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Italy 1-1 Germany

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Courtesy of Flickr/Itaru Chiba

Germany advanced to the semi-finals by avenging their Euro 2012 defeat via penalty shootout against Italy.

Joachim Low completely altered his formation and made one change to his starting XI. Bendikt Howedes slotted into a three-man defence, which ultimately forced Julian Draxler to the bench.

Antonio Conte, however, was also forced to replace the injured Daniele De Rossi in midfield. The Italian manager therefore turned to Stefano Sturaro to join Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini in midfield.

Joachim Low was at fault for altering his system when Germany exited the competition four years ago against the Italians, but his decision to also instill a three-man back-line proved successful in a tight affair between two elite national teams.

Low makes bold change

The announcement of Germany’s XI was the main facet of the match considering Low’s bold move four years ago, and the repercussions that followed. Nevertheless, Low decided to stray away from the patented 4-2-3-1 to field a three-man defence.

Ideally, this made sense considering Italy’s success against Spain, who also pride themselves in dominating possession. But more importantly, while the decision to play an identical system risked a dire encounter where both teams cancelled each other out, it ensured Germany wouldn’t be overloaded or left vulnerable in isolation situations against the Italian forwards.

Now, the wing-backs pressed the wing backs, the midfielders combatted in central zones, whereas both sides, on paper at least, would have a numerical advantage at the back.

Italy Press

Low deploying a three-man defence equally helped the Germans cope with Italy’s pressing from the front. Graziano Pelle and Eder took turns pressing Toni Kroos, and occasionally alternated roles in this respect – when one pressed the German, the other cut off passing lanes into the midfielder – but the Italians’ attempt to suffocate the Germans within their third proved unsuccessful unless Giaccherini or Sturaro stepped forward.

Although pressing Kroos negated his ability to dictate the tempo of the match, Germany still possess excellent ball-playing defenders in Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, and while the former was often forced to play the ball towards both flanks, the exterior centre-backs were often spare outlets that received time to play passes into midfield.

Hummels was Germany’s main threat in this respect by clipping passes into Gomez that just missed the striker and a delivery to the far post that substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger nodded past Gigi Buffon only to be penalized for a foul on Mattia De Sciglio. Germany’s possession was patient and over-elaborate, and while Italy’s pressing was partially responsible for the world champions’ pedestrian attack, they didn’t successfully thwart the opposition’s creativity.

Germany without the ball

The Germans, however, adopted a slightly contrasting approach out of possession. Low was wary of Leonardo Bonucci’s passing, and Giorgio Chiellini charging forward so frontmen Mario Gomez, and Thomas Muller quickly closed the defenders down. Gomez, in particular, was pivotal with his positioning as he prevented Bonucci from playing long balls over the defence, whilst negating passing lanes into Marco Parolo.

Italy’s difficulty playing out the back hampered their entire approach. Conte’s men found it difficult to instantly play passes into the strikers, and even spare man Andrea Barzagli was unable to play forward passes with Mesut Ozil occasionally cutting off passing lanes into Sturaro, while Muller’s pressing equally deprived Giaccherini of service in midfield zones.Where Conte would have preferred Hummels didn’t receive ample time and space on the ball, Low didn’t mind Barzagli carrying the ball forward.

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Considering Italy’s midfield is based around brawn opposed to creativity, Germany’s intent to prevent the centre-backs from spreading play to the attackers was quite significant. Where Italy allowed Howedes and Hummels to push forward with the ball, Low encouraged his attackers to limit proactive passing lanes.

Blunt attack

The one issue that often arises when two opponents utilize identical systems is the possibility of a dull game. Therefore, one of the few ways to create openings ultimately comes down to which team can win their battles in certain areas of the pitch.

In truth, neither side was convincing in the opening half when they attempted to bypass the opposition: The Germans dominated possession whereas the Italians retreated into a 5-3-2, with the intent of breaking forward on the counter. Although Conte’s men deserve credit for their defensive discipline, Germany’s patient buildup lacked a link between midfield and attack.

