Italy and the Netherlands will be battling each other in the quarter-finals of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Both have played brilliantly so far in this competition and it will certainly be hard to predict who’s going to come out with a victory.
This will be the Netherlands’ first appearance at this stage of the competition. For Italy, this will be the second time in their history since the last time back in 1991.
This match will also be Le Azzurre’s first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup clash against De Oranje Leeuwinnen. The Dutch, however, have met Italy numerous times, recording an unbeaten run in their last five games (three wins and two draws).
This will be a battle of desire and determination. This isn’t just a match for the players to boast their skills, but also for the coaches to showcase their willingness.
The Netherlands are slight favourites in this game, but will they be caught off guard by Italy today? We’ll discuss all that in this tactical preview analysis.
Both teams’ setup
Italy’s formation oscillates between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. They seemed to use the latter though in their last match against China.
Cristiana Girelli played in a deeper, right centre-mid berth against China, despite usually playing in a more advanced position. The team played marvellously the last time out and there is very little change of setup and personnel expected in the next game.
Girelli may be back in her favourite centre-forward position with Aurora Galli filling her spot in the centre of the field.
Predicted starting XI: Giuliani – Guagni, Gama, Linari, Bartoli – Giugliano, Galli, Cernoia – Mauro, Girelli, Bonansea
The Netherlands started their last match with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Jackie Groenen pairing with Sherida Spitse as a double pivot. Danielle van de Donk played in front of those two, just behind Vivianne Miedema. However, they seemed to switch into a 4-3-3 system again in offence with Groenen and van de Donk going forward, leaving Spitse alone in the centre.
Personnel-wise, there seemed to be no change up front and in the midfield in the last game and it seems unlikely to be one in the next game. Meanwhile, there’s only one change in the defence with Stefanie van der Gragt back on the starting 11, replacing Anouk Dekker.
Facing Italy, who’s extremely dangerous in central areas, Sarina Wiegman may use the same system again in their upcoming game.
Predicted starting XI: van Veenendaal – van Lunteren, Dekker, Bloodworth, van Es – Groenen, Spitse – van de Donk – van de Sanden, Miedema, Martens
Netherlands’ style of play
Both teams do tend to break quickly, but there are certain differences that we can see.
The Netherlands are always very quick on the break. With the attacking trio of Shanice van de Sanden, Vivianne Miedema, and Lieke Martens – Wiegman has an abundance of speed up front and she seemed to take advantage of it well.
Playing with a mid-high block, the Netherlands tend to let the opposing team play from the back and will only press whenever they got in rather dangerous areas around the final third. That way, they are inviting the opposition to attack first, letting them advance and therefore positioning themselves higher and further away from their defence.
Right after that, they’ll activate their press, aggressively closing down and swarming the ball-carrier before launching a quick breakaway.
In these breakaways, the wingers are the ones who are more crucial rather than centre-forward Miedema. Both are always ready to make the attacking run in anticipation of turnover in the midfield.
One of the two wingers (usually Van de Sanden) also tends to make inside runs in counter-attacks. The other one, meanwhile will make outward runs and open up spaces in wider areas.
Miedema, on the other hand, tends to stall her run in counter-attacks. This way, she either loses her marker, or her marker instantly becomes out of position and her spot can be capitalized by the forwards. Not just that, stalling her run also opens up a passing option for the ball-carrier and helps link up the play.
The Netherlands love to combine in central areas, but their strongest and most dangerous attacks come from the flanks. Aside from quick counters, the Netherlands also tend to create breakthroughs via half-space exploits.
As you can see from the two pictures above, the winger drops deep, dragging her marker with her. As that happens, space opens up which can easily be exploited by either Groenen or Van de Donk.
These three pictures above pretty much explain themselves. Italy’s player-oriented marking and pressing are excellent but can be quite vulnerable. Once Van de Sanden drops deep and links up with Van Lunteren, Groenen is pretty much left with plenty of space there, knowing that the centre-back probably won’t close her down as she should be marking Miedema.
Netherlands’ attacking shape
As mentioned earlier, Italy defend with a player-oriented marking system. Against China, who usually attack with four players up front (two centre-forwards and two wide midfielders) this strategy worked magnificently. However, can they adopt the same strategy against the Netherlands who’s very aggressive and dynamic in attacks?
