Roberto Mancini’s Italy took a giant step toward qualification for Euro 2020 with a hard-fought victory over Group J rivals Finland.
He chose to make five changes to the team that had beaten Armenia three days prior. Lazio centre-back Francesco Acerbi made his competitive debut for Italy with Armando Izzo, Stefano Sensi, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Ciro Immobile completing a much changed XI.
The match began in frantic fashion with hosts Finland feeding off a lively atmosphere. Markku Kanerva’s team hunted the ball and went on the attack, setting an intense pace in an attempt to catch Italy off guard. Prior to retreating into a defensive block, Finland pressed intently at every opportunity, preventing Italy from settling into their passing rhythm.
Mancini continued to deploy a 4-3-3 that transitions into a shape that resembles a 3-3-4 when in possession. It is a pattern that we have seen regularly during his reign. The Italy boss yet again chose a conservative right-back in the form of Torino man Izzo. Using a player at full-back that is more accustomed to playing centrally is becoming somewhat of a trend against a trickier opponent. This move allows Mancini to maintain maximum width high up the pitch whilst offering the team defensive balance and protection centrally.
Leo Bonucci and Acerbi assisted Izzo in morphing the back four into a three. Federico Chiesa and Alessandro Florenzi provided width, Jorginho sat in the base of the midfield flanked by Nicolò Barella and Sensi. In the final third, Immobile played as a lone striker with Pellegrini drifting inside to support, helping to create positional superiority for Italy and offer an option in-between Finland’s defensive lines.
It took the Azzurri a little over 20 minutes to really get going. Up until that point Finland’s 5-4-1 had looked resolute. Forcing Italy to play in front of them and across the pitch, they blocked up any space to progress the ball vertically. Jorginho was squared off by a narrow midfield four with Barella and Sensi finding space hard to come by, as they stationed themselves ahead of the Chelsea midfield man.
Italy’s midfield were forced to rejig. Their triangle adjusted into a slightly flatter trio and this tweak began to open up the game. The wider positioning of Barella and Sensi forced Finland’s midfield to defend in a flatter line of four. Suddenly, La Nazionale looked more fluid, spaces were opening up and their passes began to find dangerous areas with more frequency. Pressure was building, Pellegrini found himself with more freedom and with the help of Sensi, Italy were now penetrating the Finnish block and getting at their back five.
Captain Bonucci was now operating on the halfway line, his team were dominating territory and the ball. Italy had pressed well and went man-to-man against Finland’s back three. Forcing them into longer diagonal passes towards the side-line that allowed the boys in blue to defend high, get pressure on the traveling ball and force turnovers. By the break, the four-time world champions were in control and despite going close, had been unable to find the breakthrough.
The opening stages of the second period continued in much the same fashion and it wasn’t long before Immobile grabbed his first Italy goal in two years. Chiesa – who had been quiet until that point – finally found himself isolated out wide with space to operate it. A well delivered cross found Immobile’s head and Mancini’s team had a deserved lead.
Finland rarely threatened all evening, but under 15 minutes later found a way back into the game via a penalty. Possession was cheaply conceded by Sensi deep in the Italian half and a rash recovery challenge gave the home team a chance to level the match. In form striker Teemu Pukki took his opportunity from the spot.
Italy have shown defensive weakness in recent games when play has been in transition, an area that the midfield specifically has struggled with, and here again we saw moments where that vulnerability was evident.
Jorginho coolly restored Italy’s advantage through a dubious looking penalty with a little over 10 minutes left on the clock. His teammate Barella was particularly impressive in the second half as his all-action display dominated proceedings. Excellent in possession and under pressure, he showed his full range of qualities, including his energetic and aggressive ball winning skills.
The Azzurri had chances to extend their lead on the counter as Finland went in search of draw, but the Italians never found a third and instead saw out the game, taking home three important points. It has been another successful international break for Mancini and his players continue to show signs of growth. The team now has a pattern of play, there are options and lots of technical quality in midfield with more potential to add to this group, especially in attacking areas. Should the Italian CT choose to utilise the talents at his disposal, he could help Italy find another level.