The rise of calcio femminile is well and truly underway. Having qualified for their first Women’s World Cup finals in two decades over three years ago, Italy will compete among Europe’s finest in the Women’s European Championships this summer.
Partaking in the 2019 World Cup elevated women’s football to new heights in Bel Paese. A study completed by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that the number of female football players in Italy grew by 13.9% since the last World Cup while Serie A viewing figures rose by 25% within just 12 months after the esteemed competition ended.
Le Azzurre reached the quarter-final before being knocked out by the eventual finalists Holland. However, their participation leaves an everlasting effect on the popularity of women’s football in the country.
Fast forward to 2022, Italy reached the final of the Algarve Cup, proving that the side is not just there to make up the numbers, although they were unfortunately beaten by Sweden on penalties.
Since the turn of the Century, the Italian women’s national team had seen some dreadful displays in international competitions. Underperformance after underperformance after underperformance plagued the side’s history.
In 2017, the Italian FA made one of the wisest choices of the past decade in an era of naïve managerial decisions across all levels and genders of international football in the country. Milena Bertolini was appointed as the head coach, replacing the former Juventus fullback, Antonio Cabrini.
A pioneer for football in the country, Bertolini has made Italy competitive once more on the international stage, playing beautiful football in the process.
Ranked 14th in the world at the moment, Italy are the bookies’ ninth-favourite to win the competition in its entirety and so are certainly outsiders, but if football history has thought us anything, it’s that you do not write off the Italians. You can certainly not write off Bertolini’s team.
This article will be a tactical analysis preview of Italy ahead of the Euros this summer in the form of a team scout report. It will be an analysis of the side’s tactics under Bertolini to predict how the Azzurre will set up in the upcoming tournament.
Predicted Starting XI
Bertolini has been rather consistent with her use of the same players within her preferred 4-3-3 system. The Italian boss ensures that her starting XI has plenty of quality players comfortable on the ball, with lots of energy to execute a high press, while also being quite adept in their defensive duels.
Italy have also used a 3-4-3 under Bertolini over the past calendar year. However, it’s likelier that the Azzurre will set up in a 4-3-3 as it suits the players available.
Total Football Analysis predicts that this will be Italy’s first-choice starting XI for the Euros if all of their best players are available.
The most striking aspect of this starting XI is how much experience is present within the squad, blended with youthful vibrance. Players such as Sara Gama, Valentina Cernoia, Laura Giuliani, Barbara Bonansea, and Cristiana Girelli will be looked towards to lead the group given their wealth of experience in the blue shirt.
Meanwhile, others such as Valentina Bergamaschi, Lisa Boattin, Manuela Giugliano, Aurora Galli and Arianna Caruso will bring energy to the team, particularly in the middle of the park and flanking the central defenders, giving a really good balance to Bertolini’s preferred starting lineup.
Overall, Italy’s squad is mixed quite well. There are a lot of players on the wrong side of 30 that may be playing in their final major tournament for their country, especially Alia Guagni, Daniela Sabatino, Gama, and Valeria Pirone.
Nevertheless, the age profile of the squad shows that Bertolini does prefer well-established players in the squad. There are only three players under the age of 24 that will be in the team for Le Azzurre. There are also no players under the age of 21.
The majority of the players are still in their peak years with many spilling over into their 30s. In fact, the average age of Italy’s squad for the Euros is 27.9.
Like their male counterparts, Italy’s women’s team are quite possession-oriented, looking to build their way through the thirds with short passing as opposed to going long to the centre-forward.
Unfortunately, given the wealth of incredibly possession-based, attacking teams that are set to compete in England this summer at the Euros, Italy rank below average in the percentiles for most offensive metrics. However, this is an unfair representation of how Bertolini wants her side to play, which is on the front foot, in control of games, looking to create a high volume of chances.
Over the past calendar year, Le Azzurre have averaged 57.67% of the ball in their games in all official competitions. Across the Women’s Euros qualifying campaign, Bertolini’s battlers averaged 64.6% ball possession, which was the ninth-highest on the continent.
