Euro 2012 - Spain vs Italy : Story of a Match
Blogger, philosopher, lifelong mate, never wants a passer-by to pass him by. Blogging at www.holtamania.com on all things Norwich and here with monthly Story of a Match pieces, bre...
As the final curtain comes down on Euro 2012, today on the blog Matt Wallace delivers the first of his new match analysis pieces, today detailing Spain's 4-0 win over Italy in the final.
A Spain-Italy rematch was always going to be one of the more interesting finals, for a number of reasons. The two teams met just a couple of weeks ago in the opening round of fixtures, a tight draw that showed Italy were a team to be considered and Spain might not be at their best. Since then you’ve had the incredible performances of the ageless Pirlo and Balotelli-inspired destruction of neutrals favourite Germany for Italy, and the repetitive are-they-boring-are-they-not-boring debate as Spain clinically booked their place in the final. On one side you had a newly confident team, inventive, explosive and attractive to watch. On the other you had the reigning championship, destructive in their own special, suffocating way. And they did it without playing a striker half the time. So how did it go?
There weren’t many surprises in the line-ups with Fabregas taking up the ‘false 9’ position, much to the irritation of John Cross and some others. This formation, a 4-6-0 to some, is far from invented by Del Bosque but seems to be on its way to being perfected with Fabregas ably supported from wide positions by Silva and Iniesta, as well as the very advanced fullbacks. For Italy, Abate was back and fit which relegated the impressive Balzaretti to the bench. It was a different shape for the Italians compared to their initial encounter, with them lining up with a back four and a midfield diamond, rather than a back three.
It didn’t take long, though to see that the pattern established in the first game wasn’t going to hold up long here. Spain, perhaps motivated by the constant criticism of their style, were more dynamic in their passing, more eager to get the ball into the final third and do something with it. In this they were helped by the decision of the Italians to themselves be bold, to press and leave spaces. This contributed to their downfall with players getting caught out of position or gaps appearing that may not have been there if they had approached the game with the mentality that, say, Portugal did.
Spain were already in the ascendency when Iniesta’s glorious ball set up Fabregas, who cut it back for the incoming Silva to open the scoring. Fabregas again played an excellent game in an unconventional role (for us observers) – his job was to still try to occupy the same space as a conventional striker, but then pull defenders out of position, help set up onrushing midfielders, open up gaps and generally cause confusion. As you can see from the passes received below, he was taking balls all across the pitch, leaving Italian defenders unsure as to who to mark, whether to follow, and this was particularly notable for the 2nd as Jordi Alba burst through a sea of blue shirts to receive a throughball and slide away. The Italian defence was disorganised, seemingly unsure as to who should be picking up this oncoming player.
With Italy down and aiming to get back into the match, they struggled to find a player who would drive them on. Pirlo, so good in the tournament so far, was pressed back deep into his own half by the Spanish midfield, and was rarely able to start an attack of substance. As you can see from his passing chalkboard below, when he did cross the halfway line his passes were erratic or safe, not incisive. The pressure on Pirlo did occasionally open up De Rossi, but he wasn’t always able to make the most out of the opportunities.
This is partly because the Italian strikers, Balotelli and Cassano (then Di Natale) had poor games. Lots was expected of Mari-o after his superb semi-final appearance, but with Pique and Ramos in such good form and his supply lines pressed well by the Spanish midfield, he found himself a lonely figure, coming deep to try and get involved in the action and only threatening from distance. It was the opposite to his Germany game where he was able to get past the last line of defence and trouble them in the box.
Despite the imbalance in play and scoreline, statistically Italy were doing a fine job. They were in the rare position of having more possession than Spain for long periods of time, were able to create chances (even if many were from distance), and showed the same ability to threaten as they had in the group opener. Indeed, they looked better once Balzaretti came off the bench to replace Chiellini not long into the game, and they tried to use their fullbacks to provide natural with that the diamond didn’t allow, but this often left them exposed to the intelligent passing of the Spanish midfield and wide-play of Iniesta and Silva.
In the second half the game continued in this fashion, with Italy refusing to go out with a whimper but Spain offering a clear and present danger going forward as well. It was the Spain that many had wanted to see throughout the tournament; dymanic, brave, turning their obvious technical advantage into goals and excitement. Indeed, you can see below with a comparison to their opening hour against Portugal how different the Spanish outset was. Instead of being solid, compact and dominating possession, Spain completed less passes, had less possession, but made more chances and had 2 goals.
It was exciting Spain again, more akin to watching Barcelona than recent efforts. While the debate about boring might follow them for a while, it was clearly a more dynamic side than the one which went through the knock-out games.
The reason I compare the opening hour of the two games is simple; it is where this game changed from being statistically even though Spain were more impressive, to completely imbalanced. The reason was the injury to Thiago Motta, who left the pitch about 3 seconds after coming on. Spain’s standard tactical shift after an hour or so was to remove Silva and put on a ‘proper’ winger like Pedro, and so they did, aiming to expose the tired legs of Italian defenders and kill the game off. Their task was now much simpler as they faced ten men.
As you can see above, for the first hour or so of the match Italy and Spain were in a virtual dead heat on passes, and it was much the same on shots too. Spain were more clinical in front of goal, but Italy were no slouches – they were in it, offering much more than the token attacking threat that France or Portugal put up.
Compare that to the final half an hour, and you see just how easy it was for Spain to close out the game. It was much more of a standard Spain game, with an opponent sitting back and trying to hit long balls to strikers in the hope of launching counter attacks. It was harsh on Italy who had battled so hard, but Spain were able to see the game out at a canter. Once Torres came on he offered a traditional focal point and gave the already tired Italian defence a different kind of threat, and one goal and one assist later the game was over.
It was a truly team performance from Spain with everyone pitching in with excellent performances; Casillas saving from Di Natale, Jordi Alba offering constant threat, Busquets and Alonso dominating the midfield, Silva scoring.. and then there is Xaviesta.
The two Barcelona midfielders are the heartbeat of this Spanish era, undersized but with the biggest brains in the game. They were the two who, unsurprisingly, controlled the match. Whether it was through the metronomic passing in the middle from Xavi or the incisive through-balls of Iniesta, the two had the Italian midfield and defence guessing all game. The total trust in their own ability, in their teammates’ ability and their position on the pitch was vital. It was what allowed Iniesta to play that glorious ball to Fabregas that opened the scoring, slid through a gap that almost wasn’t there.
A tough defeat for Italy who, at the start of the tournament, barely dreamed of making it to the final, but even when the sides were equal they were chasing the shadows of the Spaniards. This all conquering side, back to back winners and champions at club level, offer us younger fans a glimpse of the sort international genius that is laid at the feet of elders such as Brazil or Holland. The modern Spanish are now deservedly their equals. They may not have reinvented the wheel, but like the football in an old Nike advert, they certainly made it rounder.
To read more of Matt's work, visit his blog Holtamania.com
Also dont forget to follow him on Twitter : @Holtamania
And to do your own match analysis visit FourFourTwo.com StatsZone and download their StatsZone App today.
You must be logged in to post a comment! Sign up + or log in in the top right corner.
Thank you for the kind comments thus far!
When blogs and their readers' comments, including professional punditry is so full of half-cocked analysis, this is a truly refreshing read. I wish you worked for the BBC!
Great work Matt. Looking forward to reading your Premier League analysis pieces on the blog this season.
What an excellent read and great illustrations!