If any countries know the U21 European Championships, it’s Spain and Italy. Between the two, they have won the competition a whopping nine times, and both were firm favourites to reach the semi-final stage heading into the tournament. Recent form cemented their status, as the Spaniards glided through their group seemingly on individual talent alone, with THAT Marco Asensio hat trick remaining the highlight of the group stage. That’s not to say that manager Albert Celades’ system failed, of course; his side have played some incredible football throughout and have shown the world they are a step above anyone else. The Italians, on the other hand, have relied on a typically disciplined defence and a dynamic attack based around their star players. Two of which, were suspended for Tuesday’s game – Berardi and Conti.
The suspensions forced Luigi Di Biagio to change up the Italian system and he brought the powerful Andrea Petagna into the starting line-up to lead the attack. Bernardeschi and Chiesa completed an attacking three which looked to stretch Spain’s defence by working predominantly down the wings, with Petagna used as a Target Man in the centre. A midfield duo of captain Benassi and Pellegrini was anchored by the out-of-position Gagliardini in the centre, who usually plays a more attacking role, though his distribution and creativity on the night gave Italy a lifeline going forward. Davide Calabria ventured forward often from Right Back, capitalising on the space vacated by the industrious Marco Benassi. Antonio Barreca played a similar, more cautious role on the left while Rugani and Caldara completed the back four. The prodigious Gigi Donnarumma started in goal.
Spain’s extra days’ rest paid dividends against a high-tempo Italian side who struggled to keep their pace into the final stages of the match. Joint-top scorer (before Saúl’s hat trick on the night) Marco Asensio headed into the game in fine form and made intelligent movements off the ball to disrupt the Italian’s defensive structure, though it was Dani Ceballos who stole the show, ducking and weaving his way through Italy’s midfield in an almost Iniesta-esque fashion. Spain’s incredible depth in their national pool meant that the majority of Tuesday’s lineup could well have made it into Spain’s first team had the circumstances been different. Sandro Ramirez led a familiar front three including Gerard Deulofeu and Marco Asensio, who initiated Spain’s fluidity in attack by switching positions numerous times. Atletico standout Saúl spearheaded a flexible midfield with the elusive Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente sat ahead of the defensive line. Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin typically pushed forward when possible, as did Left-Back Johny. Mere and Vallejo completed a back four which stood strong (for the most part) in front of Kepa.
Italy did all the right things
Italy set out to disrupt Spain’s attacking flow through the midfield and were successful in the early stages of the match. During the first phase of their defence, the Italians pressed Spain with a system which stopped them from playing the ball along their back line, forcing the riskier forward pass. Italy set up in a 4-5-1 in defence, with a high midfield line to block any passing routes, pushing the ball wide. As the Spanish Full-Backs received the ball, particularly Bellerin, Italy pressed intensely. This triggered the more central players to man-mark Spain’s playmakers in defence, limiting their passing options and urging the vertical pass which could then be cut out. This proved effective and forced Spain into a more direct build-up, counteracting their positional play. Though in the end it suited the Spanish as they were able to stretch the Italians, causing their press to become disjointed due to their high midfield line which saw them sit predominantly in Spain’s half.
In their attacking phase, Italy’s aggressive midfield allowed them to find space between Spain’s lines – their pressure in the final third gave them a numerical advantage upon winning the ball back which allowed them to find space with vertical runs from Pellegrini and Benassi. Unfortunately, their finishing let them down on the night, and they missed a golden opportunity early on which would have changed the game completely. Di Biagio’s unpopular decision to field Andrea Petagna due to suspensions turned out to be the right choice, the Atalanta forward held up the ball well and brought teammates into play, which worked well with the runs of Pellegrini and Benassi. It also allowed Bernardeschi to cut inside and attack Spain’s central defenders, as he did so for their first (and only) goal. Petagna’s hold-up play also synced well with Italy’s distribution from the back. Donnarumma often looked for a quick throw through the centre of the pitch for either central midfielder to then direct on towards Petagna, who was extremely dangerous in one-on-one situations due to his strength and power on the ball. As any good Target Man should, he became a “wall” for Italy to bounce the ball off in Spain’s final third. The reposition of Gagliardini supported Italy’s build-up in a similar sense to Petagna; his versatility gave Italy a presence in the centre of the pitch and he was able to dictate the flow of their attacks with the help of his midfield duo. That was of course until he got sent off.
