I know this match happened two days back, but it was by far the most interesting game of the tournament so far.
We all saw Del Bosue’s lineup and we all got shocked by the lack of at least one Fernando in it. Instead 6 midfielders who had the combined talent of an entire generation stuffed into them. On the other hand, Cesare Prandelli sprung a slight surprise of his own by naming a team that would play with 3 central defenders, one of them being Daniele De Rossi, who has only played there a few ties at club level.
So the contest was basically Italy’s 3-5-2 vs Spain’s 4-6-0. The only thing we knew for sure before the game was that Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets would sit in front of the defence to keep the passing going. And that Mario Balotelli would be carded.
I was already having fun and the players hadn’t even walked out onto the pitch yet. But when they did, they put on a real spectacle. A goalless first half doesn’t mean it was boring, just like two goals in the first half of England v France doesn’t mean it was fun.
The biggest talking point though was Sergio Ramos’ new haircut. Which is pathetic. But no, seriously, the raging debate in Spain and elsewhere, was Vicente Del Bosque’s decision to drop ALL his strikers. The criticism of this approach however, seems a little misplaced. If you think about it from poor old VdB’s point of view, what were his options, really? He probably sat in his chair in the days before the game and thought to himself who plays up front? “Fernando Torres? Nah! He’s crap at the moment.” Who else? “Fernando Llorente? But he’s just coming back from injury and may not be fully fit… and Alvaro Negredo? Umm.. No. Just No”. And then he had it. If there’s no one good enough to play there, then no one plays there! “We’ll just pretend to put Fabregas there and with the combined talents of Silva, Iniesta and Xavi to assist, even my grandma would score!”. But not Torres.
Just like that, they had a plan! Only problem was, they were facing a disciplined Italian side who were capable of playing a few passes themselves. They had the guile and skills of Andrea Pirlo at their disposal and the intelligence of Antonio Cassano.
Spain’s real problem was that everyone wanted to be the centre of attraction. Literally. Jordi Alba kept flying down the left flank, but was rarely given the ball quickly enough to stretch the Italian defence. Iniesta was having a field day cutting in from the left and Silva cant go onto his right foot because, well, that’s just not his thing. Combined with Fabregas dropping deep and Xavi advancing later on, this had the effect of concentrating superhuman levels of talent in front of the Italian penalty area. And that’s where it stayed. But what it also did was rob the Italian defence of a point of reference. They conceeded space between their defensive lines and the greatest exponent of that space was Andres Iniesta. Not that he needs too much space to begin with. Spain threatened to threaten, so to speak, but just could not find the killer ball. That was mainly due to nobody occupying the space created by Fabregas dropping deep.
At the other end, Cassano and Balotelli moved intelligently and tried to exploit the spaces between the Spanish full backs and centre backs. Pirlo and De Rossi were their main men, constantly launching balls behind the defence for the forwards to run onto.Balotelli created an outstanding chance for himself after hustling Sergio Ramos off the ball, but then seemed to drift away into thoughts of how he would celebrate and what he had written under his jersey. Meanwhile, Ramos chased, caught and tackled him. Prandelli immediately took him off and brought on Antonio Di Natale. Promptly enough he popped up behind the defence on the end of an exquisite through ball from Pirlo to make it 1-0 to Italy. It showed another of Spain’s weaknesses on the day. They weren’t pressing as well as they normally do and this resulted in Pirlo finding the space to work his magic.
The lead didnt last long though. As Silva sucked in two defenders towards himself as Fabregas ran into the space behind and slammed home the finish to make it 1-1. Spain were level, and still, without a striker.
In theory, Del Bosque’s tactics could have worked. De Rossi admitted to having been confused about whom to defend as there was no reference point so they didn’t know where the danger was going to come from. The problem for Spain however was, they didn’t seem to know either.There was nobody directly threatening the Italian goal and that gave the Italians a certain sense of security. That’s probably the danger with having a generation of players who value an assist more than a Goal.
Other than that, the perennial problem that this team seems to face is a lack of width. Without someone making penetrative runs behind the defence, it was imperative that they had someone to stretch the Italian defence laterally. But that didn’t happen either, and this is where the coach must take the blame. In his attempt to keep everyone happy (Torres doesn’t really count) he seems to ironically be limiting them. They simply ended up giving Italy a very small space to defend, and still managed a goal. You can read that as either a commendable job, or a hole they dug themselves into but managed to get out of as well..