Along with being a possession-furious team, Italy have usurped all the stereotypical functions of a ball-oriented side, including the emphasis from the side-lines that the players play out from the back, using the goalkeeper in the build-up.
The Italians are quite risky during the first phase of their attacks. Playing out from deep, Italy position their two centre-backs wider, often just at the edge of the penalty area, while the fullbacks move much higher up. This facilitates the goalkeeper becoming a third player in the first line.
As Italy mainly employ a 4-1-4-1, their structure comprises of one single pivot positioned behind the opposition’s first line of pressure while the more advanced ‘8s’ push up between the lines, dropping to the ball-side to create a triangle with the fullback and winger.
Italy are really patient on the ball too. The passing rate metric measures how many passes a team makes per minute of possession. In the Euros qualifying campaign, the Azzurre boasted a passing rate of 13.9 — the seventh-highest across all teams.
The Italians try and progress the ball through the central areas as much as possible from these deeper areas of the pitch. They plan to break through the opponent’s first pressing line and play the ball into the feet of their central midfielders.
When this occurs, naturally the opponent will jump on the ball receiver while the midfield line narrows itself to block off any passes to the space between the lines. From there, these midfielders can act as a ‘wall pass’ and bounce the ball out to the fullbacks in space.
Since the opponent’s midfield narrowed to cut off access to the players between the lines, the fullback can receive the ball relatively unscathed and drive forward to progress Italy into their attacking half.
Further up the pitch, when Italy have more consolidated possession well inside their own half, the players look to reach the final third in two different ways.
Firstly, Bertolini instructs her players to create wide overloads down the flanks, using quick combination play and movement to break down the opposition’s defensive block.
Wide overloads are a marvellous and effective way to break down a team’s deep defensive block once you have a lot of quality wide players as the aim is to get the fullbacks or wingers into good crossing positions.
However, wide overloads are also less risky than trying to play through the middle as, in case of a turnover of possession, the team can defend transitions easier since the opponent has less room to play in, over on the flanks.
Italy rely heavily on crosses to create goalscoring opportunities. Over the past calendar year, the side have averaged 20.2 crosses per 90 in all competitions with an accuracy of 37.6%.
One area that Italy like to get into and cross is between the edge of the six-yard box and the 18-yard box.
From these positions, Bertolini’s side look to create cut-back crosses similarly to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City as they can create high xG chances from these crosses. Especially with Valentina Cernoia, the Azzurre could cause serious damage with these crosses, depending on whether the 30-year-old plays on the right or left.
On average, Italy are accumulating an xG of 2.37 per 90, bagging 2.9 goals per 90 and so are actually overperforming their xG stats over the last 12 months, which is certainly impressive.
Cristiana Girelli has been one of the main factors behind this overperformance. The experienced striker is incredibly dangerous around the box and has bagged nine goals from an xG of 7.99 to make her the sixth-highest goalscorer in the qualifying campaign.
Italy are undoubtedly one of the highest pressing teams in European football under Bertolini. The women’s team can be relentless at times, averaging a PPDA of 6.82 over the past calendar year. This was even lower during the Euros qualifying campaign, with the Italians boasting a PPDA of 5.95 in this period of matches.
They ranked as the eighth-lowest team on this metric. When it comes to PPDA, the lower the number, the more a side presses as the opponent is allowed to make fewer passes.
In correlation to their PPDA, Le Azzurre’s challenge intensity stands at 7.5, meaning that Italy are making 7.5 defensive actions per minute of opposition possession which proves their aggression during the defensive phases and in the high press.
Italy press zonally. Essentially, when their opponent is passing out from the back, the centre-forward will angle her run, cutting off access to the other central defender to force the team to one side of the pitch.
The centre-forward needs to work hard to ensure that the centre-back cannot switch to their partner to maintain Italy’s pressing structure.
Once the switch of play is blocked off and the attacking side are trapped on one side of the pitch, the nearest pressers get tight to the closest players in their zones, going aggressively man-oriented to try and regain possession of the ball.
