Boos hailed from the Roman crowd as Italy and Greece walked into their dressing rooms at halftime tied at zero. Greece’s first-half tactics accomplished its objective, preventing Italy from exploiting the centre and half-spaces, forcing them to play wide options with long flighted balls.
Italy’s quality came through in the second half, culminating in a Jorginho penalty kick and a long-range strike from Federico Bernardeschi en route to a 2-0 EURO 2020 qualifying win.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll take a look at how Greece’s defensive tactics led to a positive first-half performance. We’ll then examine how Italy adapted. The analysis will show that Italy was able to play through Leonardo Bonucci and Jorginho to better utilize the wings, especially the relationship between Lorenzo Insigne and Leonardo Spinazzola.
Roberto Mancini lined Italy up in a 4-3-3. It’s more appropriate to say that’s the way they defended. In attack, Italy played with three at the back with Danilo D’Ambrosio joining Bonucci and Francesco Acerbi. Spinazzola pushed high up the left-wing, playing in tandem with Insigne. On the other wing, Nicolò Barella started higher in the right half-space, offering support to Federico Chiesa and his substitute, Bernardeschi. Jorginho operated as a regista, and Marco Verratti was the box-to-box midfield outlet. Italy targeted its wide partnerships, especially Insigne and Spinazzola.
John van ‘t Schip countered Italy’s tactics with a 4-2-3-1. However, Greece spent most of the game defending with a midfield line of confrontation and spent the better part of the game in their defensive third. In defence, the formation played out as a narrow 4-3-3. The midfield shape varied based on where they were pressing, with Zeca offering support high up the field if necessary. Otherwise, Zeca, Dimitrios Kourbelis and Andreas Bouchalakis. Anastasios Bakasetas anchored the front line and were generally tasked with limiting Bonucci and Jorginho.
Greece took away the middle of the field
Knowing that the home side would have more of the ball, Greece set out to limit Italy’s playmakers. Insigne is well-known for his influence on the left, especially in disconnecting the opposing right-back and attacking the half-space. Eliminating his running lanes was a central piece of the tactical puzzle.
With Italy keeping three defenders back nearly all game and Jorginho dropping in with them, the three Greek forwards worked to eliminate passing lanes to the middle. With that accomplished, they released the appropriate forward to press the ball.
Behind them, the midfield shape was a response to the positioning of the ball and Verratti. If the ball was in Italy’s defensive half, the Greek midfielders marked Verratti out of the play. When sitting in their own half, the Greek’s played flat in the midfield. They wanted to eliminate passing lanes, triangulating their relationship with the backline. When Italy attempted to play through the middle, the Greek defence instantly stuffed the attack.
In this first example, Bonucci has the ball. His only short option is Acerbi. The Greek defence has eliminated all central options, leaving Spinazzola and Chiesa as the only available options, though the distance greatly reduces the likelihood of success. Looking for a penetrating ball to break down the Greek defence, Bonucci forces a ball over the first two lines to Jorginho.
Kourbelis closes down Jorginho immediately and receives support from his teammates as the Greeks win the ball.
Once Italy advanced into the attacking half, Greece settled into a flat midfield. If Verratti checked deep to receive, one or two of the Greek midfielders went with him. They usually sent two if Jorginho dropped in beside Bonucci.
We’ll touch on Verratti’s checks in a moment, but, when he dropped deep to receive, he laid it off for Bonucci or, in this case, Jorginho. Greece suffocated the middle, forcing Italy to play backwards.
With the ball at Jorginho’s feet and the middle secured, the Greeks anticipate the long-distance drive to a wide player.
Jorginho finds Chiesa in a 1v1 scenario, which is a matchup Italy likes, but the long distribution gives the Greeks time to regain their shape. Further, with the ball out wide, Greece can contain the Italian threat towards goal. A scoreless first half saw the Greeks generate the only meaningful chance on goal. Van ‘t Schip must have entered halftime rather pleased with his team’s performance and defensive discipline.
