UEFA Nations League 2020/21: Netherlands vs Italy – tactical analysis
The Netherlands’ year-long unbeaten streak finally came to an end. It was Italy who beat them 0–1 in the UEFA Nations League last Monday. The streak — began with a convincing 4-2 win against Germany — was broken by Nicolò Barella’s sole goal just seconds before referee Dr. Felix Brych blew the half-time whistle.
Oppositely, this away win prolonged Gli Azzurri’s positive records against Oranje. The last time Italy lost to the Netherlands was back in the Euro 2008; 12 years ago. So, how did Roberto Mancini’s men prevail against the home side? This tactical analysis will inform you about that.
Caretaker manager Dwight Lodeweges chose 4–2–3–1 for this game. This structure, however, wasn’t rigid. It could often shift to a 4-1-4-1 especially when they didn’t have the ball. The backline consisted of Hans Hateboer, Joël Veltman, Premier League winner Virgil van Dijk, and Manchester City’s latest signing Nathan Aké. Up top, Memphis Depay was supported by Georginio Wijnaldum and Quincy Promes in the flanks, as well as Manchester United’s newest recruit Donny van de Beek behind him. Their bench was filled with names like Steven Bergwijn, Luuk de Jong, and Denzel Dumfries.
In the opposite side, Mancini opted for 4–3–3. Chelsea player Jorginho was chosen as the midfield general, with the duo of Barella and Manuel Locatelli next to him. Italy’s frontline was filled by the trio of Nicolò Zaniolo, Ciro Immobile, and Lorenzo Insigne. In the dugout, players like Bryan Cristante, Federico Chiesa, and Moise Kean had to start the game as substitutes.
Italy defend from the front
Mancini’s men deployed rather aggressive defending tactics in this game. The high-octane attitude off the ball started with a high-press up to the Netherlands’ penalty box. Structure-wise, they used a lopsided 3–1–4–2. However, they also utilised a man-oriented approach to further prevent the home side from building their attacks smoothly from the back.
In the lopsided structure, left-winger Insigne joined Immobile in the frontline. Their task was to close Oranje’s centre-backs and prevent them from receiving the ball. Behind them, central midfielders Barella and Locatelli were tasked to close down Frenkie de Jong and Marten de Roon. The Italian midfielders would even follow their designated man even if the opponent drops down in between Veltman and Van Dijk.
With no nearby passing options available, Cillessen only had two options: play directly to the attackers or send the ball to the full-backs. The first strategy didn’t work very well. That’s because of Memphis and co. lacked physicality against Italy’s towering centre-backs. If we look at the stats, the former PSV attacker finished the game with zero aerial duels won from three attempts.
How about the other option; playing through the full-backs? Don’t worry, we will dig deeper about this in the next part of the analysis.
The lopsided press in details
Italy’s lopsided 3–1–4–2 was more visible when the ball has moved to the flank. Teenage sensation Zaniolo was tasked to drop from his initial position and play in parallel with the midfielders if the ball is being played to Aké. Oppositely, the left-back Leonardo Spinazzola would step up from the backline to close Hateboer whenever the Atalanta player has the ball.
Spinazzola’s forward movement then would leave Italy with three players at the back. However, they would shift accordingly to protect the central lanes. It means Chiellini would drift a bit to the left flank while Danilo D’Ambrosio drops from his designated right-back area.
Italy’s lopsided press wasn’t just about the positional rotations, though. They made it more difficult for the on-ball Dutch player by closing nearby passing routes, especially to the central area. Neither Hateboer nor Aké couldn’t play to De Roon or F. de Jong because Locatelli and Barella would close them respectively.
Both Dutch full-backs couldn’t play a diagonal ball too. That’s because one of Italy’s outside centre-backs would step up, protect the half-space, and prevent the Netherlands to progress the ball. Their only option was to play negatively to the centre-back, who was defended somewhat more leniently by Insigne and Immobile.
Similar but not identical
Interestingly, the Netherlands also used a man-oriented approach when defending, especially in the midfield. However, they deployed that in a different manner compared to Italy. The home side were less aggressive in their press and preferred to start defending from the middle third. It means that they would allow Italy’s centre-backs to have the ball before trying to steal it in deeper areas.
Oranje used a hybrid of zonal and man-oriented defending in their 4–1–4–1 structure. It means that their focus was on protecting the central lanes collectively, but they would allow their midfielders to defend in a man-oriented manner. To be more specific, either F. de Jong or De Roon — usually the former — could be found alongside Van de Beek to close Jorginho and Locatelli respectively. Behind them, the lone defensive midfielder was also tasked to close Italy’s attacker in a one-versus-one fashion.
The home side’s main issue in this defensive system was giving the Italians too much space in between the lines. That’s because the defensive midfielder was given too much area to cover by himself alone. It doesn’t stop there, though. The man-oriented focus given to the Dutch midfielders could also make the single-pivot found away from his initial area.
