FIFA Women's World Cup Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy

And as the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France continues to rage on, Australia and Italy are all set for a battle for the supremacy of group C. The Matildas are the big favourites as the sixth and thus the best-ranked team of the group but this clash will see two similar teams battle it out on the pitch. This tactical analysis preview will analyse both of them and give you their strengths, weaknesses and will try to boldly predict the final outcome.

Squad news

Even though neither of the two have arrived in France with too many injuries, Italy are without arguably one of their most important players in Juventus’ defender Cecilia Salvai who’s out due to a knee problem. This could prove to be rather costly in a game against such an attacking force as Australia. The Matildas’ camp was seemingly all set, with no significant absences to date but a rather late blow saw them lose out on Laura Alleway, a core piece in their defensive puzzle. Both teams will miss their anchors in defence and it will be interesting to see who ends up missing their respective one more.

Two other instrumental players to watch are both of a highly aggressive and attacking nature: Sam Kerr needs no special introduction as this prolific striker is well-known to the world and dubbed as one of the best forwards on the planet. Italy have a talisman of their own in the form of Barbara Bonansea, who will be looking to both create and finish for the Azzurre.

Australia will start on the aggressive

What’s most intriguing about this game is that both teams are really attacking minded and possession based. With that in mind, we should expect a battle of supremacy of the ball as both will want to enjoy greater possession over the other and impose themselves on the opposition. But as much as the similarities do connect them, there’s no escaping the obvious and that’s that Australia are big favourites coming into this game.

The Matildas should, in theory, be the more dominant side and thus should take over the control of the pitch. In the usual scenario, they will establish control through the midfield and will look for one of two ways to stroll past their opposition.

The first option is to set the tempo of the game via a slower and more methodical build-up all the way from their defensive line. In those scenarios, Australia will drop their defensive midfielder in between their two centre-backs and the full-backs will position themselves higher up the pitch.

FIFA Women's World Cup Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Australia love to build their play up from the back – the defensive midfielder will often drop in-between the centre-backs and the full-backs will push higher.

In those cases, they tend to create overloads in the middle of the park and on the flanks. This does shift their usual 4-4-2/ 4-3-3 to a more hybrid 3-3-4 or 3-4-3 all-out attack formation as both full-backs become forwards or midfielders depending on the situation on the pitch.

With that setup, however, although they make themselves somewhat open to counters and transitions, they do establish a lot of connections leading into the final third and also within it. Notice in the example below how by positioning themselves in-between the lines and in different zones of the pitch, Australia effectively create multiple passing channels that enable them progress.

FIFA Women's World Cup Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Australia position themselves in-between the lines and offer their ball-carrier a lot of options. Also, notice how the forwards tend to drop deeper to create superiorities or combat inferiorities and offer new channels.

This is often paired up with penetrative through balls and space manipulation. The same example shows us how by dropping deeper, Australia’s forward drags her marker out of position and creates a free pocket of space behind her back. But in addition to this slower and more systematical way of dismantling the opponent, which includes creating overloads and manipulation, Matildas also favour a more direct and fast-paced option in the form of transitions.

Sam Kerr is an obvious target up front and Australia will look to utilise it by constantly trying to find her in rapid exchanges. A big part of this strategy, however, is the counter-pressing tactic we often see Matildas execute. They will no doubt lose no time in retrieving the lost balls as soon as possession is yielded to the opposition.

Once that has been achieved, a quick ball is sent towards their forwards who then have a task of winning the first ball and making sure the second one is theirs as well. Their aggressive positioning puts them in great situations to retrieve the ball in danger areas and the sheer pace on the flanks almost guarantees they will constantly have runners on the loose.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Quick transitions are one of Australia’s biggest strengths. Often, you can see them funnel long balls into their forwards as soon as they have retrieved possession and winning the first and second ball becomes paramount in executing this strategy.

Both of those tactics, however, revolve around the domination of the ball. Whoever can maintain the supremacy in midfield will, at least in theory, get a hold of the game itself. And this is where key pieces come into play. Of course, Sam Kerr assists the build-up and drops to create numerical superiorities when needed but a lot of that responsibility in the middle of the pitch will fall onto Elise Kellond-Knight’s shoulders.

This midfielder is tasked to dictate the tempo and either slow things down when needed or speed them up and feed the forwards with passes. If Italy can take control of the middle of the park, they will do a big part of blunting Australia’s piercing edge.

