) Spain have the tendency to be high scoring if they are to win the game outside of penalties.
This pattern is represented in the limited hard data that has come out of each of Spain’s matches: the scoreline. All three of Spain’s draws have come in low scoring games (0-0, 1-1, 1-1) while the victories all come in high scoring games (5-3, 5-0) showing that Enrique’s side has to out-score the opposition if they wish to win the game and, conversely, preventing Spain from scoring greatly hampers the side's chances of success as they cannot ‘grind out’ a simple 1-0 win.
2) Spain has a tendency to concede goals
Luis Enrique’s side has conceded in 3 of their last 5 games, with Spain only managing to hold a draw against sides that they should be comfortable with dealing with due to the gulf in quality. Meanwhile, when they face a side with more attacking nous, for instance, Sweden or Croatia, then they struggle to keep the ball out of the net. This concern will be expanded tenfold against Italy who is a mark up from these previously mentioned sides.
3) Spain’s success is very heavily dependent on the failings of the opposition
While Spain deserves credit for their progression through the tournament, their advancement has also been shrouded in luck. As previously hinted at, Spain has been lucky in their draws over the previous stages which have allowed them to progress without facing one of the main sides in contention for the trophy. This is all set to change in the next round as, in their opponents Italy, they are set to face the tournament favourites. Meanwhile, their track record against middling sides on the cusp of being considered a dark horse will be a cause for concern as their general struggles against teams at that level is set to increase exponentially in the upcoming game.
Spain’s strengths are simple: chance creation. Spain has been the best side bar-none when it comes to providing opportunities for their forwards. Their 15.6 xG is the biggest of any side in the tournament and some 5 expected goals more than their closest competitor Italy. Meanwhile, they have also created the most big chances, with 20 situations where there was a higher statistical possibility for the side to score rather than miss. Additionally, the sides 7.8 shots on target per match show that the side is willing to dispatch a shot when an opportunity arises and from these 7.8 shots on goal on average Spain score 2.4 of these attempts. Spain features at the top of all of the above-mentioned metrics highlighting just how impressive their chance creation has been so far this tournament. In all likelihood, Spain will continue to create spades of opportunities against Italy and Mancini’s side will have to deal with these situations if they wish to progress to the final.
Despite all the chances created and the side sitting atop of the goal scored metrics in actuality their goal conversion rate has been a cause for concern. Alvaro Morata may have good technique (see his goal from the last match) but his finishing is a notable weakness and a cause for concern for the player. Gerard Moreno, Spain’s most prolific goalscorer last season, has been favoured in a wide position, limiting the chances that fall his way but he looks the more likely to convert them than his centre forward counterpart. This issue is more glaringly apparent when viewed through the big chance metric as Spain has missed a highly concerning 18 of their last 20 big chances. Conversely, it is impressive that Spain has managed 99 attempts on goal in just 5 games but they have only converted 12 of these shots. This gives the side a conversion rate of just 12%.
Spain follows the principles of Tiki-taka that means Spain aim to dominate possession which they have succeeded within every game so far this Euros averaging 73.4% possession and an impressive average of 744 passes per match positioning them atop of both metrics. Having the ball naturally gives the side a higher chance of creating opportunities but it is also deployed as a defensive mechanism as the opposition cannot score when they do not have the ball. A philosophy that has been relatively successful for Luis Enrique’s side. However, it wouldn’t be reasonable to suggest that this pattern will continue against Italy as the jump in quality should pull the balance of possession away from Spain to be more equally shared. This will be a concern for Spain as the side has a ‘soft centre’ in as much as they look fragile at the heart of defence when an opponent is attacking the defensive line. Further still, Italy’s style of play dangerously aligns with Spain's defensive weaknesses showing that they may be the antithesis of the current Spanish side. Meanwhile, behind them, Unai Simon has had a mixed tournament, from conceding an own goal to getting a star of the match award, but many fans believe that this tournament is one too early for the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper and there is a general concern that the side could suffer for the players' premature involvement this time around.
One to Watch: Pedri
Positions: CM, CAM, LW, RW
The Barcelona midfielder is arguably the young player of the tournament. At just 18 years of age, Pedri has become an integral component to Enrique’s side as the most creative player in a midfield three. He has been given a license to roam off the ball so he can find pockets of space from which to affect the game and create opportunities. He isn’t as effective defensively but his offensive prowess means that he will be key if Spain is to progress to the final.
Many people painted Italy as a dark horse coming into this tournament but the riverside observer went a step further by positioning them as one of the competition's favourites (read more about our predictions for Italy here: https://www.riversideobserver.com/post/riverside-observer-s-euro-favourites-italy) and so far they have lived up to our expectations and they have become the clear favourites to win the whole tournament. Italy started the tournament in Group A. In initial appearance, a relatively easy group for the Italians who overcame Wales, Switzerland and Turkey to comfortably finish in first place with 9 points. Two more wins followed the group stage as the side progressed to the semi-finals with little fuss, pushing both Belgium and Austria aside in the process. Italy has gone some 32 games without a defeat and their winning streak at the Euros has been very impressive. This respectable form also stands up under closer scrutiny.