As we can see, the Netherlands throw five players forward in attack. This leaves Spitse alone in the middle as the pivot. The two full-backs, meanwhile, will stay just above the halfway line, providing width and support if needed.
The numerical superiority up front, as well as their dynamic and flexible positioning, may completely disintegrate Italy’s defence. In this case, Giugliano may drop deeper and pick up her player to mark. But that way, Italy could potentially not link up properly in transition from defence to attack due to Giugliano usually being the go-to player when it comes to making counter-attack happens.
Playing through the middle
Usually being pressed relentlessly and isolated in wider areas, the Netherlands tend to combine through the middle in their last two games in this competition. But how do they do that?
As we can see in the picture, due to Japan blocking high and marking van Lunteren’s passing options, she was deprived of choices. In this situation though, she has several choices to pass Japan’s first wave of pressure: giving the ball to van de Sanden or Van de Donk, or she could just launch it forward to Miedema, or diagonally to Martens. In this case, she picked Van de Donk who dropped deep and positioning herself in a pocket of space due to the latter being free of any marker and the chance of the pass being successful was high. Groenen, meanwhile, stayed forward, occupying her spot in the half-space.
As you can also spot in the picture, the main ball distributors from the back, Spitse and Bloodworth were marked and not a viable passing option. Van de Donk stepping up to the task of progressing the ball helped the Netherlands immensely in this game.
This build-up play successfully unlocked Japan’s extremely compact defence and the same kind of attack could also be adopted against Italy.
In the picture above, China successfully passed the first wave of pressure from Italy and they had the ball between the midfield and forward lines. However, none of their four-player attacks positioned themselves in pockets of space or dropped deep to help the linkup play. That way, the playmaker was forced to loft the ball forward which could potentially be recovered again by the Italian defence through aerial duels.
Overloading flanks and narrow defence
Against Japan, the Netherlands seemed to employ a rather unusual narrow defensive line. This is a bit different than their usual fairly wide defence. Their narrow defence could perhaps be seen as an attempt to compress spaces as they press and isolate the ball-carriers in central areas or on either side of the flank, but Italy may have a chance to exploit this kind of defensive setup.
As we can see, the Netherlands tend to overload the flanks in defence. Combining zonal marking and player-oriented pressing, they are very difficult to get past when on the flanks.
With Japan exchanging fast-paced one-two touch passes in the middle and full-backs making attacking runs from deep, the Netherlands were extremely vulnerable in these situations. Japan attracted the press in the centre with wide midfielders playing narrower and dragging full-backs with them. Just like that, space opens up wide and a simple, quick, and effective passing exchange can potentially develop into a deadly attack.
Despite their being difficult to play against on the flanks, playing centrally has so far been the most effective way to break their solid defence despite the seemingly crowded middle. This has been quite a visible problem in the last three games that they’ve played in this competition.
All three of the Netherlands’ goals were actually scored from central breakthroughs. Against Japan, it was quite apparent that they desperately need to fix this up. For Italy, this could be their chance to hurt the Dutch.
The Netherlands’ centre-backs seemed to mark the striker(s) tightly, often following them and giving them pressure as they received the ball a little further from the box, rendering the centre-backs slightly out of position. Again, just like that, Japan could break through the middle far too easily. Had they been more effective (or perhaps lucky), they could have scored more.
High block and aggressive press vulnerability
There is perhaps nothing scarier than facing a team who block high and press aggressively for the Netherlands.
This is because their main strategy is to build up from the back. But despite having players who are proficient at playing the ball at the back, they seemed to be very vulnerable against teams who defend like this.
Blocking the path towards Bloodworth and Spitse may make it more difficult for the Dutch to go forward but it’s the collective, aggressive pressing combined with player-oriented marking that could neutralise them and quickly end their build-up.
But as mentioned earlier in this article, player-oriented marking could also open up a chance for the Netherlands to attack the opposing team.
Wiegman knows she has players with excellent technical proficiency and the ability to retain the ball in tight spaces and under pressure. Though team play and tactical setups are the main focus in the game, sometimes individual skills become quite relevant in the game where a team has a certain tactical advantage.