Italy commit many bodies in the press too. This strategy is high-risk, high-reward. Being combative with their high pressure gives them a greater opportunity to win the ball with their tight approach in the attacking third which could lead to a seamless attacking transition in a great area.
However, Italy’s defensive structure has deficiencies once the offensive side plays over the press instead of attempting to go through it. Often, the centre-backs can be exposed and are forced into 1v1 duels.
In this example, Switzerland went long to avoid Italy’s tenacious pressing, but it left the team’s captain and legendary calcio femminile Sara Gama to step up very high to try and close down the ball-receiver. Unfortunately for Gama, the Swiss striker turned her like she wasn’t there and set her side through on goal.
These 1v1 situations that Italy find themselves in after a team plays long against them aren’t a lottery. Le Azzurre have won 67.4% of the defensive duels that they have competed in over the past calendar year and so more often than not, they do win their duels. However, if the opposition’s forwards have a lot of quality, having your centre-backs isolated in this way could cause serious problems.
Most of Italy’s defensive duels occur rather high up the pitch as well, as Bertolini’s side want to keep the opposition as far away from their defensive third as possible. For instance, here is an example of all of the team’s defensive duels from a recent clash against Switzerland:
The emphasis from the touchline for the players to try and regain possession of the ball in the wide areas is particularly evident.
Italy aren’t perfect but in keeping in line with their true Catenaccio heritage, the team conceded an average of just 0.47 goals per 90 across the Euros qualifying campaign. Their total xGA over the past calendar year has reached 0.6 per 90. In contrast to the team’s 2.37 xG per 90, Italy’s expected goal difference is an exemplary 1.77 per 90.
Maintaining their high octane, pressing approach during the settled defensive phases, Italy also counterpress very aggressively to win back possession of the ball and frustrate opposition counterattacks.
Their use of wide overloads helps to facilitate this. With the use of the touchline, it’s much easier to counterpress out wide than in the more central areas because the opponent has limited space to pass and run into.
Here, Italy were able to counterpress Lithuania effectively, shutting off any progressive passing angles, limiting the space the player in possession had before eventually turning over possession and executing their own attacking transition.
Over the past calendar year, the Italians have averaged 86.9 ball recoveries per 90, putting them in one of the highest-ranking teams in Europe for this metric.
Their ball recovery positions can be quite dispersed all around the pitch but are predominantly in the middle to final third of the pitch. For example, the following data visual displays all of Italy’s ball recoveries from the same recent outing against Switzerland.
Attacking transitions are less common for the side. Bertolini’s girls have averaged 2 counterattacks per 90 over the past twelve months in all competitions, with 50% of those ending in a shot on goal.
Generally, when hitting teams on the break, Le Azzurre try to reach the centre-forward first to hold up the ball and then link in runners in behind.
The centre-forward has to be comfortable with the ball at her feet and when she drops during transitions, it drags the opposition’s defenders out of position, leaving space to be exploited in behind.
Normally, when one thinks of counterattacks, you may be forgiven for thinking about a José Mourinho-esque low block, with all 11 players parked behind the ball, breaking from deep and reaching the final third within ten seconds of winning the ball.
However, with Italy, their counterattacks start much higher up the pitch than this. As displayed in the previous section, Bertolini’s side battle most of their defensive duels high up the pitch, inside the middle to final third and so these are the areas where their counterattacks also begin, through high pressing situations or else ball recoveries.
Both Barbara Bonansea and Cristiana Girelli are now on the wrong side of 30, and as a result, this could be one of their last tournaments to make an impact on the international stage in tournament football.
Italy’s forward line is quite stacked, all things considered. While they may not possess as much quality as a team like England, Spain or the Netherlands in the forward department, Bertolini’s side are still stacked with quality.
The wide areas are stockpiled with quality with players such as Valentina Cernoia battling it out with Valentina Giacinti for a starting spot in the team. To complete the treble of Valentinas, fullback Valentina Bergamaschi could also potentially start as a right-winger if needed and has done on several occasions for Le Azzurre, providing more defensive capabilities down this flank if necessary.
