EURO 2020 Preview: Without De Bruyne, how midfield maestro Verratti can lead Italy to victory against Belgium – tactical analysis
Alas, we head into the EURO 2020 quarter-finals with a couple of tasty prospects on offer. Switzerland vs Spain looks to be a tense match after the Spaniards finally found their shooting boots, and of course, there is the small matter of Italy vs Belgium – two of the standout teams in the tournament so far. Although, both of their last matches fared slightly less well than their fantastic group stage displays.
In this tactical analysis, we are going to uncover both of their recent matches, why Italy struggled against a plucky Austrian side who gave them a late scare, and an insight as to who could be the key difference versus Belgium. We will also discuss Roberto Martínez’s tactics for Belgium, the team selection decisions he has to make, and why their defence could potentially be a worry.
Italy lacked quality inside both boxes against Austria
Against Austria, Italy lacked the quality necessary to win the game at both ends of the pitch in normal time. They looked to get the ball out to the wings in the final third, utilising their wing-backs and wide forwards as an avenue to access the penalty area. However, the movement of the players off the ball limited Italy in this aspect, as they rarely made the runs into the area to necessitate a cross.
Italy’s lineup versus Austria.
They began in a 4-3-3 shape, with Chelsea midfielder Jorginho reverting to his Napoli role at the base of midfield, with Nicolo Barella and Macro Verratti ahead of him. It looked much more like a first-choice starting XI in the last game, after rotating versus Wales, with Leonardo Spinazzola, Francesco Acerbi, and Giovanni Di Lorenzo coming in to replace Emerson, Alessandro Bastoni, and Rafael Toloi, respectively. Arguably the biggest mistake in the lineup was swapping out Juventus Federico Chiesa for Domenico Berardi.
While Berardi struggled against David Alaba, completing zero dribbles, taking three shots, with none of them on target, Chiesa came onto the pitch and immediately made an impact. He occupied really wise spaces within the final third, and thankfully he was fed the ball as often as was necessary. His first demonstration of attacking impetus came via a clean strike off his right foot, testing the keeper. His second shot resulted in Italy breaking their duct and setting the momentum in their favour.
Chiesa came on and immediately brought with him an attacking impetus – this shot was always a tough one to finish from that angle, but it forced the momentum in Italy’s favour.
After a fantastic touch to take it away from the defender, Chiesa coolly converts past Bachmann.
To win against Belgium, Chiesa ought to start from the offset. He was direct, got into the right spaces, and he could really hurt this old backline that Belgium are currently utilising. Thorgan Hazard was the left wing-back in the last game, so Chiesa could certainly take advantage of his ventures forward and exploit the space behind if he is to start in the same position in the same formation.
Another Italian player who needs to be involved, perhaps not from the start; is Matteo Pessina. He has three goals in the tournament so far, and all three of them have been confident finishes inside the penalty area as a result of his clever late runs. Whenever on the pitch, he has been making gut-busting runs into the area which ask questions of the opposition’s defence, more so than Immobile sometimes.
Pessina on the edge of the box whilst Insigne just collects the ball on the left.
After a quick one-two, Pessina bypasses the Austrian defenders and slams the ball home into the bottom right corner.
Going forward, Italy do have talent, they just need to make the most of it. Their static movement in the final third needs to be fixed and starting Chiesa would go some way to adjusting that. Defensively, Italy can look fragile, and having Jorginho as the sole defensive midfielder against Belgium could be a sore mistake, especially if a player with the quality of Youri Tielemans operates in that #10 space instead of Kevin De Bruyne. Utilising a double pivot instead of a 4-3-3 would assist this deficiency to a certain extent, perhaps Manuel Locatelli would be a good choice here, who can also contribute with his magnificent passing range and ambition as we saw in the second half against Austria.
Belgium should utilise their strength on the counter
Austria, against Italy, looked to play much of their game on the break, and it was successful to a certain extent. They lacked the quality to produce the winning goal, but they were narrow, compact, and resolute out of possession, which helped them build a foundation towards the other half of the pitch. Belgium, with their back three formation, can absolutely do the same.
Belgium’s lineup versus Portugal.
Against Portugal, Belgium had a numerical 4v3 advantage in midfield, and they made certain to take advantage of this. This allowed Belgium to almost always find a free man in the second phase of play – the likes of De Bruyne and Real Madrid winger Eden Hazard would then push further forward and join the attacking rotations, with Romelu Lukaku acting as the centrepiece for all attacking endeavours.
