Playing attacking football doesn’t always win you games. That phrase perfectly describes the situation of the Azzurrini in the European Under-21 Championship, as Luigi Di Biagio’s men demonstrated aggressive and at times even some mesmerizing football during their three games, but yet somehow are still on the verge of elimination.
That looked quite unlikely after Italy’s impressive 3-1 victory against Spain in the opening game, but the 1-0 defeat to Poland, as well as La Rojita’s two wins in the remaining games, mean that the Azzurrini now rely on other results to go their way.
While seeing Di Biagio’s team in the semi-finals is still possible, it seems highly unlikely, as there are only a few scenarios that would allow Italy to finish as the best second-placed team in the group stage.
Here it’s worth saying that the current format of the U21 Euros is far from perfect, as allowing only the group winners to progress seems a bit harsh and arguably doesn’t give the teams enough time to find their rhythm. However, regardless of the imperfection of the tournament, Italy cannot look for excuses, as the Azzurrini can only blame themselves for their current situation.
In fact, the defeat against Poland can serve as a lesson not only to the U21 team, but also to Roberto Mancini’s senior side and Serie A as a whole, as it shows that playing too attacking all the time doesn’t always work. It’s the first time since 2007 that Italy have failed to keep a clean sheet in the group phase.
That doesn’t mean we should boycott the rapid change of the game in recent years and go back to the catenaccio days - not at all. It just means that the Italian teams should show more flexibility and be very careful when adapting to the changes of the game.
Despite having 65% possession against Poland and playing the majority of the game in the opposition half, Di Biagio’s men were way too predictable up front and left themselves exposed.
Italy finished the game with 31 shots, compared to just eight for the Polish team, and yet still lost after a ricochet and a rebound from a freekick, which came after one of the many rash Nicolò Barella challenges throughout the tournament. The freekick came after the Poles managed to steal the ball from midfield and move it quickly into an advanced position for arguably the first time in the game.
Although the ricochet and the finish itself were rather lucky for Poland, we saw Italy conceding in a similar manner against Belgium. A stolen ball in the middle of the park, quick counter-attack and a screamer in Alex Meret’s top corner.
This shows that the Azzurrini are clearly vulnerable on the break when playing this brand of football and need to work on their transition from attack to defence. However, the high number of players that Italy puts in the opposition half makes the defending in those situations extremely challenging.
Italy registered 51 crosses against Poland, which averages under two minutes between balls flying into the box. At first glance this seems logical when Patrick Cutrone is leading the line, but it also means that you cannot afford all to have your midfielders to be in the opposition half all the time.
There’s little doubt that Italy’s best game was their opening one against Spain. However, if we look only at the stats, it actually seems like their worst one. While the Azzurrini registered 31 shots against Poland and 24 against Belgium, they managed only 12 against Spain. Di Biagio’s side also had less possession (42%), a lower pass success rate (83% to 86%), and fewer completed dribbles (8 to 16) compared to the Spaniards.
However, what they did have was variety and balance to their game. Against Spain, Italy weren’t attacking recklessly and were also comfortable at soaking in pressure, which forced the Spaniards to leave their backline exposed. That’s why the Azzurrini looked like the more dangerous team for most of the game and deservedly won.
Maybe we need to look a bit deeper into the words of the Spain captain Jesus Vallejo after the game, as he complained that Italy were playing “too dirty”. Well, as it turns out Italy’s “dirtiest” game also proved to be their best in the tournament so far.
With plenty being said in recent years about the need of a change and a more attacking approach, this change should not come at the expense of balance and flexibility. Roberto Mancini has so far done a terrific job with the senior side, but the Azzurrini’s struggles show that both the National team and the Serie A sides should be very careful when adapting to the latest trends in the game.