Italy’s Euro 2020 qualifying campaign kicked off with an expected win over Finland. However, despite this being their third consecutive victory and fourth straight clean sheet, Roberto Mancini is still showing only glimpses of his Azzurri vision.
The game’s opening stages played out in familiar fashion, only an early Nicolò Barella goal providing a break from the norm. Finland set up in a 5-3-2 low block in an attempt to stifle and frustrate their hosts. Italy looked to counter this with an expansive set-up in possession, with Mancini asking his team to occupy as much of the pitch as possible.
With the ball, Italy’s shape resembled a 3-2-4-1. During the first 45 minutes, Giorgio Chiellini sat centrally with support from Leonardo Bonucci to his right and left-back Cristiano Biraghi in a slightly withdrawn role. In front of the back line were midfield controllers Jorginho and Marco Verratti who, as expected, were a key factor in the team’s build-up as they probed away at the Finnish block.
Federico Bernardeschi and Barella were tasked with overloading central spaces in the final third. This was done in an attempt to offer vertical passes in-between the opposition lines, with the aim to disrupt Finland’s defensive structure. However, due to Italy cycling play too slowly, they never got the ball into these areas with regularity, allowing the Nordics to shuffle over and keep spaces locked up.
The Italians struggling to develop the ball through the pitch has become something of a trend over the last couple of years.
The exciting Moise Kean provided width on the left and looked menacing when he was isolated against defenders. On the occasions Kean drifted inside, he opened up space for Biraghi to venture forward, while on the opposite side Cristiano Piccini was a constant outlet with his high and wide positioning. Ciro Immobile again found life difficult, a striker that relies on the team to play for him is out of his depth in a system that requires him to play as more than a Number 9.
Without the ball, Italy looked to press Finland when play was deep in their half, but did so with little success. This is credit to the visitors, who were patient in possession and often found passes into their front players which then forced Italy to drop off. Markku Kanerva’s side recovered well from an early set-back, asking questions of Italy and ending the half very much in the game.
The second half saw Mancini make a change with Kean moving to the right and Bernardeschi shifting to the left. This swap meant Piccini was now playing slightly deeper, with Biraghi adopting a much higher start position on his side. The pattern of the match did not really alter that much, but Italy’s play did improve. The intensity lifted slightly, play was sharper and despite Finland carving out a fantastic opportunity to score, the Azzurri looked more fluid with Verratti taking a more commanding role in the game.
The crowd at the Stadio Friuli would have certainly been left impressed by 19-year-old Kean. Grabbing the decisive goal was reward for his promising display and vindication for Mancini’s selection. A clever run from outside saw the Juventus striker slipped in by Immobile and he dispatched confidently to top off a dream competitive debut.
Overall the positive upturn for the Nazionale continues, three points were fundamental and progressive steps – if small – are continuing. Creating chances and scoring goals are a well-documented problem, something witnessed again in this encounter. Italy scored more than once for just the second time in their last 17 outings. The boss is showing signs of bravery; he is providing talented youngsters the opportunity, but he must take this a step further.
The approach against Finland puts heavy emphasis on the full-backs to provide an extra layer to the attack and while both Biraghi and Piccini are reliable players, they lack variety going forward. Introducing the likes of Leonardo Spinazzola will undoubtedly help, while deploying Kean through the middle and flanking him with Bernardeschi, Nicolò Zaniolo or Matteo Politano will certainly supply Italy with a dynamic attack that can hurt the opposition in a number of ways.
Mancini has said he wants Italy to entertain, so he must add these additional dynamic elements to the XI. The team looks one-dimensional at times, players that can change the pace are needed in more areas. This is part of the reason why players like Kean and the unavailable Federico Chiesa have been welcomed with such positivity. Explosive players with technical quality that can change the game in a moment.
Opportunities to continue the improvement are coming around quickly, as this qualification process is packed into a tight schedule. Tuesday’s game against Liechtenstein is the perfect chance for Mancini to really let this team loose and play those can be that source of entertainment.