By initial appearances, Group A appeared to be one of the easiest groups to progress from and so few expected Italy to face any hiccups during the early period of the tournament. However, the tournament unfolded to show that the group wasn’t as easy as it first appeared. Italy first beat Turkey 3-0, regarded by some as a potential dark horse and while these predictions didn’t come to fruition, the comfortable win was a great springboard into the rest of the tournament and secured the support of the nation behind the side. Denmark may have resolutely dispatched of Wales but they were beginning to be regarded as potential dark horses following their advancement to the knockout stages following a few impressive performances in the group matches and so Italy’s composed 1-0 win should be considered with the oppositions growing reputation during the Euros. Finally, almost the exact same Switzerland side that Italy defeated 3-0 would go on to knock out France and hold Spain to a 1-1 draw before eventually being defeated on penalties, despite having a player sent off. A barebones comparison, without regarding fluctuations inability and form indicates that through Italy’s success over Switzerland that they are a side capable of beating France and going one further against their next opponents Spain.
Alternatively, they did need extra time to beat Austria in the last-16 but Alaba’s side has been underrated these Euros; while as though solidifying their place as favourites Mancini’s side knocked out FIFA’s 1st ranked side Belgium in the quarterfinals, a side that had just beaten Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Italy has looked the complete side so far this Euros. The defence has been solid and the structure-oriented style of coaching that has been synonymous with Mancini has clearly come to affect with great results. The midfield has been exceptional with one of two deep-lying playmakers pulling the strings finding players out wide and creating quick transitions which catch the opposition ‘on the hop’. Meanwhile, the front three have been pretty impressive to varying degrees depending on the personnel chosen to occupy these roles. Mancini has also given the side a clear identity that is based upon quick transitions, an attacking focus down the width of the pitch with midfielders making runs into the box to try and create goalscoring opportunities. Meanwhile, Mancini deploys an active backline that pushes up when in possession following a quick transition to consolidate their control deep in the oppositions half and a measured retreat when off the ball. Additionally, Italy is famously capable of utilising an intelligent understanding of the rules of the game and its dark arts to its advantage. A component of their game that was highlighted and mocked with Immobile's feigning injury up until they scored at which point he raised himself from the ground to celebrate. Knowing this side of the game is often underplayed but ‘winning’ a free kick or managing to get away with a foul that should have been a free-kick could prove to be the very difference between winning and losing. Despite all of these positives, there are a few weaknesses that Spain can look to exploit.
Italy could be a case of their biggest strength becoming their biggest weakness. Mancini has identified a system that makes the most out of the best Italian players available. However, his reliance on this very impressive and successful system also means that the sides that they face are more than aware of how Mancini will aim to play. The best chance of success in this instance is to stop Italy’s attacking moves at the source. Italy’s game against Austria was the biggest example of this in action. Italy relies on the engine room to provide the balls into wide areas and from that point into attacking moves. Austria deployed an energetic hardworking midfield against Italy largely formed from players who were defensively intelligent that allowed them to do twofold: The first was to put heavy pressure on Marco Veratti and Jorginho following a deep turnover preventing the early pass which has been so devastating and the second was to line up in two narrow defensive blocks that inhibited the space needed to find the danger men on the flanks. Italy struggled with this deployment (a more complex system than I’ve described) and it is no coincidence that Italy’s ultimate win came when this midfield tired and was thus replaced by more offensive counterparts as they chased a leveller.
Additionally, Italy has some glaring omissions in the squad that may prove to be an issue in the latter stages of the tournament. The first and most prominent of which is the lack of an attacking midfielder, someone who drops between the lines to unlock defences, a player that would have been useful against Austria. The impressive midfield is also lacking an out-and-out defensive midfielder that could screen the defence in times of need as has been key with Busquets and Spain. While the loss of Spinazolla cannot be understated as he has been one of the best performers and his potential replacements are unlikely to be able to cover his output or improve on it and so this area of the pitch will be earmarked as a potential weakness.
Finally, Mancini’s system urges the defensive line forward to consolidate their occupation of the oppositions half but this also opens the possibility of a quick counterattack. Italy’s fullbacks are as much of an offensive instrument as a defensive one and the ageing centre backs means that there is a general lack of pace within the back four which could be exploited by an intelligent run in behind and an equally impressive pass. However, this is easier said than done as such passes are difficult to play when under the type of pressure that Italy imposes after they have lost the ball.
One to Watch: Jorginho
The Chelsea midfielder has been an ever-present for Roberto Mancini’s side establishing himself as the lynchpin to Italy’s style of play. His passing range and ability to pick out the wide players have been key to creating opportunities while he is always calm and measured on the ball allowing him to help Italy maintain possession when a progressive pass isn’t apparent. He will not be making any runs into the box though instead of sitting back and letting the other midfielders, who have been heavily rotated due to the extent of the effort they’ve been expected to put in for every game, do the box-to-box legwork. If Spain can stop Jorginho from controlling the tempo of the game and dictating the play then they will vastly increase their chances for success.
Prediction: Italy 3-1 Spain
An Italy win is already considered as a formality in some sections of fans but that would be a little too presumptuous as Spain can still offer a serious threat going forwards. Yet Italy has looked the better of the two sides to this point and they should continue to build on their reputation with another win this time over Spain.