Ozil and Jonas Hector rarely combined, whereas the former struggled to outfox Sturaro in central areas. On the opposite side of the pitch, Schweinsteiger was unable to offer the vertical running and dynamism Khedira showcased in the opening 15 minutes, which appeared to be a plausible route to goal. Apart from Hummel’s lofted passes beyond the Italian defence, Low’s men were underwhelming in the final third.

Meanwhile, the Italian’s decision to sit deeper and break on the counter also proved unsuccessful. When Conte’s men regained possession in deep areas, their sloppy passing was responsible for their inability to bypass Germany’s counter-pressing in midfield. Similar to the Germans, Italy’s best chance of the half was created by their ball-playing centre-back: Giaccherini stormed past Schweinsteiger to latch onto Bonucci’s pass in left half-space, but his pull back pass saw Sturaro’s deflected shot earn a vital corner.

Ozil

Oddly, the least effective attacking player in the first half played a crucial role when moved to the right. Initially, the move witnessed De Sciglio receive space and freedom to run at Kimmich, with Ozil unsure of his defensive duties on the right – Schweinsteiger was positioned slightly deeper in various scenarios in the opening half, whereas Ozil roamed around pockets of space in advanced positions before he was caught out.

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However, Ozil improved as the half continued by varying his movement from the right, and completing nifty passing moves with Muller and Kimmich. When Ozil dropped deeper he was free to play the initial pass to ignite lengthy spells of possession, and his disguised reverse ball to Gomez illustrated his threat in those positions.

Ozil didn’t produce the best performance of his career, but the freedom he received following his move to the right was pivotal. He was more involved in passing triangles, identified space between the lines to receive the ball, and both his passing and movement were crucial to Germany’s best attacking moves.

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Germany’s opener briefly shifted the complexion of the match, but there were so many elements to the buildup that went against Low’s approach. Italy’s attempt to press up the pitch saw the Germans pull Conte’s frontmen out of position before Manuel Neuer cleared his lines. Yet, on one of the few occasions where Gomez drifted laterally to the left flank, Florenzi slipped due to the striker’s attempted challenge.

More so, it was Gomez’s stellar reverse ball into half space for the advanced Hector that saw Ozil direct the left-back’s low cross like a legitimate poacher. It was one of the few times Germany offered a third man running into the box, but Gomez drifting away from pressure to produce a moment of brilliance surprised an Italian defence that appeared comfortable coping with the striker’s threat.

Italy react

Gomez’s squandered chance subsequent to Ozil’s opener enabled Conte to adjust his initial approach. Italy suddenly transitioned to a 3-4-3 with Giaccherini pushing forward to press Howedes, whilst the defence maintained an extremely high line.

Julian Draxler’s inclusion for the departed Gomez suggested Germany now offered a threat behind the defence, but Italy’s pressure pegged Low’s men deeper into their box, as their ball playing midfielders were unable to supply the attackers. Perhaps the buildup to Boateng’s mistake didn’t correlate with Italy’s sudden improvement, but the minor alteration resulted in one goal opportunity – De Sciglio’s pull back that Pelle snatched wide – and a brief spell of dominance from Conte’s men.

Conte, though, was aware of the risk his side took by attempting to regain possession in Germany’s third, and quickly instructed his side to revert back to a 3-5-2 following Bonucci’s equalizer. With that being said, the remaining 40 minutes of the match was drab – Germany continued to dominate possession without finding many openings, and though Italy received more opportunities to break as legs tired, it was an over hit Draxler pass in a 3v2 counter-attack that served as the closest chance either side came to winning the match.

The recurring theme of uneventful extra-time periods at this tournament continued, here, and though Germany finally defeated Italy at a major tournament, the overall match offered very little tactical talking points.

Conclusion

The decisive factor throughout 120 minutes was Low’s decision to move to a back three. Germany stifled Italy’s creativity with their pressing, and Conte’s men failed to consistently filter the ball to their attackers and break as a unit. A few last-ditch tackles aside, Germany’s defence were hardly tested which justifies Low’s bold move.

