It was a dance in Gdansk.
The most awaited tie of the round pitted Spain against Italy. Supporters of both teams were optimistic. The question was who would come out victorious.
In different ways, both teams did.
Vicente Del Bosque sprang a surprise. The question in Spanish newspapers was whether to start Fernando Torres or Alvaro Negredo. Del Bosque went for neither. He started Cesc Fabregas, meaning that Spain would have six midfielders on the pitch. But of the six, Fabregas would play as a false 9 – a withdrawn forward much in the same way Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona. It had been tried by Spain before; but never in a competitive match.
There was no secret as to what Cesare Prandelli would do. He started with a 3-5-2 formation. The 3 man defence had been called for in Italy because of its frequent use in the league: 17 out of the 20 Serie A teams used it at least once. It was also no secret that Daniele De Rossi would start in defence. Particularly not to the Spanish. It is they who started putting midfielders in defence: Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano at Barcelona, and Javi Martinez at Athletic Bilbao.
What surprised many was what Prandelli would later call, the ‘real Italy.’ Rather than look to sit back and be reactive, Italy actually sought to possess the ball. This is indicative of the new identity that Prandelli has sought to instill in his Italy side.
In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise.
When you have a midfield that has Andrea Pirlo in it, then being reactive is out of the question. Pirlo had the most completed passes in Europe this season (yes, ahead of Xavi Hernandez). Alongside him was Thiago Motta, whom it should be said is no stranger to passing. He grew up at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, sharing the midfield of Barca’s cantera alongside Andres Iniesta.
And one thing that people overlooked is that the 3-5-2 system that Italy used was in itself based on a Spanish model as much as the usual catennaccio that influences all matters calcio.
Spain usually lack natural width, hence rely on full backs to provide it. Cue the Italian wing backs. Spain rarely start with an out an out center forward who will be the target man for long balls. Neither Mario Balotelli, nor Antonio Cassano are out and out strikers. And of course, playing a midfielder in defence has already been mentioned.
And so against a Spanish model, the Spanish seemed a bit lost. Their major downfall in my opinion was the insistence on playing narrow. It has been Spain’s achilles heel. It allows them to possess the ball, but there is really no penetration. That is why at the World Cup, they had a series of 1-0 wins. Chances for them come at a premium.
Compounded with being too narrow, playing no striker actually played into Italy’s hands. It meant that De Rossi did not need to worry about a player looking for space and running in behind him. De Rossi himself said that at first he was a bit worried when he saw the line ups. “A center forward gives you a reference point,” he said. But he admitted that he struggled when Torres came on. “He is physical and very intelligent” said De Rossi. Torres gave him something to think about, and this was what Spain missed for the opening 74 minutes.
In those 74 minutes, Italy had looked the more dangerous side. Cassano was getting chances to score, and Balotelli somehow took his time when presented with the chance. Italy took the lead through Antonio Di Natale, who’d replaced Balotelli. For Di Natale, it was a moment of personal triumph as his was one of the penalties that Iker Casillas had saved four years ago in Italy’s quarter final elimination. For the team’s hard work, it was unbridled joy.
The joy lasted for only 3 minutes. David Silva threaded the ball in for Fabregas. The Italians had lost some concentration, probably still in a celebratory mood. Fabregas, for once had gambled, and had made a run in behind the defence. De Rossi was caught off position and Fabregas calmly slotted past Gianluigi Buffon.
The goal came just as Del Bosque was making up for his initial error. Jesus Navas was brought on for width down the right and this troubled debutant Emanuele Giacherrini. The Juventus man however did a wonderful job. But when Navas was on the pitch, it gave Spain a new dimension. Navas did not just look to pass, but could run towards the byline. And with him hugging the touchline, Spain could go wide, thereby creating spaces in the middle.
Spain finished with more momentum. The Italians seemed to tire late on. They were also struggling from lacking a recognized center back to track Torres. Luckily for them, Torres did not capitalise.
The draw was a fair result. Credit should go to both managers. Prandelli for setting out his team well, and Del Bosque for reacting. For both, questions were asked. Mistakes were made. Some were rectified. All this was done against a top quality team. The lessons learned were thus invaluable.
In this sense therefore, there were no losers in the dance at Gdansk.