Meanwhile, just behind Bonansea in the pecking order over the opposite side will be Juventus’ young star Agnese Bonfantini, although Cernoia and Giacinti can perform well on the left as well. Annamaria Serturini can potentially play on the left flank too if called upon.
Up front will undoubtedly be Girelli, Italy’s top goalscorer over the last calendar and the woman who scored the most goals for the team throughout the Euros qualifying campaign. However, as backup to the 32-year-old will be someone one year her senior: Roma’s Valeria Pirone. She could provide rotation for the star striker, or possibly even the more youthful Martina Piemonte who will certainly be hungry to get in ahead of Girelli.
Bertolini’s preferred midfield trio over the past year has been Manuela Giugliano operating as the lone pivot, sitting behind two advanced midfield number ‘8s’ in Aurora Galli and Caruso, giving the middle of the park some a nice blend of Turin and Roman quality with a dash of Merseyside.
Beyond her preferred midfield, Bertolini will be able to rely on some high-quality midfielders such as Juventus’ Martina Rosucci, Roma’s Annamaria Serturini and the vibrant Marta Mascarello. However, apart from Giugliano, Galli, Caruso and Rosucci, no player made more than two appearances throughout the qualifying campaign.
Bertolini has trust in her core players and has proven herself to be rather iffy about rotating players within the team’s core. It’s highly unlikely that much rotation will be seen in the Euros either.
Italy’s defence is very much similar to the men’s side with there being several players over the age of 30 who start almost all of the matches. 33-year-old captain, Sara Gama, is almost a guaranteed starter for the Azzurre, alongside her usual partner Elena Linari.
There will be quite an intense battle at right-back for the starting berth. Stalwart Elisa Bartoli played in every game during Italy’s qualifying campaign for the prestigious competition. Regardless, Valentina Bergamaschi was one of the best players in Serie A last season, predominantly playing in the midfield for AC Milan Women.
Bergamaschi is a much-more attacking option than Bartoli and so gives Bertolini the possibility to switch to a back three, putting her on the right as a wingback while also offering solid defensive support. However, Bartoli is a more defensively secured option for games where Italy are forced to defend and be extra pragmatic.
At left-back, Lisa Boattin practically has the position on lockdown at the moment, although Bertolini could potentially even call upon the veteran defender Alia Guagni as Italia so often have done over the years. This will likely be Guagni’s final ever tournament for her country and she’ll be hoping to bow out with success.
Italy have a star-studded squad heading into the Euros this summer. However, the standout player is undoubtedly Cristiana Girelli who will be vital for Le Azzurre’s chances of progressing deep in the tournament.
Throughout the Euros qualifying campaign for Italy, Girelli scored nine times and bagged three assists, bringing her goal contributions tally to 12 in total across the 10 matches.
In all competitions this season, including her appearances for Juventus in Serie A, Girelli has averaged 0.75 goals per 90 as well as 0.33 assists per 90. Essentially, she averages more than one goal contribution per game which is incredibly impressive.
Girelli averaged 3.14 shots per 90 as well this season, with 54.2% hitting the target. Altogether, she accumulated an xG of 0.64 per 90 and so is actually overperforming her xG, proving Girelli’s potency in front of the net.
The 32-year-old featured 30 times this season for club and country and put the ball into the net 23 times in total. Again, her goals will be absolutely vital for Bertolini’s team should they have any hope of progressing to the latter phases of the Euros this summer.
Italy were drawn into a relatively difficult group. France are one of the favourites to win the entire tournament and many expect them to top Group D outright.
Iceland and Belgium are two very good sides as well that possess a serious amount of quality and could certainly make life extremely gruelling for Le Azzurre in the first round of the competition. However, Italy’s squad is much stronger overall and Bertolini’s side are expected to go through at least in second place, behind the French.
Getting to the quarter-finals itself would be excellent for Italy and any further progress would be a fabulous achievement. While they may not be strong enough to reach the final or even the semi-final, Italy’s women certainly will not be a side that should be underestimated and could potentially be a banana-skin opponent for any of the tournament’s favourites.