Italy will look to slow things down

Interestingly enough, almost the same tactics can be used to describe Italy, who will look to mostly do similar things as Australia. But while one team uses possession as a means to quickly move the ball from one place to the other, their opposites will try to do the same but with a much different process behind it.

Italy like to have the ball and keep it and are mostly happy to juggle it around until the right moment to strike emerges. This means that they will be happy to sit back and drive Australia crazy by slowing down the tempo and inviting the opposition forward. They usually play safe in the build-up phase and one midfielder will be keeping close to the backline so as to offer a link-up option and as well as defensive coverage.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Italy have a similar tendency with their preference of a build-up from the back. One of the defensive midfielders will play as a regista and serve as a link-up going forward and a defensive cover at the same time. The full-backs, however, are of an extremely attacking nature and are often seen pushing forward.

Their approach will often be slower and methodical but they do rely on sudden bursts of pace through the wings. This is usually done by overlapping full-backs who are mostly used as an offensive tool rather than a defensive one. Defensive stability is therefore maintained by dominating possession and providing cover through the midfielders.

Their manager prefers a set concept (that of a methodical approach) over a set formation but even with that in mind, Italy will most likely set out with their standard 4-4-2 that is built upon different connections among the troops. In translation, their system might be mostly predictable but still highly prone to changes depending on how well their key connections on the pitch are established.

Once they do finally get going and get the ball up front, long passes over the opposition’s defensive lines are used to get into the final third and finally, into the box. Below, we can see how as soon as they reach advantageous positions, they funnel longs balls into the open spaces up front.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
With their full-backs constantly overlapping, Italy will definitely look for that ball in-behind the defence, especially against aggressive teams like Australia.

This is when the importance of Barbara Bonansea especially comes into play. The tricky forward/ midfielder is usually positioned wide on the left and then cuts inside and either finishes the action herself or creates great opportunities for her teammates. Her dribbling ability will be crucial in breaching the opposition’s block, regardless of how compact they end up being.

She has this tendency of taking the ball and getting it into the final third by herself when there’s no other way of breaching the opposition’s defensive lines. Here, for example, she receives the pass at the edge of the box, disposes of the defender in seconds with pace and skill and proceeds to send a penetrative cross to her teammate.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Barbara Bonansea is Italy’s biggest playmaker and a key player. Her ability to beat her marker and drive the ball forward with pace before she unleashes a pinpoint pass will be crucial.

This will be crucial when facing Australia as Italy are known to have immense build-up problems (as we will now see in the following section) and might end up depending on individual brilliance to break the deadlock or plug them back from the gutters.

Italy’s big build-up struggle

Going into this match, Azzurre have a couple of core issues they have to address. The first of one is their build-up struggle. As we have already mentioned, they like their games to have a slow but methodical approach but as much as they are happy to wait for their opportunities patiently, they have been known to struggle to create them in the first place.

This comes as a consequence of bad movement and below par positioning in the final third. Italy love to sit deeper and attract the opposition towards themselves but when they are tasked to push forward and get the pieces going, they often fail to do so.

Take this next scenario for an instance: look how compact and organised the opposition decides to be and how there’s no one between the lines for Italy to help progress the ball into the final third. The two strikers are completely isolated and there are no open channels leading towards them.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
One of Italy’s major struggles comes from their build-up inefficiency. When faced with a deep-lying compact block, they are often reduced to aimlessly recycle possession and unable to create an opening.

The only option is to aimlessly recycle possession onto the wings in a hope someone will break their shape and a gap will suddenly appear. And here lies another problem. Italy lack any real constructors and creative sparks apart from their key player mentioned above. That task indeed often falls onto the shoulders of a single player and that could spell massive trouble for the Azzurre.

Once again in the example below, Italy sit deep with no one positioned in key areas which can threaten the opposition. As a result, the forward line is cut off, the only real passing channels are easily blocked and the ball-carrier is forced to retreat backwards.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Another example of how the opposition repels Italy’s attempts. With no movement or manipulation, Azzurre will have difficulties reaching the final third and too much might fall on their talisman’s shoulders.

And that’s when the real “fun” begins for them. As soon as the opposition smells trouble brewing in Italy’s camp and they get the courage to press them, Azzurre start to truly feel the fire below their feet.

