Sunday evening’s quarter-final in Kiev between England and Italy will see something of a role reversal whereby England will employ a rather ‘Italian approach’ against a more attack-minded Azzurri.
Roy Hodgson’s England have built upon the counter-attacking philosophy that divided opinion so much during Fabio Capello’s reign, while Italy, under Cesare Prandelli, will look to take the initiative and control proceedings through possession.
Team News & Line-ups
England will again line up in a 4-4-2-cum-4-4-1-1 with the personnel likely to be unchanged from those who beat Ukraine to top the group and set up this tie.
Much of the debate in England has centred around the right midfield role and whether Hodgson will use Theo Walcott to pin back the lively left full-back Federico Balzaretti, or whether he will again opt for caution and deploy James Milner to assuage the advances of the Palermo left-back. The latter seems most likely.
Danny Welbeck is expected to spearhead England’s attack with Wayne Rooney supporting him. However, Hodgson would be wise to use Andy Carroll at some stage for his aerial ability especially given the loss of Giorgio Chiellini whose commanding aerial presence will be sorely missed amongst the Italian back line.
The Azzurri used both a 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2 in the Group Stage but are expected to keep faith with the 4-man defence which helped them qualify in their final group game against Ireland.
Leonardo Bonucci will come in alongside Andrea Barzagli at the heart of the defence, whilst Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti will be expected to provide much-needed width from the full-back positions.
In midfield, Claudio Marchisio and Daniele De Rossi will protect the majestic Andrea Pirlo who will compose Italy’s play. Interestingly though, Juventus dynamo Marchisio will be switched from his usual left-central midfield role to the right so that the rugged Daniele De Rossi can directly combat the physicality of his idol Steven Gerrard in what will be a thrilling midfield duel.
Elsewhere, Riccardo Montolivo is expected to replace the unfit Thiago Motta in the trequartista role. But, other than in the 2-1 friendly win over Spain last year, the Fiorentina man has largely dissapointed for La Nazionale. So, Prandelli may decide to deploy the tougher, grittier Antonio Nocerino who actually ended up as AC Milan’s second-highest goalscorer in Serie A last season with 10 goals.
In attack, the more physically imposing Mario Balotelli will be chosen ahead of Antonio Di Natale to partner Antonio Cassano. Cesare Prandelli’s thinking may be that with an England side sitting deep, narrow and compact, Di Natale’s positioning and off-the-shoulder runs are likely to be largely ineffective.
Midfield Battle: 3 v 2, 3 v 3 or 4 v 3?
Italy will boast numerical superiority in the centre of midfield with a 3 v 2 situation for the most part so should dominate possession for large passages of the game, but may struggle when trying to open up England. Riccardo Montolivo may even be forced deeper to collect the ball if he is unable to find space in between England’s two banks of four, so there could be a 4 v 2 or 4 v 3 duel at times.
With Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard lining up against Marchisio and De Rossi in midfield, Wayne Rooney will be expected to drop deep to try to nullify Italy’s otherwise free man Andrea Pirlo. England cannot afford to allow Pirlo time on the ball to dictate the play and dropping Rooney in and around the deep-lying playmaker would make the midfield battle a 3 v 3.
Danny Welbeck, rather than pressing the Italian defence high up, is also likely to focus on blocking the route to the midfield in a bid to force the Italians to either play out through their full-backs or go long towards Balotelli and Cassano down the channels.
Much of this game will hinge on the ability of not only Pirlo to find freedom and influence the game, but also Gerrard, who could find himself in a constant struggle with Daniele De Rossi.
Unlocking the English Defence
With England sitting deep in the defensive phase, Italy are likely to have the majority of the ball in front of their opponents rather than being particularly penetrative. The problem for Italy during this game will be a common one: converting possession into goals.
Despite having an average of 60.5% possession from the two games against Croatia and Ireland, Italy failed to score a single goal from open play.
In fact, both England and Italy are similar in the sense that they have had the majority of their joy from set-pieces at Euro 2012: both teams have scored 3 via this method. It is say to say, then, that these situations could have a huge influence on the final result come Sunday night.
The good news for England is that Italy, on average, commit more fouls per game than any other team at the tournament (19 fouls pg). The Three Lions, by contrast, have made only 11 fouls per game on average.
Aside from set-pieces, much of the pre-match talk has revolved around exactly how Italy will score their goals in this match. Arguably, the Azzurri’s best chance of scoring will either be from moments of individual brilliance, or long shots.
Italy have taken 54% of their shots on goal in this tournament from outside the box and certainly have some very adept distance shooters in Cassano, Balotelli, De Rossi, Pirlo and Montolivo.
Alternatively, when Balotelli and Cassano drift out wide to work the channels, they will create space for the likes of Marchisio (and Nocerino if he is given the chance) to break from midfield and cause England problems, but it is hard to see Italy scoring many goals in this encounter.
English Right Flank, Italian Left and the Switching of Play
England will have a numerical advantage on the flanks and will need to make the most of 2 v 1 situations by breaking at pace on the counter-attack to expose Italy’s unprotected full-backs.
Statistics show that 41% of England’s attacks come down the right-hand side as opposed to the centre or left; and with an ever so slight majority of Italian attacks coming down the left (32%), one can expect this flank to be the busier of the two.
With Balzaretti pushing on to provide width on the left, there should be space in behind him and with the game naturally becoming more stretched in the second half, Theo Walcott will surely make an appearance. But before that, James Milner will want to confound his critics by offering more of an attacking threat down his flank.
Balzaretti and Abate are both competent going forward but less so going the other way, so Milner and Young will be tasked with exposing their flaws on Sunday night.
The Azzurri will have to be very wary of England making quick transitions from wing to wing when attacking in order to not be exposed too easily. Italy’s narrow midfield will be forced to shuttle across to mark the space (above) depending on which flank England are attacking. Therefore, switching the ball to the opposite flank quickly could enable the Three Lions to expose the vacated space and run at the Italian defence with plenty of room – possibly with a numerical advantage too.
Second-half Danger for Italy
England have scored 3 of their 5 goals in the second half of games whilst the Italians have notably dropped off in this period – conceding both their goals mid-way through the second 45.
Despite La Gazzetta Dello Sport presenting the facts that Italy have, on average, covered more ground per game this tournament than England (109.3km to 105.3km) perhaps to calm fears surrounding team fitness, the issue will still be a worry for the Italians. After all, even the most untrained of eyes will have noticed the way the team’s performances have slacked and cost them results in the Group Stage.
What is more, Antonio Cassano has been unable to complete 90 minutes so far at this tournament after his mini-stroke in October 2011 kept him out of action until late April, and Andrea Pirlo is another who, at 33, may struggle with the physical demands of this match in the late stages. So, any bets pertaining to some form of English second-half or extra-time triumph may be wise.
This game is unlikely to be a thrilling roller-coaster of a match. It will certainly not be played in a harum-scarum manner. It will be tight, organised and played at a slow tempo for long periods, but will be a fascinating tactical battle nonetheless and could well spark into life with spells of back-to-back counter attacking.
All in all, it is near impossible to call a winner here and the bookmakers’ odds reflect this. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that whoever prevails, Jogi Low’s frighteningly sharp Germany side await them in Warsaw.