Italy were thrashed 3-0 by Spain, as CT Giampiero Ventura’s decision to use a 4-2-4 formation in the Bernabeu backfired.
Isco opened the scoring with a free-kick early on, and the Azzurri quite simply couldn’t get back into the game.
Words: Lee Scott (@FMAnalysis)
This international break is always one of the most derided in the football community, the new season is just a matter of weeks old and then everything comes to a halt for a round of qualifying matches.
This time around however we were at least treated to the spectacle of Spain versus Italy at the Santiago Bernabeau. The reverse fixture earlier in the qualification process had ended in a 1-1 draw, with the Napoli wide player Lorenzo Insigne scoring the goal for the Azzurri. This time around a win for either side would put the victors in an extremely strong position as they look to gain automatic qualification for the World Cup next year in Russia.
Before the match there was speculation that the Italian CT Giampiero Ventura would choose to start the match with a three at the back system in order to flood the midfield with five players in an attempt to constrict the space available to the Spanish. In the end however Italy lined up in a 4-2-4 system, a move that would eventually cost them the match.
Spain also sprung a surprise when they lined up without a recognised striker with a rotation of attacking midfielders moving in to the false-nine position.
Spain: De Gea; Carvajal, Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba; Busquets, Iniesta; Koke, Silva, Asensio, Isco
There were some selection surprises for Italy as well, particularly in the full back positions. Indeed the Italian system, whilst 4-2-4, was in effect extremely biased to the right hand side when attacking.
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Barzagli, Bonucci, Spinazzola; De Rossi, Verratti; Candreva, Insigne, Belotti, Immobile
Italy struggle to deal with movement in the final third
With Spain using a fluid false-nine system throughout the match we saw the Italian defence struggle to deal with the interchanging of positions from the Spanish midfield.
The match saw Leonardo Bonucci reunited with former Juventus teammate Andrea Barzagli but the two found it hard without an opposing striker up against them. In most cases for a central defensive partnership the striker of the opposition offers something of a reference that dictates their own positioning and the depth of the defensive line.
Against a false-nine however that reference is taking away and the two central defenders are left having to choose whether to follow the opponent as he drops in to deeper areas or maintain a back line and leave that player to play in space.
Here we see a case in point. As David Silva drops from the traditional striker slot back in to space between the Italian defence and midfield Andrea Barzagli is forced to make a difficult choice. In this instance he chooses to move with the forward player and engage with the ball as Silva receives the pass.
The problem that this presents Italy is clear, that movement has dragged the central defender out of position and opened up a large space in the defensive structure of the Italians. This space can be easily exploited by the Spanish side if Silva is either able to turn Barzagli and move in on goal, or lay the ball back before spinning and moving in to the empty space.
Whilst Isco was the star of the match for the Spanish side, the performances of the likes of Asensio, Silva, Iniesta and Koke should not be overlooked. The plethora of attack-minded midfield talent fielded by Spain in this match simply overwhelmed the Azzurri.
In this image I havve highlighted the passive nature of the Italian defensive line in relation to the space enjoyed by the Spanish attacking midfielders. Time and time again we saw little movements and passes in the final third by Spain that overwhelmed the midfield block from the Italian side.
As the ball is fed here in to the feet of Asensio he immediately has one player in space between the Italian lines and another in space in the wide areas. There were always options for the Spanish to progress the ball and threaten in behind or between the Italian defensive structure.
Italy fail to take advantage of space on the left
Having previously stated that his team would be selected based on form, Ventura decided to start the Atalanta left back Leonardo Spinazzola, despite the full-back having not played for his club side this season.
With the excellent Napoli wide man Lorenzo insigne playing ahead of Spinazzola, however, there was still an expectation that the left side would be dangerous from the Italians.
Instead a theme developed in which the left side of the field was almost entirely overlooked in the attacking phase. This could in part be explained by the tendency of Insigne to move in to central areas, as he does so well for Napoli, and vacate the wide area. Still though there were several occasions throughout the match in which opportunities to play down the left were ignored in the build up phase.
Here we see De Rossi in possession for the Italians at the half way line. Throughout the match Spain were excellent in dropping in to a medium block in order to prevent the Italian midfield from playing forward and linking with the forward players.
With the Spanish defensive block pulled over to the Italian right however, there is an opportunity for De Rossi to play the ball out in to the left hand area to Spinazzola. This pass would unbalance the Spanish defensive structure and allow Italy to penetrate in behind while using the wide areas.
Instead the ball is played out to Barzagli on the right hand side and the opportunity is lost.
A similar story in this example. This time the ball is in the possession of Andrea Barzagli at the back and once more the Spanish defensive structure is positioned over to the Italian right hand side.
The central defender does not have a clear passing lane in to an advanced area due to the spacing of the Spanish players and he does the sensible thing in switching the ball across to Bonucci on the left. However instead of opening up his body and playing in to the space occupied by Spinazzola on the left we see Bonucci immediately bounce the pass back to Barzagli, the move progresses with a hopeful long pass down the right hand side.
This pass map, produced by @11tegen11 using Opta data, clearly shows the preference from the Azzurri to building down the right hand side, and the lack of quality passes that Spinazzola and Insigne were given down the left.
Midfield platform could not advance the ball
The 4-2-4 system from Ventura is actually an incredibly interesting system, when they are able to progress the ball from back to front. In this match though there seemed to be an unwillingness from the midfield platform to actually play forwards.
The idea behind the structure is that in possession the two wide forwards move infield in to the half spaces and leave the wide lanes open for the fullbacks to advance, the fullback on the strong side [nearest the ball] should move up and support the attacking line whilst the fullback on the weak side [furthest from the ball] should move up to the midfield line to provide balance.
The ball is then progressed through the two central midfielders who offer a platform for the attack to build from.
In this match however neither Marco Verratti nor Daniele De Rossi seemed willing either to pass vertically or even to carry the ball forwards through the line of midfield pressure from the Spanish. This passive approach in the attacking phase led to the Spanish being able to form a strong and effective defensive structure that forced the Italians to play more direct passes.
Here the ball is with Daniele De Rossi as the attacking phase begins for Italy. I have highlighted the front four as well as the full backs as they begin to make their structured movements as imposed by Ventura.
The issue is that the Spanish, with their false-nine system, had five and sometimes six players able to drop in to form the midfield block of their defensive structure.
This essentially cut the midfielders off from the two central attackers as the Spanish are tactically strong in their spacing and positioning and do not allow easy passing lanes to open up.
This led to periods of possession from the Italians with the ball circulated centrally from the midfielders to the central defenders and back again, this in turn led to poor progression from the Italian side.
It has to be acknowledged that the Spanish in this match were excellent, both in possession and out of possession, and they offered a very different challenge from the reverse fixture earlier in qualification.
This result is also unlikely to lead to Ventura abandoning the 4-2-4 structure although more balance in the progression of the ball will be needed against stronger sides. The midfield platform is a concern although this was one of Verratti’s worst matches for the Azzuri and he is unlikely to play as poorly again going forwards.
The next match, against Israel, now takes on more significance as the Italians will want to reassert their momentum heading in to the final qualification rounds.