The phrase “tactical chess match” is sure to be thrown around plenty before, during and after England and Italy face off in the EURO 2020 final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday (3 pm ET), and rightly so given their hugely differing styles of play
As we previously discussed here on PST, Gareth Southgate’s England looks a bit more like your grandfather’s Italy — safe and defensively sound — while Roberto Mancini’s Italy plays with (some of) the reckless abandon we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from club sides in recent years.
See? The final really is set up to be a fascinating tactical battle between the two best sides at EURO 2020, so let’s dive right into it.
First things first…
Will Southgate or Mancini make any changes?
Short answer: No, probably not.
Longer answer, in the form of a question: Why should they?
Not only have the current formulas gotten each side to the final, but they have remained largely unchanged throughout EURO 2020. Both sides rotated a handful of players during the group stage, but six Italian players have started at least five of the six games thus far and a whopping eight have done so for England (six have started every game).
The key change to either side is, of course, the absence of breakout star Leonardo Spinazzola after he tore his achilles in the quarterfinals, forcing backup left back Emerson into the lineup for the semifinal. Emerson performed admirably in his 74 minutes against Spain — well enough he isn’t likely to lose his place, at least — though drop-off of attacking threat between the two was admittedly noticeable. That’s more a credit to Spinazzola than a criticism of Emerson.
Fatigue is undoubtedly a worry for both sides after the condensed European club season just completed, with players having very brief breaks (one week or less in most cases) before reporting to national team camp.
Can Kane pull Chiellini and Bonucci into midfield?
Is it too much of an oversimplification to say that Harry Kane’s ability to pull Giorgio Chiellini or Leonardo Bonucci out of their rigid shape and into the midfield, thus opening up massive gaps which the other simply cannot defend alone, will decide the game? Yes, but it’s the no. 1 tactical battle to watch when England are in possession.
Italy’s legendary center back duo, with 219 caps between them, has been through anything and everything an opposing center forward could possibly throw at them, but few no. 9s in the history of the game have had the ability to affect the game in as many ways as Kane can do, and has done this year. He’s undeniably lethal as a marksman when he gets a sight of goal and a half-yard of space to shoot, but he’s arguably even more effective when he drops into the midfield and slots through balls like the classic no. 10s of yesteryear — as he did to set up England’s equalizer in the semifinal.
While it’s tempting to send a center back with him, almost on a man-marking assignment, doing so creates the kind of space between defenders in which the likes of Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford can receive the ball and immediately became goal-dangerous. With two touches, Kane can send any side in the world into all-out emergency defense mode.
To avoid being pulled apart, some teams choose to assign the defensive midfielder to effectively shadow Kane around the field to deny him the ball and limit his touches. That works quite well, if you have a combative, ball-winner playing the no. 6. Italy, unfortunately for them, have Jorginho, who’s a truly excellent footballer not known much of anything in defense. It’s a job that someone has to do, and there’s hardly an obvious choice in the squad. Expect Kane to be active, and effective.
Can Italy create scoring chances without Spinazzola?
Again, not to oversimplify things, but the center forward versus center backs matchup at the other end of the field will be key with Italy in possession, with a major knock-on effect for their midfield and full backs. And again, it’s another big advantage to England.
Here’s a look at Italy’s heatmaps before and after the injury to Spinazzola, showing just how much their build-play was dependent on him when he was in the team (top, against Belgium, quarterfinal), and how desperate their possession became without him (bottom, against Spain, semifinal). (Note the arrows atop each heatmap, indicating the direction in which Italy attacked.)
Basically, Ciro Immobile, who has started five of the six games for Italy, went from having three and four of his fellow attacking players surrounding him at all times, to being stranded on a deserted island against a pair of center backs and the defensive midfielder. The overlapping runs on the left (the large red circle on the top heatmap) were suddenly nonexistent, instead replaced with virtually zero touches of the ball on either wing and even fewer underneath the Immobile (the vast nothingness surrounding two small green circles on the bottom heatmap). Immobile’s touches dropped from 40 (in 75 minutes) to 10 (in 61 minutes), including just three in Italy’s attacking third against Spain, compared to 30 just one game prior.
The obvious solution, which might cause more problems than it fixes, would be to push one or two of the central midfielders higher up the field to join the attack, or perhaps Mancini will opt for an even higher intensity press to win the ball in even more advantageous areas, but every single player along England’s spine — from Jordan Pickford in goal, to Harry Maguire and John Stones at center back, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Mason Mount in midfield and Kane up top — are supremely comfortable playing with the ball at their feet. Perhaps not to the same degree as they did against Spain, but Italy will struggle to turn England over.