It’s difficult to criticize Conte’s Italy considering they were a few penalty kicks away from defeating the World champions. Italy’s defensive solidity was unprecedented, and their attention to detail and ability to carry out Conte’s instructions with devastating efficiency provided two memorable results against the tournament’s highest ranked team in Belgium, and holders Spain.

More so, Conte utilized this stage to display his tactical prowess. A move to a 3-4-3 steered the Italian’s back into the game, and frankly a lack of genuine creativity – due to injuries – halted what may have been a memorable title run. Germany, however, set their sights on France, and with several key players unavailable to suspensions and injuries, Low be called upon to outwit the hosts.

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Posted by on July 4, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Italy 2-0 Belgium: Conte’s well-drilled defensive scheme overwhelms Belgium’s individualism

Italy euro 2016

LYON, FRANCE – JUNE 13: Players of Italy celebrate the goal of Graziano Pelle during the UEFA Euro 2016 Group E match between Belgium and Italy at Stade de Lyon, Parc OL on June 13, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

Italy’s shape

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.

Belgium struggle

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.

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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.

Wilmots substitutions

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.

Conclusion

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.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Juventus 3-0 Roma

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Courtesy of: Football.ua

Juventus extended their lead at the top of Serie A to eight points with an impressive victory over Roma.

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Antonio Conte fielded his preferred starting eleven, as he welcomed back Andrea Pirlo from injury.

Rudi Garcia made no significant changes to his 4-3-3. Francesco Totti, Gervinho and Adem Ljajic led the line, while Kevin Strootman, Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi formed a midfield trio.

This fixture had no major tactical theme – Juventus’ approach without the ball nullified Roma’s main attacking threat.

Juventus without the ball

One of the most significant feats in this match was Juventus’ approach without the ball. Opposed to bringing the match to the away side, Conte instructed his men to sit deep in their half and minimize space between the lines for Totti to drift into.

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This approach was logical because it ensured there was no space behind the Juventus backline to attack on the counter and Totti would be unable to drag defenders out of position. Conte’s men sat in two compact banks of four, with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente sitting a few yards ahead of the midfield to maintain Juventus’ shape.

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Conte’s midfield trio sat in front of the back line, as Juventus became a 5-3-2, considering Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah sat deeper then usual. Vidal and Pogba pushed out wide when Roma’s fullbacks received the ball, to prevent them from pushing forward, and they diligently dropped deeper to ensure that their wingback wasn’t isolated against Roma’s front three – this meant Tevez and Llorente dropped into these central areas preserve structure in midfield.

Juventus’ approach out of possession was significant – Garcia’s men were left flabbergasted in possession, as the home side stifled their main attacking threats.

Roma struggle

Juventus’ reactive approach meant Roma enjoyed majority of the possession throughout the match. Apart from Tevez occasionally closing down defenders, and Juventus’ attempt to press from goal-kicks, Roma’s centrebacks, along with De Rossi, were free to push forward.

The issue that Roma encountered – besides Juventus’ great organization – was their slow ball circulation and a focal point in attack. Strootman retained possession well and Pjanic – who looked injured – attempted to penetrate, but the midfielders’ impact was minimal. Gervinho was caught offside when he broke into good positions, and was always put into 1v2 situations when he intended on isolating a wingback – and Ljajic drifted infield desperately looking for gaps to penetrate.

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Totti found it difficult to grow into the match, and he failed to create space for Roma’s attacker to run into. Whenever Totti dropped deep to receive the ball the closest Juventus centreback stuck tight to the Italian – Vidal also tracked his movement and closed Totti down when he roamed around the halfway line.

Ultimately, the only way Roma could create an opportunity to expose Juventus on the counter would be to press the Juventus backline higher up the pitch, or force them to concede possession in their third, and quickly commit men forward. Ljajic received a great chance early in the match when Totti dispossessed Leonardo Bonucci, but besides that effort, Buffon made routine saves to preserve his clean sheet.

