Italy’s greatest strengths could also be their biggest weaknesses, and England must capitalise on small fissures in the Azzurri set-up to have a chance at Euro glory, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
England head into their first men’s international tournament final in 55 years on Sunday with no easy task ahead of them. By their nature, finals are never simple, but Roberto Mancini’s Italy side have played some of the most exciting and dynamic football of the whole tournament. England have had their moments but based on the eye test, Italy look like the favourites.
However, Italy’s semi-final match against Spain highlighted that they certainly can be got at. Here are three areas worth focusing on when the final begins on Sunday night.
All change at left-back
Leonardo Spinazzola had been one of Italy’s stand-out players at the tournament. After an injury-plagued career, supposedly sorted out by the realignment of his teeth, the Roma player had terrorised defences in the group stages. Italy’s build-up play saw Spinazzola be so advanced as to act as a left winger, leaving the remaining three defenders at the back, and Insigne tucked in slightly. However, due to the achilles injury sustained against Belgium in the quarter-final, Spinazzola was replaced with Emerson for the semi-final.
Emerson has long held the trust of Mancini. Despite being Chelsea’s third choice left back, he had been Mancini’s first choice for much of qualifying. However, he is certainly not as skilful going forward, and with England having picked a more defensive right-back in Kyle Walker for the majority of the tournament, Southgate will be confident he can neutralise his attacking qualities.
Spinazzola’s positioning had left large spaces in behind him that Italy’s opponents had largely been unable to exploit. Emerson will likely take a slightly more conservative approach, and his defensive capacity is greater. For example, Emerson on average tackles 54% of dribblers, compared to Spinazzola’s 37%. For context, Kyle Walker tackles 58%. Keep in mind, though, that Bukayo Saka – if he is to start on the right wing – can feel confident that there’s not been a defender in this competition he hasn’t been able to give a run for his money yet. With England focusing a lot of their attacking attention on the right-hand side against Denmark, expect to see the same intent against Italy.
Italy’s long-distance shooting
Whilst England have specialised in scoring chances very close to the goal – if Harry Kane’s penalty on Wednesday had gone in at the first time of asking, it would have been the furthest distance England have scored from during the Euros – Italy have shown their quality from much longer distances. The Azzurri had the longest average shot distance of any of the semi-finalists, and the goal from Federico Chiesa against Spain was the perfect example of this.
Throughout the tournament, Italy have made it clear that if you give their attackers time on the ball around the edge of the box, they have more than enough quality to score from there. England have focused a lot on defending the box itself to not give up high quality chances; their xGA of 3.4 is the third lowest of the entire tournament despite them having played six games. However, they will have to be switched on to Italy’s tendency not to make inroads into the box before shooting.
Italy’s beating heart, Jorginho
Stepping up to score the winning penalty against Spain with his trademark hop, skip, and jump, Jorginho looked like a man who did not know the meaning of the word pressure. He is the heartbeat of this Italian side, attempting and completing more passes than anyone else with an incredibly impressive completion rate of 94%. He has also made more progressive passes than anyone else, showing that he is not just playing in a metronomic back and forth with his defence, as he occasionally has been accused of doing.
But Jorginho does have the capacity to be rattled when he is placed under pressure. The most recent example came against Arsenal in the Premier League when he was hassled by Emile Smith-Rowe, causing him to misplace his back pass towards Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. Despite Kepa keeping the initial pass out, he could not stop Smith-Rowe following up and scoring.
With clubmate Mason Mount likely to be matched up against Jorginho, there is a great opportunity for England to stultify Italy’s build-up play by neutralising Jorginho. Whilst easier said than done, Spain’s performance on Tuesday showed how winning the battle in midfield can put Italy under a lot of pressure.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph