Italy manager Cesar Prandelli’s changing of the Azzurri’s formation to a 4-3-1-2 from a 3-5-2 has at the least propelled, if not outright caused, a run to the finals of Euro 2012 for the 2006 World Cup champions. Featuring a diamond midfield capable of providing shielding for playmaker Andrea Pirlo and direct runs at goal from Claudio Marchisio all while enabling Daniele De Rossi to play in his favoured role, Italy’s second shape of the tournament stakes a great claim to the centre of the pitch, looking to dictate from within rather than race down the flanks.
Prandelli’s move to a back-four has also granted his side an important club partnership at centre-back in Juventus men Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, a partnership somewhat ironically flanked at left-back by the third of Juventus’ own back-three in Giorgio Chiellini. It is Chiellini and Federico Balzaretti, the likely starter at right-back, who are tasked with supplying width to the Italian attack, as the forward line, comprised of strikers Antonio Cassano and the mercurial and unfathomably talented Mario Balotelli, are both more likely long ball targets or looking to play the final pass when finding themselves wide rather than occupy the opposition’s full-backs via touchline camping.
The combination of how Spain’s fullbacks supply the entirety of La Roja’s width when attacking with Italy’s midfielders each engaging in a coordinated drop when defending, however, means that the likely targets of Italy’s outlet passes when countering will be Balotelli and Cassano flaring out and down the pitch.
Probable Starting XIs
Italy is not as well-equipped as Portugal to immediately target the acres of space in behind Jordi Alba and Álvaro Arbeloa, but Balotelli and Cassano as nominally centre players being the outlets does complicate matters for Spain: should Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué track the Italian tandem, one or both will be dragged horribly out of position. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are both capable of providing cover to the wings, but should one be required out wide, the Spain midfield disadvantage worsens from 3 vs 4 to 2 vs 4. With neither scenario being more than negligibly preferable to the other, Spain finds itself at a structural disadvantage.
But Spain’s three-man midfield won’t be without help available to match the Italians: Andrés Iniesta and David Silva, the likely starter out right over the better options of Jesús Navas and Pedro Rodríguez, both play centrally more than they do wide, and Cesc Fàbregas will likely start as a false-nine. The question, then, becomes who will mark Pirlo? Even if Spain can cover for Alba and Arbeloa down the flanks, and even if Spain can flood the midfield to drown Italy’s numerical advantage, the Pirlo problem, as it stands, doesn’t have a clear solution. If it’s one of Xavi, Busquets or Alonso, one of Marchisio, De Rossi or Riccardo Montolivo goes free while Ramos and Piqué are occupied by Balotelli and Casasno. If it’s Iniesta or Silva, a fullback is free to overload the threatened space down Spain’s flanks. If nothing else, Occam’s razor favours Fàbregas.
But it doesn’t have to be that complicated for Spain.
Spain in a 3-4-3
Spain enjoys the best collection of midfielders of any contemporary international side: where is the shape to take advantage of its greatest advantage? Why hasn’t Vicente del Bosque put it in?
Even if the 3-4-3 didn’t give Spain a spare man in defence — it does — and even if the 3-4-3 didn’t solve Spain’s numerical disadvantage in midfield — it does — and even if the 3-4-3 didn’t give Spain dangerous width — it does — and even if the 3-4-3 didn’t remove Spain’s weakest player for an extra attacker — it does — not having the 3-4-3 as a viable option is an unnecessary hamstringing, the progeny of too much caution and missing ambition.
Spain enters the final of Euro 2012 as favourites to win its third consecutive major tournament, but unless Vicente del Bosque has the 3-4-3 up his sleeve, Italy is far from hopeless, owning a tactical headstart.
Editor’s note: This tactical preview has been written by twelve point courier. Beyond being a football tactics enthusiast, he is a sports/politics blogger with a slight emphasis on snark and illustrating the asinine and illogical. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.