Man for man, on paper, or in a hypothetical thought experiment, Italy's players had no business beating Spain. Football, unfortunately for Del Bosque and his once-golden generation, is played on the pitch, and tactics are an abstract, Play-Doh like thing, moulded as much by the manager’s grand plan as by the personnel fitting into it. The biggest temptation - and what can be bigger than addressing the problem of plenty with a generation of galacticos - is to not mistake the pre-match chalkboard and its umpteen delectable possibilities for the real thing. To that extent, Antonio Conte’s regimented approach, with a role defined for every player down to the last pass, ensured yet another crucial test was passed with flying colours.
This Spain side have come a cropper against 3-5-2 before - their defeats to Chile and the Netherlands last World Cup come to mind, and Conte’s embellishments, including a third forward high up the pitch only left them knackered from the very beginning. Both sides built attacks from the back, and Italy’s relentless pressing was evident in David de Gea being able to get just 53% of his passes accurately to the first defender. Elsewhere, across the length of the pitch, this approach was in full view, with two Italian men always at a Spanish player in midfield, not allowing passes to flow, benefiting from the formation’s core purpose - an extra man in midfield with wing backs countering the opposition full backs.
At the end of the first half, Spain could thread together only 209 passes, their lowest by a distance so far, and it took them up to the hour mark to beat their lowest first-half tally for this tournament. It was a telling statement, and predictably, they are half the side without hogging possession and not having a free flow of short passing.
A number of players in Italy’s starting XI were written off before the tournament, and irrespective of what this side goes on to do, this was a statement of vindication for Conte’s selection policies. Eder, so often scorned for his lack of goals over the past six months, so easily beat his defensive markers at will and sprinted down the right, getting into one on one situations with David de Gea. He deserved a goal for his efforts, but considering how this squad is, it was fitting that his powerful free-kick in the 33rd minute rebounded off De Gea for Georgio Chiellini’s goal to put them 1-0 up. Everyone contributes, though not in the openly obvious form that we’ve come to know from sides full of superstars.
If Italy's players found decision making simple and obvious considering Conte’s intense tactical drilling, watching Spain was to look at claustrophobia in motion, players running into cul-de-sacs they had no clue existed. There was the occasional cynical foul from the Italians - Thiago Motta was cautioned and will miss the quarter-final against Germany - but these were minor blemishes in what was a flawless performance otherwise. By the time Graziano Pelle slotted in a facsimile of his goal against Belgium past a sorry David de Gea in stoppage time, Conte could be seen climbing the dugout in ecstasy, and it was a tie that should have been put to bed a long time ago. Spain created a few opportunities, causing minor jitters, but the Italian defence and Buffon were always at hand to deal with any attack.
It was a triumph for discipline, limitation and muscle memory, as a group that has only known this style of play, a unique formation in an era of 4 at the back, synchronized perfectly to deliver a performance that effectively conquered this Spanish era’s last remaining outpost - the European Championship. There would be no hat-trick for the likes of Iniesta, Ramos, Silva and the rest of this generation, and unlike the slow burn of the 2014 World Cup league phase, this was an abrupt end brought about by a side they demolished 4-0 at the final of the last edition. Just like then, there was no contest this time too.
Updated Date: Jun 28, 2016 15:48:46 IST