Spain was the best national football team from 2008 to 2012. Their dominance came when Barcelona and Real Madrid were mighty giants in La Liga. Spain’s midfield during those years was perhaps the best in history. They arrived at Euro 2012 as the defending champions and holders of the World Cup after their 2010 triumph. Their first match at the Euros was against Italy, a team looking to find their way back to the top of Europe after unsuccessful campaigns at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. They proved to be a strong competitor for Spain, and both sides eventually shared the spoils after an intriguing tactical battle.
Spain (4-3-3): Iker Casillas; Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, Álvaro Arbeloa; Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi; Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas, David Silva.
Italy (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci; Emanuele Giaccherini, Thiago Motta, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Christian Maggio; Mario Balotelli, Antonio Cassano.
Spain in possession
It was no surprise that Spain played out from the back. During the build-up, the three central midfielders dropped deep to help the centre-backs, while the full-backs pushed slightly higher. The likes of Iniesta, Silva and Fàbregas roamed between the lines to provide passing options.
Knowing that Spain were a strong press-resistant side, Italy didn’t set out to press high. Instead, they favoured a solid structure through a horizontally and vertically compact 5-3-2, which shifted according to the position of the ball. The front two stayed close and between Spain’s first two lines and were not active defensively. They looked to maintain close proximity with their midfield to reduced space in central midfield and press Spain’s central midfielders from all sides. Italy’s midfield three stayed behind them and looked to press Spain’s midfield three when any of them had the ball in the middle third.
To progress the ball, Spain could create a numerical advantage in midfield with the dropping movements of the forwards, all of whom were creative midfielders by nature. That way, they could push Italy into their own half, which Gli Azzurri were happy to do anyway. Their three lines maintained good proximity, while the midfield and defence showed a high level of horizontal compactness, as demonstrated below.
A weakness of the 5-3-2 formation was the lack of personnel on the wings, but Spain could not capitalise on that as their wingers mostly dropped deeper and centrally, meaning the centre and half-spaces were always crowded. The Spaniards were quite flexible in their positioning, constantly rotating to disrupt the Italian shape. They loved to overload an area on the pitch to combine through Italy’s midfield. The front players could also roam between the lines as all of Xavi, Busquets and Alonso were masters at breaking the lines. In addition, the overloads helped Spain to counter-press effectively upon losing possession.
However, creating chances in the final third was a tough task for Spain for most of the match. In theory, Italy’s 3-5-2 meant they had a 3v3 at the back, a 3v3 in midfield and 1v1 on each wing against Spain’s narrow 4-3-3, which looked more like a 4-3-2-1. This numerical equality meant that in the final third, any Spanish ball-carrier could be quickly closed down by a nearby Italian defender/midfielder. The Italians were very active in pressing in their own half.
Italy would use a narrow midfield throughout Euro 2012, typically the 4-diamond-2 used in their last four matches. In comparison, the wide defenders in the 3-5-2 could push much higher, meaning Spain’s full-backs couldn’t venture too high all the time and could also be closed down much sooner. A 1v1 on each wing also meant the Italian wing-back could simply track the opposite full-back’s run when needed.
The image below shows the heatmaps of Alba and Arbeloa in Spain’s match against Italy in the group stage and in the final. In the group stage match, Alba and Arbeloa attempted a similar number of passes (60 and 54 respectively) and couldn’t get too high up the pitch, meaning they mainly served as ball retention outlets. In the final match, Alba attempted many more passes than Arbeloa (75 to 39); both of them got higher, and Alba scored the second goal from a sprint from his own half. When Italy let Barcelona’s future left-back become influential and make forward runs, they couldn’t handle Spain. That was not what happened in the group stage match – Spain sorely missed the width that should have been provided by the full-backs.
Having an extra centre-back also meant that the ball-near centre-back could follow a forward’s dropping movement – which happened throughout the match – without leaving too much space in behind. Spain failed to constantly exploit this kind of space, as their front players were more concerned with keeping possession than making runs into space. In addition, when an Italian defender stepped out of his position to press, he would harass the opponent until the latter passed the ball. The Italian defenders showed top-notch positional awareness to virtually always step out at the right time, limiting space around the ball while being aware of runs in behind.