One thing Italy lacked on the night was discipline. They were understandably angered by Spain’s dominance of possession and intricate passing, but they were wasteful in attack, often looking for a spectacular individual goal with a teammate in a more favourable position. They allowed the Spaniards to wear them down mentally and failed to capitalise on any real chances they had, which ultimately cost them the game.
Spain adapted quickly
As Spain began to settle into the first half and particularly the second, the true potential of their positional play came through as their midfield and forward lines rotated vertically to disrupt Italy’s defensive structure. Though they struggled in the early stages of the match, the Spaniards used Italy’s own strategy against them and relied on a direct build-up which comprised of direct vertical passes and dribbling through Italy’s initial press. With Italy’s high lines, Spain were able to spring Deulofeu free on the Left Wing, who caused problems but lacked the final ball.
Because Italy pressed man-to-man, Spain were able to break through their first line of defence with quick passing and dribbling through the centre. Their direct approach allowed them to execute their game plan and control possession in Italy’s half. With two Full Backs pushed forward, the Spaniards created a midfield line which stretched across the pitch. This offered passing angles both horizontally and vertically, with the option of a one-two with acres of space immediately in front of Italy’s defensive line. This again complimented the fluidity and versatility of Spain’s attack, allowing players to move freely through Italy’s defensive block with an option to pass backwards or square.
Spain were quick to win the ball back by suffocating Italy’s attacking players from their blindside, though with the Italian’s numerical advantage they struggled to outlet the ball to an effective player. In the second half, Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos sat deeper while Saúl Niguez remained in an advanced position. By switching their formation to be more vertically compact, Spain were able to cut Italy’s “supply line” and prohibited any space between their lines. This also allowed them to become much wider in their attack as both Central Midfielders were now occupying the half-space, meaning transitions between zones became much smoother from defence to attack. Spain’s first goal, in fact, came from Dani Ceballos picking the ball up in the half-space and driving in field. A quick change of direction caught Italy off guard and a simple pass to Saúl teed up a wonderful finish from outside the area. While Ceballos’ brilliance undoubtedly created the goal, it was Spain’s movement which created the space necessary for the Central Midfielder to drive into. Marco Asensio pushed wide, carrying a defender with him and leaving Ceballos in a one-on-one matchup. Sandro Ramirez vacated the central area for the onrushing Saúl to exploit with defenders rushing back to cover their teammates’ positioning.
Italy changed too little, too late as Spain upped the tempo
After Gagliardini’s red, Italy opted for a zonal marking scheme and respected Spain’s position-based attack. They were quick into the tackle and closed Spain down within their respective zones before any real threat could evolve. Again, their main attacking threat came from Petagna’s ability to hold-up the ball and bring his teammates into play. His movement for Bernardeschi’s goal allowed his teammate just enough space to sneak a shot away which luckily deflected into the back of Kepa’s goal.
Spain’s increased tempo proved too much for the Italians in the second half as they lost stamina and motivation thanks to a thunderous strike from Saúl Niguez which put Spain 2-1 up. Their closing down suffered and Spain exploited their numerical advantage to great effect, utilising their extra man in the centre of the pitch to dictate the direction of their play. Their ruthlessness shone through as they attacked Italy in waves. Not content with just a one-goal lead, the Spaniards pushed further forward, committing more men to their vertical rotations and were finally rewarded with Saúl’s third and final goal after a clever run from Marco Asensio between the Full Back and Centre Back.
Italy executed their strategy well; Spain simply capitalised on the smallest of mistakes. Had Italy scored an early goal before Spain settled into the game, they may well have made it through to the final. Spain’s individual brilliance shone through however, and the experience of Asensio, Niguez and Ceballos proved too much for Italy over ninety minutes. Spain’s U21 side is simply a cut above the rest, as their fruitful youth setup continues to produce superstars at an incredible rate. Italy gave everything they had, it just wasn’t enough.