Lodeweges’ men later fixed this issue by defending way more compactly. It means that the defenders would only be separated by 25–30 metres to the centre-forward. Not only that, but they also combined that with a higher defensive line; enhancing their vertical compactness even further.
Italy’s attacking plans (part one)
Mancini also utilised the lopsided 3–1–4–2 structure when his team have the ball. As we have mentioned before, D’Ambrosio would tuck inside to join Bonucci and Chiellini as a makeshift centre-back. In front of them, the duo of Jorginho and Locatelli served as progressive passing options centrally.
The different task then was given to Barella. Instead of playing alongside his midfield partners, Barella could be found closer to Immobile and co. in the attacking line. Mancini tasked him to go forward and play more aggressively in the right half-space, while Zaniolo was instructed to provide width in the right flank.
Oppositely, left-winger Insigne could be found tucked inside and playing in the opposite half-space to Barella. This means the vacated left flank now can be filled by Spinazzola. The left-back was given the license to move forward and provide width in the particular area.
Italy’s initial focus in their attacks was to access Barella or Insigne in between the lines. That’s because they would have a numerical as well as positional superiority against sole Dutch’ defensive midfielder in between the lines. After that, either Barella or Insigne could send the ball wide for the flank players to continue the attack. However, this approach didn’t last long because the home side adjusted their defensive structure not long after Italy exploited the issue.
Italy’s attacking plans (part two)
The Netherlands may have fixed their problems in between the lines with their vertically compact defence. But, their new high defensive line actually gave them new trouble to face. That being their defenders’ lack of organisation in deploying offside traps. As we know, a (very) high defensive line had to be compensated with coordinated offside traps. Yet, such coordination couldn’t be found in Lodeweges’ armada.
Italy usually target the right centre-back, Veltman, when exploiting the high defensive line. That’s because the new Brighton recruit was found (way) behind his fellow defenders from time to time. If we look at the stats, Veltman and the right-back Hateboer finished the game with 13 defensive duels each. In the opposite side, Aké and Van Dijk combined for only six defensive duels.
To exploit Veltman, usually, Mancini would instruct Bonucci to provide the aerial balls in behind. That’s because of his superb passing range and quality as a centre-back. The receivers then could vary from Immobile, Insigne, or even Spinazzola in the left flank. The statistics show that Bonucci collected four (57.14%) successful passes to the final third, and nine (64.28%) accurate progressive passes. Only Jorginho and Barella had better rates among all Azzurri players.
As mentioned previously, Italy tended to attack through the flanks in advanced areas. The objective was to allow one player to send crosses after the ball reached the final third. Before we talk about crosses, let’s examine Italy’s intricate wing plays further.
Usually, Italy liked to build through the right flank. That’s because they had Zaniolo, Barella, and sometimes even Jorginho in that area. That trio has an exquisite on-ball ability that allowed them to excel in passing sequences as well as escaping from tight situations. However, Italy seemed not to focus only on one flank, though.
When they built through the right flank, the Italians would only overload the area and pull the Dutchmen to that side. After that, Mancini’s men would switch the ball immediately to the opposite wide area where Spinazzola stayed put all the time. Then, Spinazzola could engage in one-versus-one duels against Hateboer before moving into the dangerous area.
The former Juventus player seemed to enjoy his role massively. If we look at the statistics, Spinazzola managed to get five (55.55%) successful dribbles throughout the game. That was the best rate compared to all his teammates.
Gli Azzurri‘s crossing scheme
The visitors tend to attack from one flank and continue in the opposite. The same could be said with their approach in the final third. It means that the crosses that came from the left flank would be attacked with the players from the right-hand side. For a fact, Spinazzola was responsible for half of the attempted crosses by the visitors; in which he delivered three (75%) accurately.
In the penalty box, Mancini would put up to three players to attack the cross. That being Immobile in the central area, and two additional players in the far post. Those players were the right-winger Zaniolo (later, Kean) and Barella. To be more specific, the winger would come sharply from the right flank while Barella would attack from the second line.
Italy’s triple-threats gave them a numerical and dynamic superiority against the home side. That’s because the Netherlands would only have Van Dijk and Aké to fight aerially against Immobile, Barella, and Zaniolo. Even worse, Immobile’s central position would make Van Dijk completely focused on him; making Aké has two incoming opponents to face simultaneously.
Italy prevailed as the victorious in this exciting match. That’s mainly because of Mancini’s detailed tactics and brilliant adjustments throughout the game. With this win, Italy are now in the pole position to clinch qualification to next year’s UEFA Nations League’ finals despite still having four matches to play.
The opposite could not be said for the home side. The Netherlands were unable to capitalise their home advantage and had to fall short against the clever Italians. Their gloomy days are not over, though. They are in a dilemma after Ronald Koeman’s departure. Should they keep the caretaker Lodeweges despite the mediocre results, or should they hire a new tactician for the rest of the campaign?
What do you think?