Just when it was looking as if the game was going to end as a goalless draw, Italy’s Eder popped up and scored a late winner and helped his team to three points. The win propelled Italy to the next round. Sweden, on the other hand, now have to defeat Belgium to keep their hopes alive.
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli; Alessandro Florenzi, Emmanuele Giaccherini, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Parolo, Antonio Candreva; Eder, Graziano Pelle.
Sweden: Andreas Isaksson; Martin Olsson, Andreas Granqvist, Victor Lindelof, Erik Johansson; Emil Forsberg, Kim Kallstrom, Albin Ekdal, Sebastian Larsson; Zlatan Ibrahimovic, John Guidetti.
Italy’s defending forces Sweden to attack from the wings:
Antonio Conte’s Italy defended with a 2-5-3 when the ball was in the centre with Sweden’s centre backs, Lindelof and Granqvist, during the attacking build-up. Eder and Pelle were shadowing Sweden’s central midfielders – Ekdal and Kallstrom and were preventing ball progression to them.
When the ball was being passed to the wingbacks of Sweden, Italy was changing to lopsided situational front three. One of Giaccherini or Parolo was joining the centre forwards and pressing the space around the wingback. As a result, the diagonal passing option of the wingback was being blocked and he was being forced to pass the ball back to the centre backs or go over the top.
Italy’s Giaccherini and Parolo were positioning themselves in the half-spaces during defending making it easier for them to defend the diagonal balls and to have quick access to the centre and wings if either of the regions was getting overloaded by Swedish players.
This pattern was very comparable to what Italy did against Belgium the other night.
Erik Harmen’s team was unable to break down Italy’s defensive shape through the middle and were forced to go over the opposition’s shape and thus rely on long balls.
But there were three or four situations in the match when one of the wingers, Larsson and Forsberg, of Sweden tucked in towards the centre and offered a passing option during the build-ups.
Italy’s problems during build-ups:
Italy played with a 3-5-2 ish formation during the attacking phase. The wingbacks – Candreva and Florenzi – were moving to advanced positions during the attacking phase and the formation was changing to 3-3-4. But Italy was never able to really utilise the potential of having players in the half-spaces except while in the defensive phase.
During the build-up from the back, there were two major concerns for Italy according to me.
One was, the wing orientation of one of the central midfielders – Giaccherini was moving to the left wing when the ball was on the left side of the field and Parolo to the right when the ball was on the right side. This outward movement was leaving a big gap in the near side half-space but the forwards were quite far from it so as to exploit. Since the far side winger of Sweden was tucking in, Sweden was able to maintain numbers in the middle. Additionally, Pelle and Eder were poor on the ball.
Italy could’ve gained massively if the near side central midfielder had stayed around half-space. Italy could’ve exploited the space there and could’ve achieved a numerical advantage in the central zones with the help of Eder or Pelle.
Moreover, Italy would’ve been more dynamic positionally. Against Sweden, Conte’s players had a pattern to their attacking build-up. Positional dynamism could’ve helped them in being unpredictable to some degree.
Looking at this from another angle, if Italian players had lost the ball to the Swedish central midfielders in the middle third then De Rossi would’ve been the only player to confront the attacking Swedish players. It would’ve been tough to handle such a situation because of the wide positioning of Giaccherini and Parolo.
The other problem was when Giaccherini and Parolo were remaining narrow, they were positioning higher up the pitch and behind Sweden’s midfield line. This was creating a disjointed shape as Italy were trying to attack. Apart from De Rossi or the wingers, there were no forward passing options for Chiellini, Bonucci, and Barzagli.
When Guidetti and The Zlatan started to track and mark De Rossi, the defensive trio was left with no other option but to go for a long ball and try to test the defensive line of Sweden, which was getting overloaded by Italian players.
Moreover, this was leaving Italian players in such a state of limbo that their positioning was not helping them in conducting midfield recovery press. Sweden, as a testimony to this fact, attacked a few times in the game through the wings as Italy was losing the ball in the midfield. Occupying central positions during the attacks helps in providing depth and helps to press and transition properly after losing the ball.
While Italy’s defensive movements were ball oriented and zonal, it’s wingbacks were position oriented while defending deep – marking either the winger or the wingback, whoever was deeper in the attacking half.
Sweden, on the other hand, followed zonal marking. The Swedes were moving sideways in order to deny access to the centre. Kallstrom and Ekdal mainly focussed on cover shadowing Eder and Pelle to deny them the long balls from the centre backs of Italy. Whenever an opponent had the ball in the center midfield position, Kallstrom and Ekdal were pressing them to force them to wide positions. Forsberg and Larsson had their movements oriented to the half-space since it was allowing them to attack the channels or move centrally as soon as the ball was won back.
Sweden had a tough time trying to find a gap in Italy’s tight defending from the very first line itself. They had to depend on long balls and base their scoring chances on crosses. But Italy had three tough and physically imposing defenders to deal with these. Sweden need to find a way to play through the middle either by using a three man midfield or by converting to situation midfield three – which happened very rarely in the game against Italy. Hamren has to do a lot of tweaking.
Defensively, Italy are very strong and are from no angle are defensively weak. Conte has a good defensive plan and is executing it well. The only areas of concern are their transitions during opposition’s counter attacks and the fact that they don’t counter press. The wide space occupation of the central midfielders is a real concern as it makes Italy prone to counter attacks through the middle.
Another issue is Italy’s attacks. During the attacking phase, the players should be occupying key spaces and positions so as to keep their attacks oriented on the vertical axis. Italy depended heavily on the build-up through the wings, cutbacks and crosses to create scoring chances.