The European champions will be decided on Sunday as two teams battle for a title that, despite their rich history, they have won remarkably seldom. Italy’s only victory came in 1968, a time when the European Championship was unrecognizable compared to the 24-team competition giants they are today, while in England no one will be reminded of his 55-year injury on the international stage got to.
Let’s see how the game could play out with some bold predictions:
1. Walker will one day save England
For a team with John Stones and Harry Maguire – both not the bouncy chickens – in the center-back, the line of defense they were set up with under Gareth Southgate often seems a little more gentlemanly. With the exception of the victory over Germany, the English defense crept further and further forward in the knockout round – both central defenders had more ball contacts in the middle field than in the last third.
Most effectively this line allows England to hold their opponent in a stranglehold, as was the case against Denmark at the beginning of extra time; Almost three lines of attack lay in or on the edge of the opposing half, so put together with the ball at their feet that they can poke and probe for minutes. But the Danes showed a way to burst that bubble that threatened to envelop them, and Southgate can be sure that Italy will try to repeat it.
Several times during the game, a Danish defender hit the ball in the large space between the English center-backs and Jordan Pickford, who may be the messiest goalkeeper Mikkel Damsgaard could chase on his day. It looked like it would work, but Kyle Walker would almost invariably pop up from the corners of the TV set, moving like roadrunners on steroids, chewing up the ground to quell any threat. At this tournament it was the perfect insurance policy.
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Along with Declan Rice, Walker ranks second among the players in the tournament for interceptions, has won every tackle he made and has yet to dribble past. Hit balls over him and he’ll have the pace of recovery to keep up with Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa. Try to beat him one on one and you must do very well indeed. Players like Ivan Perisic, Robin Gosens and Joakim Maehle didn’t score a single shot on goal against the 31-year-old, while Timo Werner was largely supervised by Walker in the round of 16.
Italy probably won’t look for as many long balls as Denmark, but even if there is a chance of leaving Chiesa or Insigne behind, they will use them. Walker could only be the man who blocks this path to the goal.
2. Italy adheres to the system of victory in Spain
While tournament football can be a lengthy road to the finish line, with teams often switching from one tactical plan to another based on the fitness and form of their squad and opponents, the easiest way to write a team’s history is often to make low stakes from encounters at the beginning of the group stage. There the timbre of what is to come can be defined, and it is natural for many – including this column – to see each subsequent game through the prism of these ideas that we originally formed as a team. So Italy is the team that elegantly knocked aside Turkey and Switzerland, dark horses for many before the tournament. Nothing has changed about that that has come since then.
And yet this side of Italy has been visible in a flash at best almost since the knockout round began. Like against Turkey and Wales, they have never come so close to monopoly of possession of the ball: partly because of the increased quality of the opponent, partly because of the game situation against Belgium and for a short time also against Spain. It was natural to sit back and protect the leads, and also because a team that has rotated relatively minimally during this tournament is starting to look a little drained. This was particularly evident in the semi-finals, when the constant probing of the Spanish attack seemed to have drained them early on.
Where earlier attempts might have been made to curb their opponents high up, Italy are showing a greater willingness to penetrate deeply and trust Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to do what they have been doing for decades and keep the attackers away from their goal. In the opening game, 40 percent of Italy’s ball pressure came in third place for Turkey via FBref. This number has steadily declined until the semi-finals, where it was 21 percent, with significantly more defensive work being done in the Italian half of the pitch.
It should be noted that Leonardo Spinazzola’s absence has apparently baffled Italy, especially on the left, who seemed able to tear opponents apart at will. Much of their danger comes without the Roma defender, but the threat is more orthodox with Emerson shutting down the byline. With Spinazzola and Insigne together, the duo would rotate the point of attack, stationed far on the sidelines for a moment before exchanging a few passes and coming out on the other side in a completely different line-up. Behind, Marco Verratti and the occasional Chiellini delivered quick, precise passes to build attacks.
The lack can also be felt when pressing without a ball. Italy has recovered the ball in its own left channel around the central area more often than anywhere else on the pitch, according to Sky Sports. In short, this was where Italy won games before losing Spinazzola. It may be so again – Emerson was a formidable performance with little possession against Spain – but this team doesn’t have the same alchemy without their right-left full-back.
With Spinazzola we may have seen another Italy that got deep into the tournament. Without that much pressure on the left side, they could play similarly to the penalty shoot-out against Spain when the ball possession battle is back towards parity.
3. Kane finds the right time to repeat his Spurs role
If England learned anything from Spain’s near success against the Italian defense on Wednesday, it was Dani Olmo’s success. Chiellini and Bonucci like nothing more than to impose themselves on a traditional center forward. Attacking them at close range is the equivalent in football of pitching Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert at the same time. You will be bruised, possibly both physically and emotionally.
It is better to get her out of her comfort zone, Luis Enrique rightly judged. Let them chase little guys like Dani Olmo around. It worked to the tee, Spain found seams in an Italian defense that such veterans would never have been expected to leave. Of his 73 ball contacts in the game, Olmo only had the ball in the penalty area twice. Even when the more orthodox striker Alvaro Morata ended the bout, he spent much of his time outside the box, pulling the center-backs outside before giving a brilliant give and go with Ferran Torres before his pace got him stuck in the box the equalizer home.
It is reasonable to doubt that Harry Kane would have the pace required to make this move, even against two center-backs totaling three years over the retirement age of 67 in Italy, but this could still be the moment his tendency to decline space ultimately turns out to be perfect for England.
His tournament has resulted in his urge for a deeper role on the club stage being drawn by a team blessed with many creators, but no one who can fill the box as well as the Spurs striker. Against Denmark he found something of a happy mean, with more than half of his touches ending up in the attacking third for the first time in the tournament. The 10 touches he had in the box were by far the most of his previous competition. He wasn’t on an island like in previous games and could still satisfy his desire to fall deep and get the ball towards goal – only Luke Shaw had more progressive carries than England’s No. 9.
It would be years before Kane forged the instinctive understanding with Raheem Sterling that he has with Heung-min Son (Manchester City would surely be willing to let him try) that led him to the top of the Premier League last season – Assist charts catapulted. However, there have been signs that over the past six weeks that relationship has grown closer to the English attackers. Bring his perfectly judged through pass to Bukayo Saka, from whom England equalized against Denmark. Put Kane in these positions and he can deliver more than just his goals … and it could be the best way to confuse two of the best defenders of their generation.