Ahead of Spain’s Euro 2020 semi-final with Italy, you may have thought that this was a contest taking place entirely between the two penalty boxes. This was a meeting between two of European football’s powerhouses, but it was billed as a battle of midfields. The lines had been drawn, and Italy against Spain felt as much of a contest between Sergio Busquets and Nicola Barella, Koke and Marco Verratti, Pedri and Jorginho than a match of two nations.
But, on a tense and thrilling night at Wembley, there was a surprise addition which tipped the balance of the duel: the introduction of Dani Olmo as a false nine. Spain manager Luis Enrique’s decision to drop striker Alvaro Morata, despite having stuck with him through thick and thin this summer, was the standout change before the match, as Olmo and Mikel Oyarzabal were brought in to form a striker-less front three with Ferran Torres.
For all of his well-documented struggles in front of goal, Morata’s general play throughout these Euros has been decent. The striker has looked comfortable receiving long passes with his back to goal and bringing others into play. It may have seemed strange that he wasn’t given the opportunity to do that from the start against Italy, but it was understandable given Romelu Lukaku’s struggles when coming up directly against the fearsome Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in the previous round.
Enrique therefore went with a different approach that would simultaneously bypass that problem and nullify Italy’s strength - their midfield, and it was Olmo that made the difference. With the forward constantly looking to dropping deep and receive possession, Spain essentially had an advantage in the middle of the pitch, which in turn helped their ball retention and counter-press. It worked. Enrique’s side dominated possession and were the better team throughout this enthralling semi-final, and Olmo’s effect was clear.
The signs were there from as early as Spain’s first goal-kick in the opening five minutes. Unai Simon rolled a pass into midfield into space, where Olmo had dropped into from the forward line through his role as a false nine. It was a move the 23-year-old would make at least five more times during a first half which Spain dominated, in what was a sharp contrast to many pre-match predictions. On this early occasion, he attracted both Verratti and Barella to the ball before shifting his hips and rolling into space behind them.
It was a move he would make throughout the first half, sometimes dragging Jorginho, Italy’s deepest midfielder, or one of Chiellini or Bonucci into a position where they were not entirely comfortable. Olmo’s positioning was often made possible by the excellent Pedri, who helped by repeatedly moving Jorginho away from the middle of the pitch and creating pockets for Olmo to turn into.
But the opposite was also true, such as on the fifth occasion Olmo dropped into space during the opening period. Here, the RB Leipzig attacker attracted Jorginho before playing a first-time pass around the corner to Pedri, suddenly giving Spain’s most dangerous player space to run into. Indeed, Spain’s best chance of the half came when Busquets played the ball through the lines to Pedri, who was able to turn and pick out a pass through Bonucci and Chiellini to Oyarzabal, a move made possible by Olmo dropping into the midfield area and adding his presence into the middle of the pitch.
A heavy touch from Oyarzabal saw the chance evaporate before Spanish eyes, and if there was a team who deserved to lead at half-time, it would have been Spain. They were the better team right up until they were undone by Federico Chiesa’s brilliance on the break, as the Azzurri flexed their ruthless and clinical edge. It led to a change for La Roja as Morata came on for Torres, but, crucially, not in approach.
With the Juventus striker on the pitch, Morata did not battle with Chiellini and Bonucci and therefore allow the defenders the sort of direct grapple that they relish most. Instead, in the 80th minute and with Spain chasing a goal, Morata dropped into the same hole that Olmo had thrived in to receive a forward pass from Laporte. He was able to turn and drive at the Italy defence before exchanging a one-two with Olmo, finishing cooly past Donnarumma: a sublime goal that was well deserved and had been coming.
The pace of the match dropped in extra-time, as space disappeared and both sides seemed to settle for penalties. The irony was that the two of the players key to Spain’s equaliser made the decisive misses as Italy advanced to the final, as both of Morata and Olmo’s nights ended in disappointment. It was a cruel way for their tournament to end given how they had contributed to a brilliant night of football.
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