The caricature of an Italian team in international tournaments — stodgy, stolid, and reactive — is familiar to most football fans. Since the era of catenaccio in the 1950s, the Azzurri have always been associated with a defensive brand of football, even in their more successful years.
Under Roberto Mancini, though, Italy have developed a new tactical identity, centered around proactive, possession-based football. With a 30-game unbeaten run and a dominant start to Euro 2020, that shift has paid dividends for Italy and has propelled them to become one of the favorites for the tournament.
Italy set up as a 4-3-3 which morphs into a 3-2-4-1 shape in possession. Allesandro Florenzi tucks in from right-back to form a back three with the centre-backs, usually Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini when fit. Leonardo Spinazzola pushes high and wide from left-back to hold the width down that flank, while Sassuolo winger Domenico Berardi does the same on the opposite wing. Jorginho and one of Marco Verratti or Manuel Locatelli form the midfield pivot, while Lorenzo Isigne and Nicolo Barella play behind Ciro Immobile.
This shift to a back three whilst in possession gives Italy a number of avenues for progressing the ball effectively. Having three players in central defense as opposed to two requires opposition teams to commit more men forwards if they are to press high up the pitch successfully.
This provides space for Jorginho and either Locatelli or Verratti to receive the ball in space, move it forwards, and then pose as an available passing option to recycle possession if required. The extra space afforded to the two deeper sitting midfielders allows them to maximize their metronomic passing and technical supremacy to dictate the course of the game.
Top performer: Manuel Locatelli!
🔹 With two goals, 94% passing accuracy and six tackles, Manuel Locatelli’s match-winning display for Italy against Switzerland was one of the standout statistical displays of Matchday 2 👏@FedExEurope | #EUROPZ | #EURO2020 pic.twitter.com/Yr88ikWJFh
— UEFA EURO 2020 (@EURO2020) June 20, 2021
If the opposition tries to combat this by sitting off the centre-backs to mark Jorginho and the other deep midfielder, they give time and space to Italy’s central defensive pairing. Bonucci and Rafael Toloi are particularly adept passers, capable of playing both long, raking passes out to Spinazzola or Berardi or playing through the lines directly into Isigne and Barella.
Chiellini and Allesandra Bastoni are more adept at carrying the ball, charging up the left half-space to add an extra man to the midfield to create space for others. These qualities make it difficult for opposition teams to prevent Italy from playing through their first line of pressure, immediately putting them on the back foot and forcing them to retreat deeper within their own half to try and cope with the Azzurri’s attacking threat.
In the final third, Italy attack in a similar way to most top teams in European club football predicated on quick interchanges of passing and position. Mancini employs some aspects of positional play — a style in which players must occupy certain zones during specific phases of an attack — to ensure that his team have the optimal structure to disorient defenses and create chances.
This is most clearly seen by how at least one player on each flank always maintains width so Italy can stretch opposition defenses horizontally and open up gaps in the inside channels. For instance, when Berarid cuts inside, Barella moves wide to hug the right touchline or Florenzi pushes up on the overlap. Mancini also encourages the creation of passing triangles across the pitch since they make progressing the ball forwards easier. Italy create these arrangements both out wide, with a midfielder, winger, and fullback, and centrally, comprised of multiple players finding space in between the lines.
Italy also attack with significant movement both on and off the ball. While the focal point of Italy’s attack, Immobile is comfortable dropping off or drifting wide, creating space centrally for Insigne or Berardi to interchange positions with the Lazio striker.
Barella and Locatelli have both impressed with their ability to make late runs into the box to either drag markers out of position or pose as a goal threat. Insigne is also given license to pick up the ball from the centre-backs and drive forwards himself, drawing players towards him and giving Spinazzola space to attack down the left-hand side. This type of dynamic movement adds an element of unpredictability and fluidity to Italy’s attacking game.
Rome, you’ve been fantastic.
— Italy ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@azzurri) June 20, 2021
Defensively, Italy play a high line and try to counter-press aggressively. Barella, Verratti, and Locatelli have tremendous energy and stamina, consistently instigating the press from midfield as soon as the Azzurri lose possession. All of the front three work hard without the ball, making Italy’s counter-press a key to their ability to sustain attacking pressure and dominate games. And, as their third goal against Switzerland showed, it can also be a fruitful way to create chances.
Against better opposition with better, more mobile forwards, Italy make suffer by playing a high line given that they lack particularly mobile centre-backs or a sweeper-keeper who can patrol the space behind the defense. But the offensive rewards of the counter-press may well outweigh their defensive costs by allowing Italy to maintain their proactive, attacking approach.
In shedding their ties to Italy’s historic negativity, Mancini has maximized the immense talent available to him. With a coterie of exciting players and a dynamic attacking style, Italy have shone at Euro 2020 and may have what it takes to go all the way to the title.