The below image is an example of Italy’s defensive scheme. The dropping movements of Spain’s central midfielders created more space between the lines for Iniesta and Silva. However, right when Alonso was passing towards Alba, Italy’s shape shifted towards that side, while Bonucci stepped out to mark Iniesta. The space around the ball was reduced, and Iniesta was no longer a penetrating passing option. Alba made a run to exploit the space behind Bonucci, but Maggio followed him all the way.
As the dropping movements of the Spanish forwards were continuously picked up on time by the Italian defenders, Spain really struggled to penetrate the Italian defence. Most of their chances came from quick counters, in which case Italy had fewer men at the back. These counters proved to be more lethal by the end of the half, due to the pace, agility and directness of substitutions Fernando Torres and Jesús Navas, who troubled the tired legs in the Italian defence.
Spain’s only goal came from a possession sequence though. Iniesta received the ball between the lines, which Bonucci failed to react on time. Perhaps beware of being dribbled past, the defender allowed Iniesta time to pass to Silva, whose through ball towards the run of Fàbregas was just magnificent. That kind of run should have been used much more, but when Fàbregas was the highest player (for most of the match), the likes of Iniesta and Silva committed to staying deep.
Italy in possession
With the likes of Bonucci, De Rossi and Pirlo at the back, Italy looked quite comfortable in the build-up phase. They were good at both ground passes and lobbed passes, meaning Spain often failed when attempting to win the ball back early. They used a 3-5-2 shape with two central mids in front of Pirlo
Spain pressed high in a 4-2-3-1, with Xavi the highest central mid. They had a 3v3 against Italy’s back three. The front four would first stay narrow, with the double pivot right behind to cover. This forced Italy to go wide. Fàbregas would then close down the ball-near sided centre-back, while the ball-near winger marked the nearby wing-back, and the ball-far winger moved centrally. Xavi closed down the deepest midfielder, usually Pirlo, while the ball-near pivot marked Italy’s ball-near central midfielder.
However, Italy constantly escaped through lobbed passes to a wing-back, mostly Giaccherini, who could then connect with the dropping Cassano. Spain’s wingers were too high to mark the wing-backs, while their full-backs committed to staying deep to avoid 2v2s at the back. If a Spanish full-back marked the nearby wing-back, the nearby Italian forward could then exploit the space he left behind and wait for long balls from Pirlo or De Rossi.
In fact, Italy actively chose to build up through this means. The deep passers tried to send lobbed passes towards the channels so that Cassano and Balotelli could try to burst past the centre-back in a 1v1. Italy hardly succeeded at this, except for one incident which Balotelli muscled past Ramos to go one-on-one with Casillas, but was too hesitant to shoot and Ramos got back on time to tackle him.
Here, Fàbregas closed down Chiellini after pressing De Rossi, while Silva used his cover shadow to block the passing lane towards Giaccherini. Chiellini found the wing-back with a lobbed pass, and the latter sent a one-touch pass towards the dropping Cassano.
After escaping Spain’s high press, Italy usually went direct with lobbed through balls from Pirlo, which Spain’s conservative back four dealt with well. If Italy tried to progress through either wing instead of the congested centre, Spain would shift their shape towards the ball side. The pivot and the full-backs were great at positioning and tackling, making sure the opponent’s wing-backs couldn’t find the centre forwards. Moreover, Giaccherini and Maggio were not good at passing their way through the press.
Here, Balotelli moved wide to get the ball, but Busquets positioned himself perfectly to block Giaccherini’s pass.
This analysis showed that a draw was a fair result for the first meeting between these two teams at Euro 2012. Spain controlled the ball well as usual, but they lacked offensive contributions from the full-backs and runs behind the Italian defence from the wingers. The likes of Navas and Torres were exactly what they needed from the start. Meanwhile, Italy defended with all their heart and managed to create a few good chances. The two would later meet again in the final, where Spain totally dominated and won 4-0.