Despite monopolizing majority of the possession, the away side rarely created legitimate goal-scoring opportunities because they couldn’t find openings in Juventus’ shape. The ball circulation was slow, their playmakers were nullified, and there was no space in the final third for Gervinho to attack.

Pirlo – De Rossi

Although Roma opted to drop into their shape and allow Juventus’ centrebacks to play from the back, Garcia instructed his men to press Pirlo. Totti was handed the duty to track the Italian maestro, and Pjanic occasionally stepped in when Totti was out of position. Garcia’s attempt to nullify Pirlo was logical, but as the game wore on, the Italian found it easier to receive the ball and build attacks from deep – this was down to fitness levels, and Roma’s lack of structure without the ball.

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On the other hand, De Rossi was free to play passes from deep – he often switched balls towards the fullbacks, but rarely played long diagonal balls or forward penetrating passes. De Rossi’s passing was conservative, and while his passing rate was phenomenal, it didn’t influence Roma’s attack. Here, De Rossi often dropped between the two Roma centre-backs to ensure a numerical advantage at the back, and help push Dodo and Maicon forward.

Although neither man dominated the match from midfield, both held pivotal roles – Pirlo helped Juventus get into better attacking positions as the match wore on, whereas De Rossi’s presence prevented Juventus’ strike force from isolating the Roma’s centrebacks.

Set-pieces

The home side’s threat from open-play was minimal, but they efficiently executed set-pieces. In fairness, Pogba and Vidal ignited attacks on the break, but their final ball let them down – however, Roma looked vulnerable defending set-pieces, and Juventus took advantage.

Juventus’ opening goal came from a simple Lichtsteiner throw-in that led to the Swiss wingback playing a pass into Tevez, who cleverly turned De Rossi, slid an incisive ball towards Vidal, and the Chilean beat Morgan De Sanctis at the near post. 20 minutes later, Pirlo tricked the Roma defence into thinking he’d play a ball into the six-yard box, and laid it off to Pogba, whose shot was blocked – Roma failed to clear their lines and Barzagli’s diagonal pass to Tevez subsequently led to the Argentinian striker whipping a ball across the six-yard box, which Bonucci couldn’t latch onto.

Bonucci doubled the home side’s lead minutes into the second half, when he broke free from Leandro Castan and guided in Pirlo’s free-kick at the far post. Roma further displayed their inability to defend set-pieces when Chiellini nodded back Pirlo’s free-kick at the far post and Castan handled the ball in the area, thus leading to his dismissal and a penalty, which Mirko Vucinic converted. Although Juventus’ influence from open-play was minimal, Conte’s men exposed Roma through set-pieces, and were rewarded with three goals.

4-2-3-1

Garcia opted to bring on Mattia Destro and Vasilis Torosidis for Pjanic and Dodo, as Roma moved to a 4-2-3-1.

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The move was logical as Roma now possessed a focal point in attack, but unfortunately for the away side, they struggled to get the ball into Destro – Pjanic’s departure deprived the away side of any penetration, as they were left with Strootman’s complacent passing and De Rossi in a deeper role.

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Garcia’s final attempt to alter the match saw Alessandro Florenzi replace Totti, but De Rossi and Castan were sent off within four minutes of his introduction. With Roma down to nine-men away from home against the champions, the match was over, and Juventus comfortably sustained their two-goal lead.

Conclusion

Juventus’ defensive solidity and set-piece efficiency merited three points – this was far from their best performance of the season, yet their defensive display was superb, as Conte’s men stifled Roma’s attack.

Roma dominated possession for large portions of the match, but the away side lacked invention, guile and penetration when they broke into Juventus’ half. Garcia’s men circulated the ball too slow, allowing Juventus to maintain their shape, while their set-piece defending was abysmal. Roma have overachieved by some margin this season – considering this is their first loss of the season – and if they can positively bounce back from this result, then the title race is far from over.

Roma’s overall performance wasn’t great – nor was it poor – here, they lost to a better side, executing a well-thought-out approach.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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