Belgium had no answers for Italy’s impressive defensive display in their opening match of Euro 2016.
Marc Wilmots surprise inclusion saw Marouane Fellaini start in a no.10 role behind Romelu Lukaku, which pushed Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne into wide positions. Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan formed a midfield duo, while Wilmots opted to play Jan Vertonghen at left-back.
Without Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, Antonio Conte turned to Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo in midfield. Eder and Graziano Pelle formed a strike partnership, whereas Mateo Darmian and Antonio Candreva were fielded as wing-backs.
This was as good a defensive performance as you will see in this tournament, as Italy’s collective defending stifled the Belgium’s explosive individual attackers.
It was well known that Italy’s strengths lied within their all-Juventus centre-back trio and goalkeeper, but whether Conte would adopt an alternative defensive approach remained a mystery. Ultimately, Italy constantly interchanged between their base 5-3-2 and two banks of four when Belgium pushed forward.
Giaccherini and Parolo would shift to the flank to close down the full-backs, with the available Italian midfielders remaining compact and shifting centrally in unison. But when the shuttlers were unable to close down the Belgian full-backs, the available Italian wing-back would step forward and effectively see Conte’s side transition into a 4-4-2.
This was a highly successful approach considering Belgium lack natural full-backs, and it equally contained their star wide players. But more importantly, Conte’s men were disciplined, maintained structure in central areas, and their constant lateral movement as a unit ensured the Belgians encountered difficulty locating space in the opposition’s half of the field.
While Italy’s defensive shape deserves credit, Wilmots and his players are equally culpable for their downfall. It must be said that they lacked a creative ball passer in deeper zones to help bypass the Italians’ defensive shape, but overall their play was based on individualism opposed to collective effort.
Despite dominating possession for large portions of the opening half, Wilmots’ men had two Nainggolan shots from outside of the box represent Belgium’s threat from open play. Romelu Lukaku was often outnumbered upfront – his linkup play was poor – De Bruyne’s passing in the final third was sloppy, Hazard was unable to play nifty intricate passes with his teammates to break forward, and apart from pressing De Rossi, Fellaini’s inclusion as a no.10 still remains peculiar.
Laurent Ciman often over hit crosses into the box with sometimes Fellaini, or solely Lukaku in the box, but it’s difficult to assess whether that was Wilmot’s preferred approach or an element of attack Belgium was forced to adopt due to Italy’s defence. More so, it’s evident Italy’s ability to clog spaces in central areas, and the lack of a genuine passer in Belgium’s combative midfield proved beneficial to Conte’s men.
Italy going forward
Conte’s Italy were always expected to be competent defensively, but their method of attack appeared intriguing prior to kickoff. In ways, it was fairly similar to how Conte’s Juventus side operated in the final third during the Italian’s first season at the club.
While third man running from midfield was hardly noticeable, the Azzurri were unsurprisingly focused on combinations amongst teammates across the pitch. The Italians remained compact centrally, but the most key aspect involved the wing-backs positioning themselves as wide forwards – Italy practically transitioned between a 3-1-4-2 and a 3-3-4 in certain offensive phases.
However, the productivity from both flanks were fairly contrasting. Darmian was always an open outlet for cross-field diagonal balls, but when he combined with Giaccherini the latter’s crosses were underwhelming. Candreva, on the other hand, was arguably Italy’s main attacking threat with his crossing from the right flank.
Eder and Pelle struggled in this respect, but the latter squandered two decent chances around the box when he drifted into dangerous positions. Conte’s focus on playing through partnerships was logical, but the lack of quality throughout the side certainly hindered Italy’s efficiency in the final third.
Giaccherini’s opener came at a time when neither side showcased distinct superiority, and with Italy’s midfield lacking creativity, Bonucci’s passing range was a reminder of the centre-backs significance in both phases of the game. Without Marchisio and Verratti, Italy’s midfield trio is very functional, and Bonucci’s exceptional passing range ensures Conte’s men has the option of bypassing the opposition from deep.