Playing through Bonucci and Jorginho
Part of Italy’s struggles in the first half was down to the level of difficulty of the passes they attempted. Many times, Bonucci and Jorginho were forcing difficult balls over the Greek defence, trying to find Insigne in the half-space or Immobile over the top. With the Greeks sitting so far back, space simply wasn’t there. Patience was necessary in the second half.
Bonucci and Jorginho continued to direct the attack from deep in the second half. Unlike the first half, when they were looking for the high targets immediately or forcing the ball into the congested central channel, they took the time to move the Greek defence before playing their targets.
In their build-up, Italy looked to play into the midfield, especially connecting with the checking runs of Verratti. Moving additional numbers into the midfield, particularly Barrella or the two wide forwards dropping deep to get a touch, Italy made the narrow Greek defence even more compact. That opened up more space on the wings, especially for Spinazola and Bernardeschi. Once they played into the midfield a few times, a negative pass to Bonucci or Jorginho followed. Once the Greek defence became too narrow, Italy would distribute from deep, skipping the first two lines of the Greek defence.
Here we see Bonucci on the ball. Notice the Greek’s defensive shape. Only the two Italian defenders are reasonable passing options.
Bonucci kept it simple, passing to Acerbi, who in turn played Jorginho. Since Jorginho did well to find a small pocket of space to receive the pass, he forced the Greeks to overcommit to pressing him.
As Jorginho plays negative to Bonucci, lanes to Barrella and Bernardeschi open.
As the pass travels to Bonucci, the Greek defence notices they’ve become too narrow, so they quickly moved to recover their shape.
But the damage was done. Bonucci played Bernardeschi, who had Barella high in support. Italy’s patience in the second half consistently resulted in numerical superiority out wide and threatening numbers up high.
Targeting Insigne in the half-space and Spinazzola in the wing
Italy possessed the ball for 71% of the game, so the result hinged upon their ability to break down the low block while protecting against the counterattack. Though they struggled to generate quality chances against the Greeks in the first half, their patience and tactical approach produced far better results in the second half.
The Italians played with a virtual back three for the majority of the game. They pushed Spinazzola high up the pitch. His partner on that left, Insigne, operated largely in the half-space, drawing attention away from the Roma left-back.
When space opened up on the left side of the field, the Italians had three options:
1) Look to get Insigne behind the defence in the left half-space
2) Play to the checking run of Insigne
3) Swing the ball into the left-flank to Spinazzola
The first two are fairly straight forward, so we’ll focus on how Italy created space for Spinazzola on the wing.
Looking at the third scenario, Italy frequently overloaded the right side of the field. If they lost the ball in that area, they would at least have three defenders and Greece’s compact shape working in their favour. In this particular instance, Italy circulated the ball through the midfield a few times, looking to pull Greece away from Spinazzola. With the conditions for attack in place, Bonucci directs Italy to start attacking the opponent. He plays to Verratti and the attack is on.
Verratti finds Jorginho in the left half-space. He knows exactly where to go.
As Jorginho sends the ball to Spinazzola, you can see Mancini directing play towards their high, wide target.
Spinazzola played as high as possible for most of the second half. With Immobile occupying the two central defenders and Insigne sliding into the half-space, Spinazzola had plenty of time and space to create. In the last picture in particular, you can see the 2v1 Spinazzola and Insigne created. They consistently created that overload in the second half, leading to improved quantity and quality of chances. It was Insigne’s penetrating run from the left and subsequent shot that set up the first goal.
Greece had an excellent first half, taking away the middle of the field and quickly closing down Italy’s long-range passes. They kept Italy from generating a quality chance on goal and managed a high-quality opportunity of their own.
The second half was another story as Italy showed its quality through patient possession. They committed to moving the Greek defence before looking to attack them, creating better lanes for Insigne, Spinazzola and Bernardeschi. With the win, Italy booked their ticket to the EURO 2020.
With Italy qualifying, they will wrap up their EURO qualifying campaign with an opportunity to experiment with personnel and tactics. Greece’s situation went from bad to worse as they now trail Finland by seven points. They’ll need to win out and get a lot of help (maybe a miracle) to qualify.
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