Italy’s style of play
Central combination and narrow buildup
We’ve discussed the Netherlands’ proneness to central breakthroughs prior. Now we’re going to talk about how Italy can capitalise on it.
Just like the Netherlands, Italy are also very quick in transitions, especially in defence to attack. They really love quick breakaways, but their execution is a bit different to that of the Netherlands’.
While the Dutch tend to break forward with long balls, the Italians prefer quick exchanges of short passes through the middle, before delivering the defence-cutting through pass.
One player will act as the wall, receiving a pass and bouncing it back to the playmaker for the latter to deliver it onto the path of the attackers.
The forwards are also always ready to make the run in case her team win back possession in the midfield. By the time, the playmaker got the ball at her feet, the forwards are already in their strides, using their pace to beat the defender to the ball.
This is particularly effective against teams who have a high defensive line. The Netherlands, on the other hand, usually try to keep their defensive line rather deep.
Italy also attack in a narrow shape with wingers sitting close to the centre-forward, but the full-backs don’t seem to make a lot of attacking runs.
Occasionally, the centre-forward will drop rather deep to receive a pass and then sending it through the defence onto the path of either winger who made an inside run. This is something that the Dutch must be extra aware of on Saturday.
Italy attack with a narrow shape and they tend to create an offensive overload by concentrating a number of players on one side of the pitch. This offensive overload made it easier for them to move the ball around as the spaces between each player are quite small, enabling them to escape pressure traps and isolations by the opposing team.
Their narrow shape and offensive overload also mean that they’ll easily swarm the opposing player whenever they lose the ball, thus also helping them in their counter-pressing game.
Building up from the back
Italy tend to build their play up from the back, playing a combination of short-medium range passes with the emphasis of moving it vertically. A similar style of play can perhaps be seen in Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in 2017/18.
When playing out from the back, the defenders tend to split up, creating a bit of space between them. The full-backs tend to sit a bit high and wide, while the two centre-backs position themselves rather far from each other. Between the two centre-backs, a midfielder usually drops.
Here we can see Cernoia dropping deep to help the two centre-backs linkup. The dropping midfielder doesn’t just provide a passing option but also helps launching passes forward. For a high-blocking and aggressive-pressing team like China, this can attract forwards to press the defensive line, potentially opening a passing channel between the forward and midfield line for Italy.
Player-oriented marking and defensive overload
Italy aim to win the ball from as high up the pitch as possible. They block high, they press aggressively, and most importantly, they counter-press.
Immediately after losing possession, they’ll close down the ball-carrier, swarming her and trying to win the ball back. The Dutch must be able to move and recycle the ball quickly once they managed to regain possession. Perhaps switching to the other flank could prevent them from getting swarmed while carrying the ball.
Their high block and aggressive pressing were often too difficult to handle, often forcing the Chinese players into making mistakes – which were effectively taken advantage of by the Italians.
Italy also adopt a narrow shape not just in attacks, but also in defence.
In this picture above, you may notice how Gama followed her player around whilst marking her tightly along with Linari and Bartoli respectively on her right. Aside from this player-oriented marking, Italy seemed to defend the flanks with an overload, isolating the ball-carrier and pretty much blocking their path forward while trying to win the ball back.
As they try to overload one flank, they concentrated most of the players on that particular flank. Often a wide player from another side of the wing joins the team pressing to help defend that particular side.
This very narrow shape is very effective in compressing the space in a particular area on the pitch. Although effective in restricting the opposition to go forward, playing with numbers up front as well as providing width may just disrupt this defensive style of play which is exactly what the Netherlands must do on Saturday.
Italy play a very high-intensity football, while the Netherlands are also quick, but a little more careful.
Bertolini’s side may face a very difficult task against the European champions on Saturday, but looking at this tactical preview, they do have some advantages tactically. That is, of course, if they managed to pull them off successfully. The Netherlands also have some things that they can capitalise on if they play their cards right.
Who will advance to the next stage in the current edition of FIFA Women’s World Cup? I guess we’re going to see that very soon on Saturday.
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