In addition to always having the free player in midfield, Belgium took advantage of Portugal’s narrow defensive shape by pinching their wing-backs to the widths of the pitch. Both Thorgan Hazard and Thomas Meunier were constantly in space, and they could both combine with the inside forwards to get towards the byline and produce cutbacks into the area.
See above Belgium’s 4v3 in the midfield, with two wing-backs stretching the play.
Again, see the two wing-backs staying wide near the touchlines, often in acres of space.
A counterattacking style of play will suit Belgium very nicely, due to Roberto Martinez’s reluctance to operate with a high line. This is for good reason too – each one of Belgium’s three centre-backs are well over the age of 30 years old by this point and they simply cannot risk being exposed in behind against pacey forwards such as Chiesa or Lorenzo Insigne.
Against Portugal, they utilised a 5-2-3 formation out of possession to block off the central areas and force Fernando Santos’ side to attack from the flanks. Moving their opponents into wide zones create space in central areas, where Belgium do possess their greatest threats, with the fulcrum being De Bruyne, who will leave a gaping hole in this team, that much is certain, there is no replacing him.
Meunier is just out of the shot here, but we can see Belgium’s narrow 5-2-3 in action.
In this counterattack, we see the style of counter they were going for, towards Eden Hazard who could carry the ball up the middle of the pitch.
Belgium have a good overall package at their disposal. If they force their opponents into wide areas, they can counter down the middle, whilst also retaining the possibility to attack in wide zones due to their wing-backs positioning. Their forward line is spearheaded by a dominant Lukaku, who at Inter has developed his game with his back to goal, and this has massively benefitted Belgium as a side. It got the most out of Eden Hazard, who has been playing some really good football in this tournament. His absence could create room for youngster Jérémy Doku to shine, however, which would be magnificent to see.
Who will be the key men for both sides?
As we all know, tactics can sometimes only take a team so far, and more often than we might like to admit; individual quality alone can win games that are on a knife-edge. Or even games that are not, it can swing a game out of one team’s favour into another. With De Bruyne expected to be missing the match with an injury picked up against Portugal, will it be Verratti to individually shine?
So far, Verratti has mixed defensive solidary and application with excellent ball progression and dangerous creativity in the final third. In the two games he is featured, he has shown to be a level above everyone else on the pitch, and if Italy’s forwards can make the forward runs in behind this Belgium defence like they absolutely should, Verratti will find them, his quality will ensure that.
Here we can see Verratti’s involvement and dedication off the ball have been just as important as on the ball.
Verratti here spots the run from Pessina into space, and he finds him with a pinpoint cross.
Of course, Italy’s wing-backs will be vital to their attacking plans – especially Leonardo Spinazzola. The Italian has won two man of the match awards in the tournament to date, and he has been one of Roberto Mancini’s best performers. He has provided width and utilised his dribbling ability to a good level, constantly getting into really dangerous areas where he can create high-quality chances.
Spinazzola has constantly used his dribbling ability to get past opponent full-backs.
Belgium’s wing-backs will also be vital, as we discussed. This area of the field will ultimately be the crucial tactical battle, and which set of wing-backs will find themselves entrenched in the opposition’s half of the pitch will increase their chances to win dramatically. Hazard and Meunier have been the first-choice pairing for Belgium, and they provide a good mix of mobility, individual quality, and effectiveness in the final third.
To stretch Italy’s midfield and defensive block, these two will occupy both touchlines. If they keep the opposite wing-backs occupied, this prevents Italy from building up through the wing-backs, which forces Italy to build-up down the centre through Jorginho, who is sometimes unable to deal with opposition pressure appropriately. If Belgium target this weakness, they could transition to dangerous areas.
Thorgan Hazard here carries the ball into a central area to find Lukaku’s run in behind to spark a fast counterattack.
Meunier can provide quality deliveries on a semi-regular basis.
Lukaku upfront will be the final piece of the puzzle, finishing most of Belgium’s attacks, and if presented with a high-quality opportunity, looks to have the confidence and form to put it away every time. His improvement with his back to goal does help too, as Belgium can rely on the long ball if their defence is under pressure, and it acts as another valve they can twist to relieve that pressure.
This will be a tight match, that much is almost certain. The difference in individual player quality is minimal, but the coaching quality might be slightly further apart, between Martinez and Mancini. Belgium perhaps head into this game with more confidence off the back of their last game, but it is hard to underestimate the Azzuri. Without De Bruyne, the advantage just about swings in favour of Italy in terms of predictions, and I would imagine a 2-1 victory for the Italians. Forza Italia.