After their fourth unbeaten match, Italy finished with multiple attempts and a dominance they’ve rarely experienced in recent years. The positives of a long decline, however, finally started to flourish.
The progress under Mancini has been before everyone’s eyes for a while now. If the first two positive performances in some time beckoned promise, the last two have confirmed the common feeling of a slight resurgence from the underworld. The possession-based approach is uncovering the hidden potential of some previously disappointing underperformers. As a result, the collective is producing unexpected heights.
The high line, already successfully instilled at Juventus, is being successfully organized by Chiellini and Bonucci. Meanwhile, the compact structure on the ball allows for immediate pressure after it through an access-oriented counter-pressing.
In possession, Italy build up slowly in a situational back three. The right-back stays deeper than the left-back to build up numerical superiority and provide central cover if the ball is lost. This in turn allows one of the centre-backs to step out aggressively. Ahead of them, Jorginho and Verratti form a double pivot from which they build up play and connect with Insigne, positioned in the left-half space.
Barella, the right centre-midfielder, steps forward in the right half-space to occupy the space between the lines and not overload the second line unnecessarily. Width is provided by the left-back and the right winger, Chiesa. The latter is also the target of overload-to-isolate situations or Bonucci’s diagonal balls.
In this tactical context, the attributes required of the striker are extremely specific and only leaves a few choices. Although the positives undoubtedly outweigh the negatives, there are two closely related concerns for the “Azzurri”: the finishing and the finisher.
Tale of finishing concerns
It is now clear how the finishing problem is affecting Italy’s results. With the ever-growing striker issue, finding an ideal fit for the position has become paramount. In the last four games, they’ve only scored three goals (two of which came in the dying minutes) from 7.1 Expected Goals (xG). Moreover, from 67 shots, they’ve only hit the target 21 times. This inefficiency stems from inaccuracy in front of goal and an incompatibility between the strikers’ attributes and Italy’s playing style.
Bernardeschi occupied a false nine role against Ukraine and Poland. He was free to roam across the front line and exchange positions with the wingers, as well as being able to drop between the lines to occupy the space between the lines. Against Portugal and USA, due to the Juventus man’s injury, Immobile and Lasagna – two similar players stylistically – featured. They both thrive when attacking depth in large spaces but are rarely involved in play and struggle in tight areas.
Italy’s height in possession, though, pushes the opposition deep. This congests to play, thus making the Lazio and Udinese strikers’ main qualities ineffective. Although 18-year-old Moise Kean also debuted positively against the United States, it’s unlikely that he’ll to start.
Bernardeschi seems to be the best option right now as his presence in the front line guarantees fluidity and unpredictability. He also offers solutions such as overloads in central areas when he drops into midfield to combine with teammates and facilitate progression. An underrated quality of his also is the ability to attack the far-post. Aerially and and in a positional sense, his runs are always well timed and unpredictable. This can come in useful when he exchanges positions with one of the wingers.
Another related issue is the final ball. As mentioned previously, it is quite focused on isolating the far-side winger in a 1v1 against the opposing full-back. Due to Chiesa’s attributes, a player who relies on his physical attributes when dribbling rather than technique, the outcomes of such a strategy can be rather inconsistent. Furthermore, the deep runs from the wingers are very few, in a team where the midfielders hardly occupy the box. This also means that Chiesa often receives possession in static situations, which gives the opposition’s defence time to regain its shape. The effect of more consistent runs could also cause individual reactions from the defenders that would bring collective advantages, such as drawing a player out of position so that a player can receive unmarked in the vacated area.
Italy is slowly developing and perfecting those details. Having already vastly improved the counter-pressing and pressing, the possession numbers have increased. The PPDA statistics are the most impressive, with 5.06 against Portugal and 4.04 against the USA. As a result, they have reduced the positional defending phases drastically.
Now all that remains are the finishing and striker conundrums. Few would have thought Italy to be so successful performance-wise, but the faith in Mancini is paying off. Italy finally seem to be heading in the right direction.
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