Italy show football’s future has no formations in old rivalry with Spain

Spain’s Euro 2012 win showed a vision of the future, and greatness, but it is Italy who arrive as the more advanced football nation now

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 06 July 2021 15:23
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Euro 2020: Daily briefing

The image of a bloodied Luis Enrique from USA ‘94 will dominate the build-up to Tuesday’s semi-final, but it is the scars still felt by Italy from 2012 that will be much more influential to the game – above all in how Roberto Mancini's team play. Andres Iniesta this week described Spain’s 4-0 win – which confirmed a historic third successive major trophy – as “a perfect performance”. It was so luscious that Italian manager Cesar Prandelli could only add praise, and say Italy must seek to “learn” from it.

They have done more than that. They have implemented all lessons, at all levels, so this semi-final very much comes at a crossroads between the two countries and maybe European football history. That victory was not just the ultimate display of Spain’s historic brilliance, but also proof that Italy were on the correct path. It was just going to be a long path.

The Italian federation had by then already initiated a reform process to try and revolutionise their production of young talent, and it was clear where the main influence was. That was Spain, and specifically the fluid football of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

It represented an ironic spin on modern football history, which is often the way these things tend to go. Spanish football’s biggest complex was always about Italy, which was mirrored in how little regard the Italian football had for Spain. Few players from La Liga had even impressed in Serie A, beyond the original Luis Suarez of the 1960s. Italian sides were always the ones the Spanish had the greatest struggles in beating, culminating in that notorious 1994 World Cup quarter-final, that ended with Mauro Tassotti smashing Luis Enrique’s nose and Roberto Baggio scoring another divine late goal.

Luis Enrique takes a blow to the face

Spain conquering that complex in the 2008 quarter-finals was seen as a crucial moment of the glory era. Smashing it altogether in 2012 may well prove a key moment in turning it back.

A net effect has been Italy introducing all the core elements of the Spanish approach into their coaching infrastructure. Their underage teams are developed on four defining principles, called C-A-R-P. These are Costruzione, which is build-up play; Ampiezza, which is width; Rifinitura, which is creative play between the lines and in the final third; and Profondita, which is basically depth, or the space in behind. As can be seen from the very descriptions, modern Italian teams are coached to play with much more depth. We are way past being defence-based.

The results have been a series of underage medals even as the senior side has struggled, but now a squad seizing Euro 2020 as the team of the tournament.

Italy’s array of fluid technical talent, from Manuel Locatelli to Nicolo Barella, has allowed them to tactically control games in a way Spain’s coaches would idealise. It just may be in a manner that is beyond Spain's capabilities.

It is why this match may represent such a crossroads. This semi-final comes as Spain are beginning to wonder about their own youth production, with Luis Enrique leading the questions. Long worried about the passiveness of Spain’s passing fixation, the manager has been intent on adding more intensity to their possession game, so their form of control can quickly cause chaos. It remains an ongoing process, though, particularly with so many young players. That has meant Spain are currently more dangerous in games that go out of control, as has been the case throughout this tournament.

That is far less likely to happen with this Italy. They don’t even need possession to control the games in the same way. They do so through the tactical adaptability and the fluidity of their players.

For all the talk about Italy now producing Spanish-style midfielders, it might be truer to say these are Spanish midfielders 3.0. They have the same technical expertise and tactical acumen, but taken on by the game’s modern advances.

Many coaches and football figures have marvelled at how Mancini has created the coherence and imagination of a club team, something few thought possible in the international game.

“They are a better coached team than his Manchester City, which is saying something,” one source argues. “Whereas that was an expensive team in their prime bought to fit, this is one that he has developed. The way the players interchange position is incredible, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is the next step from what Guardiola has been doing for so many years. The number eight so quickly becomes a 10, and the number nine becomes a seven.”

This was perhaps best seen in Leonardo Spinazzola, whose injury means he so tragically misses the end of a tournament he has seized. The Roma player is nominally a full-back but that is like calling a Macbook a calculator. He does so much more, and has gone way beyond the parameters of the position, to the point he is often an inverted right-winger.

It is why many in the game predict the next great tactical leap after German pressing will come from Italy, and that it will be based on fluidity of position. It might also be rare in modern football history in that such a leap will have first been visible in the international game.

A prediction made by more than a few figures is that, moving forward, formations will vanish. Imagine no positions. Italy can. Teams will have some fixed positions beyond the goalkeeper like centre-backs and maybe a striker, but everyone else will be fluid and require a range of principles. Certain areas of the pitch will obviously be linked but the idea is that players will freely rotate within that. It requires a lot of co-ordination and sophistication, but this is also why many believe that – even after a century and a half of codified football – the surface of what is possible in play is only being scratched.

Italy are already ahead of the game here. They have had a guru called Antonio Gagliardi, whose primary belief is that traditional positions won’t exist, and it will be all about skillset. A player can start a game at full-back, for example, but his role will really be that of a playmaker who moves into certain areas.

There were forerunners of this in Total Football since it is the approach’s antecedent, but it is several levels evolved from that. It is not players switching positions but constantly moving between them so those positions don’t really exist. It’s also a logical next step in a system influenced by Guardiola, even if it requires even greater imagination.

Spinazzola may represent a key player in this evolution, and Italy a key team. His absence could undercut Mancini’s side, and even see them beaten on Tuesday. The game is clearly going a certain way, though, and Luis Enrique can see that. He is one figure in Spanish football who sees the need for similar. That’s why his own team represents an evolution. It is not the scale of evolution being seen in Italy, though.

Mancini's team may not win Euro 2020, or even this semi-final, but many feel they are already leaving a legacy. Spain have played a huge part in that – and now must play against it.

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