Often times, when they are pressed properly, they don’t act coordinated enough to bypass that press and play around it. Unfortunately, that is the very thing that might be their undoing against a highly aggressive and energetic Australia side. Matildas will definitely not let Italy sit back and recycle possession, they will hunt for the ball and aim to capture it in dangerous areas close to Italy’s goal.

And if past experiences are any indication, they are very likely to succeed at that. Notice in the example below how Mexico fantastically press Italy and close their channels going forward. What this does is force them to go long and disrupts their slower build-up and turns it into a fast-paced interchange, which is not their forte.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Italy also struggle against teams that press them well. When their backs are against the wall, their positioning is put under question and could hurt them against the Matildas.

The final issue that could be exposed is their vulnerability to counter-attacks. Australia are a really quick team and transitions are one of the many weapons they can use to exploit the opposition’s positioning. This all, once again, stems from Italy’s inferior positioning, both in defence and attack.

They were known to press high as well but that also often left them pretty exposed at the back whenever the press wasn’t done at the highest level. Sam Kerr will definitely enjoy these defensive hiccups if Italy show any signs of insecurity even for a brief moment.

Their record of five clean sheets in the last eight games shows promise but the absence of their key defender might prove to be a big hit when put to the test against such a high-velocity team as Australia.

But as good as the Matildas are, they are not invulnerable and Italy should be on a lookout for a couple of things themselves.

Australia often leave themselves exposed

While they are highly efficient when attacking, they do leave a lot to be desired when defending. Australia will leave their hearts on the pitch and they will run for 90 minutes without stopping but their aggressiveness has often left them exposed going the other way.

Upon losing the ball, as was already discussed, Matildas charge towards the opponent in an attempt to regain possession quickly but one thing they tend to do is leave their opponents with too much space and time to react.

Notice in the image below how Australia try to press but are ironically too slow to react and their opposition send a long ball towards their forwards.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Overcommitting to a press is something Australia will have to solve going into the game. Their aggressiveness yields them results but sometimes, it’s their downfall. Notice how they leave the opposition too much space at times which results in balls in-behind their out of shape defence.

This leads us to another problem they face: knock-backs. When they defend, their shape changes from compact to dispersed depending on the situation but as a general rule of thumb, stepping out of the shape and not getting results immediately spell guaranteed danger for them.

Once the opponent has been given enough time to bypass the press, winning duels becomes much more difficult for them and knock-back balls often get the better of them. This happens because they are out of their positions and unable to react in time to fill the gaps that suddenly appear. Notice below how the opposition can advance easily since Australia are not positioned properly.

FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 Tactical Preview: Australia vs Italy
Knock-back balls then become a real problem since Australia are often caught out of position after their counter-press fails.

Sure, they will commit numbers forward and that will be excellent when they play through transitions themselves but if that fails, they are put in a seriously bad scenario. So how can Italy make use of that?

As we have established earlier, Italy, for all their pragmatism, are known for their tendency to seek out deep passes and exploit their wing play. This is where they will undoubtedly try to strike and where, in theory, they should have the most success.

This becomes even more important due to their natural tendency to attract the opposition, which won’t be difficult to do against an aggressive Australia, rather than seek out gaps in their defence. This way, if Matildas fall into their pressing traps, space will appear by itself and Italy’s biggest build-up troubles could potentially disappear.

Granted, this does sound like a lot of ifs but this is largely due to the Azzurre being outgunned on paper.

Final remarks

Predicting outcomes on such big international stages is always the most difficult thing to do. In theory, Australia are big favourites and they should impose their dominance from the start. Their vastly talented team with incredible depth should prove to be too much for their Italian opposition. They will look to play fast-paced football with lots of movement, manipulation and transitional play with their rapid flanks.

Sam Kerr is the obvious danger for Italy and if she is not properly contained and marked, look for her to rattle the net on this opening match for these teams. Oh, and do a backflip after she scores – watch out for that!

Italy, on the other hand, will try to calm down the rushing Matildas and will try to use that aggressiveness against them. Their methodical build-up with defensive cover could work well to lure Australia into traps of leaving too much space behind their backs. Finding those spaces and bypassing the press will be key for their potential victory.

With that being said, Australia should still end up victorious after 90 minutes of game time.


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