Italy’s last two performances against Ukraine and Poland show signs of what had been missing for more than two years: ideas. Mancini’s side finally seems to be on the right track after convincing games in which the players manifested a clear belief in the gaffer’s instructions.

Build up

Mancini’s initial idea of a physical midfield trio, comprised of two runners and Jorginho at the base, wasn’t best suited to the Brazilian’s skills, who needs passing options to control and recycle possession. With centre-midfielders constantly attacking depth and occupying the last line, he was isolated, and therefore not only lacking passing lanes but also easier to press. Consequently, Italy struggled to maintain possession and control games, in both phases, as the large distances between the second and third line deteriorated the team’s counter-pressing access and compactness.

Thus, the former Zenit manager chose to integrate more technical players whilst modifying the team’s strategy, making it more fluid and possession-based, in order to progress up the field collectively through the player’s associativity and technical prowess. In midfield, Verratti and Barella started alongside the untouchable Jorginho, the metronome of the side, whereas in attack, due to the absence of a high-level striker, Bernardeschi, Insigne and Chiesa all featured.

The PSG man is a player used to participate in the build-up, providing and exchanging short passes; this behaviour creates a double pivot in possession and triggers interesting rotations such as Barella moving forward in the half-space between the lines, with Insigne (and Bernardeschi) dropping into the half-space as well, to provide connections and support around the ball carrier. These rotations aren’t automatized, as the general movements are extremely fluid and the players are free to roam across the field to make the best situational decision possible.

The wings are occupied by two players only: Chiesa and Biraghi.

Italy’s possession shape

This is due to their skill-set and them being less adept in tight spaces, which makes their contribution in congested central areas unnecessary; in addition, from a strategic standpoint, their width is key to maintain a strong staggering and stretch the opposing backline. Moreover, it allows Italy to have more solutions and ways to attack and disorganize the opponent’s defensive block, such as through overloads to isolate or direct long balls from Bonucci to the wide men hugging the touchline. This shape during build-up has advantages in transition as well, as the structure and support around the ball are strong and allow immediate access to counter-press and block central passes.

Italy’s counter-pressing after having lost the ball

Since Italy had some problems in their friendly against Ukraine when the latter was able to bypass the counter press, Florenzi was instructed to remain tight in possession (forming a back three) for stability reasons and a better cover of central areas. This also allowed one of the centre-backs to step out aggressively on the opposition’s receiver between the lines, having two men covering the space in behind.

After having invited the opposition to press and created holes in their structure, Italy tries to progress through situational triangles and rhombi created by the strong support around the ball to access the players between the lines in positional superiority. The spaces are then cleverly occupied by the central players in the third line. The false nine, Insigne against Ukraine, and Bernardeschi against Poland drops ahead of the double pivot and mainly acts as a link to the wide men or half-space players through layoffs. However, due to the fluidity of the attack, it isn’t uncommon to see the attackers exchange positions to create decisional-crises for the opposition defenders.

Italy’s circulation hasn’t always been effective, though, and one problem in possession that arose against Poland was the lack of depth. This flaw often made the circulation quite stale and didn’t allow the Azzurri to exploit the spaces created or potentially available. Especially with a false nine, having runners into depth (in Italy’s case the wide men’s attributes make them the most suited to this role) is paramount to stretch the lines and create space for receptions between the lines and gain time on the ball.

Pressing and counter-pressing

Italy keep a high line to be as close as necessary to each chain and in order not to create disconnections, therefore facilitating the circulation as the ball-carrier always has more than three options. Moreover, the compactness allows Mancini’s side to constantly have counter-pressing access due to the short distances between each player; this prevents counters and allows Italy to avoid positional defending phases in which they risk to be pushed deep and expose the midfield profile’s flaws. Verratti, Barella, and Jorginho all are proactive, forward defenders, who can struggle (by stepping out with the wrong timing and pressing angle, disregarding every other component except for themselves) when having to defend space behind them or react to the opposition’s ball-circulation and movements when defending in a deep block. The high block also lets Italy keep more of the ball by reducing off the ball phases, thus favouring the possession-based profiles and creating the best possible tactical habitat. Against Ukraine and Poland, Italy retained respectively 63% and 68% of the possession, whilst accumulating 2.27 xG and allowing just three shots on target (0.51 xG) against the latter. Statistics that show the effectiveness of Italy’s possession game and defensive phases.

From their 4-4-2/4-1-4-1 shape, depending on the situation and the access the opponent has the centre-back off the ball or the ball-far side, the Azzurri also press high in a man-oriented fashion. Against Ukraine, when the goalkeeper was on the ball, the centre-midfielder or winger on the same side as the closest free player (usually the centre-back) stepped out to create a two-man first line. The lack of passing options due to good pressing angles from the Italians, who curved their runs to prevent access to the full-backs in Ukraine’s 4-3-3, made the goalkeeper the only available player, who was subsequently forced to play long due to Italy’s man-orientations across the field. Another trigger for the shift into a 4-4-2 was when a free player received the ball: to reduce the time at his disposal to make decisions, the aforementioned players pressed him immediately.
Against Poland’s 4-diamond-2, Italy adopted the same strategy consisting in forcing the opposition into playing long-balls, and succeeding, given the home side’s very low pass success rate: 70%.

Italy’s man-oriented pressing against Poland

A new era?

The games against Ukraine and Poland showcased very promising signs which very few fans would have expected, given the poor displays in previous games. Whilst Italy can still improve under different respects, such as depth in attacking phases and a flat midfield line at times, the foundations have been laid. The game model most apt to the players’ characteristics and tactical attitudes has been adopted, and, from the bottomless hole Italy had tumbled into, finally light and promise beckon.