Spain legend Xavi provided an in-depth tactical analysis of Italy-Spain and why the 3-5-2 is so hard to beat.
The midfielder had the privilege of playing against Italy back when the team was coached by Roberto Donadoni and later by Cesare Prandelli, well before the reign of Antonio Conte.
“I think there was a decisive evolution in the passage from Donadoni to Prandelli, then Conte continued the job,” Xavi told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “With Prandelli we started seeing a more talented Italy, more technical.
“The Italy of 2008 was closer to your classical model, closed defence and counter-attack. Now you know how to keep the ball too, while you used not to care about that or even to not be able to.
“Now you're very much able. But we must watch it, because possession is not Italy's main objective. For you it's all the same whether you do or do not have control of the ball, but if you do decide to play, you have the elements to do that.
“Taking away the ball from [Daniele] De Rossi, [Thiago] Motta, [Marco] Parolo or [Manuele] Giaccherini is no mean feat. And we must bear in mind that you're missing two fundamental players like [Marco] Verratti and [Claudio] Marchisio.
“I think that modern Italy, in terms of football, started with Prandelli.
“Conte just applied Juventus' philosophy. The team is comfortable with and without the ball, defending deep or playing the match according to their opponents.
“I see Italy's Conte as a hybrid between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. And then there's your historical DNA, you know how to run and how to fight.
“If you were to replace these 11 players with another 11, then maybe you'd lose talent but you'd keep the same level of effort. I also see you as highly patriotic, with a great passion applied to football. You'll always be dangerous, always.”
Xavi seems adamant that Italy's tactical system is going to give Spain some serious headaches.
“Your 3-5-2 is the most complex system for an opponent that wants to press high up. When Italy want to bring the ball up, they have three at the back and two on the wings, for a total of five potential receivers of the ball. Pressing the way that Spain like to do becomes really difficult.
“And playing with two strikers makes things difficult for us up-front, too, because both of our central defenders are engaged and one of the full-backs, Juanfran or Jordi Alba, has to push up to close on [Antonio] Candreva or [Alessandro] Florenzi. It leaves us with a three-man defence.
“It forces us to change our system to adapt to the opponent, which just makes it all more complicated. At the World Cup, Brazil, Holland and Chile all opted for the 3-5-2 and caused us tremendous difficulty."
Even so, Xavi did not rule out La Roja's chances of progressing.
“Right now Spain are the team that plays best in these Euros. That's helpful, but of course it's no guarantee of victory. And the defensive work is excellent, starting from the strikers who do a great job at pressing.
“The opponents don't see much of the ball and so can't create many chances against you. We can defend very well with the ball, because the ball is only one: if you have it, then your opponents can't be dangerous.
“The secret is teamwork, the solidarity between departments, especially when the ball is lost.
“Working all 11 together. If one isn't taking part, then that's where the problems begin, and they're serious.
“Also, there are two men who are fundamental, the key to the national team's success, and I'm not saying this because they're my friends. I mean [Sergio] Busquets and [Andres] Iniesta.
“The former for the balance he brings to the defensive game and in bringing out the ball, the latter for how he destabilises things in the offence and for his organisation. They're the ones who bear the weight of the team, the two best elements in this team, and by a margin.”