Like many fans I was left thinking “WHY??” after just seeing Italy frustrate Germany and get two goals, each seemingly from nowhere. Everyone knew it would be important to mark Pirlo. It looked like the Germans had tried, from the start at least. And Italy were playing one of the top two sides in the world. How did Italy not only get the ball in the net, but create so many one-on-one opportunities that they should have scored at least 4? Here’s my thoughts.
Italy are very difficult to beat because they play a completely different system from virtually every other side in the competition – that is, variants of 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. They are regarded as playing a diamond midfield with two strikers – with Pirlo at the bottom of the diamond and Montolivo at the top, in the hole. Pirlo is the deep-lying playmaker: he sits behind the three midfielders and pulls the strings with the long balls out to the diagonals we always see.
* This is the first reason why it is very hard to play against Italy’s unique approach. Everyone wants to mark Pirlo, but at what cost? You must ask either your striker or man in the hole to mark him, in which case he has already restricted your attacking threat, or you must bring your defensive midfielders out of position in which case space opens up behind them – and we saw acres of space between the German midfield and defence tonight. It is because he is so deep that he is so hard to mark.
* The second reason why it is very hard to play against Italy was horrifyingly obvious if you were supporting Germany tonight – they also have a player in the hole (Montolivo)… what’s unusual about that, you might ask? … behind TWO (not the usual one) strikers making diagonal runs towards the corner flags. Defending as a back four against the runs of two strikers is tricky. If your fullbacks have been caught out of position and you’re a back two, you’re finished, and Italy should have scored at least 4. Apologies for this dumb comparison but it works: Ever played FIFA with a diamond midfield and two strikers and all you need to do is get the ball to the man in the hole, send the strikers on runs and take your pick of which one to assist for a 1 on 1? That’s what Italy did to Germany tonight.
* The third reason it is very hard to play against Italy is to do with the two strikers again, and it’s to do with how every team seems to play nowadays: attacking fullbacks. Fullbacks have to go forward to support the attack. The two strikers simply run into the space they’ve vacated and cause merry hell. Keep your fullbacks back? Your attack dies. The number of times a striker was set up in a position where the fullback would normally stand was incredible.
* The fourth and final reason is that Italy don’t just play a different formation, they play a different kind of football. The ideal game of every other big team in the competition is to exquisitely pass through their opponents on the ground, resulting in the dead games you keep seeing, where the ball simply will not squeeze through the gaps in the human wall. Italy have a simple solution, and that is to play the same exquisite passes in the air. You don’t need lots of possession. You don’t even need lots of territory because you can do this from anywhere inside your half. You just need one placed pass. Balotelli’s first goal today didn’t just come from a brilliant cross, the move began from a brilliant long placed lob to the flank. Balotelli was put through on the keeper for his second goal by another brilliantly placed lob.
In short, and this goes the furthest to explaining how Italy score against the best, they do not depend on possession to create goals. In fact, the more the opponents have, the further they move up the pitch and the more space they have to hit their lobs.
Spain are vulnerable to all four of these problems. They play a fluid 4-3-3 and will either have to decide whether to put their center forward on Pirlo or one of their midfield 3, in which case they would be outnumbered in midfield and their passing breaks down. Their fullbacks get forward massively, playing virtually as extra wingers, offering acres of space for Italy’s two forwards. Defence-wise, we’ve also seen from their Germany and Spain games that Italy are very comfortable camping on the edge of their box. Spain are also disadvantaged in the air (especially since the loss of Puyol) against a team which specializes in playing lobs over the top of the defence. They play a high line which is asking to be exposed by such lobs – and was exposed by Di Natale in their 1-1 draw. And finally, their dominance of possession with tiki-taka is a defensive technique as much as an offensive one. “If you have the ball, they can’t score.” But against a team like Italy that plays this sort of pass and has this sort of player to deliver it, that is no longer true.