But the winner equally highlighted Bonucci’s brilliance and poor defending from the Belgian back-line. With no Belgian player eager to close down Bonucci, the Italian simply lofted his pass over Toby Alderweireld for Giaccherini, who calmly controlled the delivery on his first touch, and subsequently placed his shot past Thibaut Courtois.
At the time, an Italy opener appeared unlikely, as they struggled to retain possession in Belgium’s half, whilst failing to pose a threat on the counter-attack. It was undoubtedly a moment of genius from both Italian players, but it also exploited the Belgian defence that may have been better persisting with Spurs duo Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld as a centre-back pair.
Open second half
Oddly, the final 45 minutes saw the game open up despite the Italians having no incentive to push their wing-backs so high up the pitch. Belgium should have equalized via a sensational counter-attack involving Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku from the right, whereas the former tested Buffon from distance after turning Darmian at the edge of the box – Conte immediately swapped the fatigued left wing-back for Mattia De Sciglio.
Conte’s persistence with his first half approach was possibly down to Hazard and De Bruyne’s poor display, but with Belgium retreating into their base shape following half-time, Wilmots’ men located a plausible route to goal via swift counter-attacks. Four Italian players were booked in the second half to halt prevent the Belgians from scoring in transition, which raises the belief that Conte was better off continuing with his initial reactive approach.
In search of an equalizer, Wilmots’ attempt to rescue the match witnessed Dries Mertens replaces Nainggolan, as Belgium transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1. The meant De Bruyne and Hazard interchanged positions behind Lukaku, while Fellaini now played alongside Witsel in midfield.
Although Hazard and De Bruyne slightly improved following the change – the former’s dribbling and combinations improved, while De Bruyne’s crossing created two legitimate chances for Divock Origi and Fellaini – the Belgians still struggled to get behind a sturdy Italian back-line. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco was introduced as an auxiliary right-back and Origi’s pace also offered a glimmer of hope, but neither substitute was capable of shifting the match. Fellaini played within close proximity of Origi in the latter stages, and though they created two solid chances from this route attack, Belgium appeared solely dependant on crosses into the box.
Despite two botched opportunities from the Belgians in the box, Vertonghen and Carrasco’s willingness to join the attack presented space in the channels for Italy to exploit on the counter. In contrast, substitute Ciro Immobile was involved in two counter attacks that forced Thibaut Courtois to make a stellar save, while his appreciation of space was pivotal to Pelle’s injury time goal.
This was a remarkable defensive display from an Italian side that displayed discipline, organization, and natural cohesion as Conte out-coached Wilmots throughout.
Following his anticipated move to Chelsea at the conclusion of the tournament, Conte was always expected to be heavily critiqued based on Italy’s results and performances. The decision to encourage the wing-backs forward forced Belgium’s star wide players to defend in their half, as the only question regarding Conte’s Italy was the productivity in the final third.
Nonetheless, the issues halting Belgium from joining the elite were on display, here: poor team selection, a system that mainly relies on individual talent, and the lack of natural fullbacks were all responsible for the aforementioned underwhelming performance. Unlike other teams in the tournament, Wilmots’ reluctance to maximize his star players’ talent was bizarre, and that must be his main goal for the remainder of the tournament.
In what will be remembered as a dream start for a group of men widely dismissed by many, this shouldn’t overshadow the notion that Belgium was the ideal opponent for this Italian side. The defensive display was likely to fluster Belgium’s individualism, but they were still culpable of conceding great opportunities – and heavily exposed on the counter – that better sides would convert.
More so, the real test for Italy rests in their final two games, where their functional midfield and uninspiring forwards will be forced to outwit a Swedish and Irish side that will sit deeper, and aim to compress space around their box. Conte undoubtedly possesses the best defence in the competition, buy the productivity from the front six will define Italy’s success at this tournament.