A dramatic and tactical masterclass, that.
Prandelli’s formation shift to a 3-4-2-1 was courageously adopted and brilliantly executed, forcing Spain (and perhaps more importantly, Jordi Alba) to play deeper than either are accustomed to. By playing Maggio and Giaccherini as wingbacks, Prandelli effectively marked the wide areas of the field as Italian territory, forcing the Spanish fullbacks, Alba and Arbeloa, into more defensive positions.
With De Rossi and Pirlo back in the starting eleven (the former sat due to suspension while the latter for injury), the Italian midfield more than held their own against the star-studded Spaniards. Indeed, the Spanish often looked bothered for much of the first half, unable to create good chances or set their own tempo, instead only being allowed to take what the Italians gave them.
The Italian wingbacks, Giaccherini and Maggio, continually caused Spain problems, specifically for Jordi Alba, whose defensive deficiencies are routinely hidden by his offensive positioning and contribution. The Spanish, so used to dominating possession and setting up shop in the opponent’s half, today were forced to play in their own half for long stretches, both with and without the ball — the latter of which they are not designed for.
Determined not to so easily cede possession as they did in last year’s European final, the Italians set out to attack more, moving forward with a renewed sense of confidence. If not for poor finishing and superb goaltending, Prandelli’s men might have taken a lead, with Maggio seeing two headers saved well by Casillas and De Rossi failing to make adequate contact when left unmarked on a set-piece.
With Alberto Gilardino (who started in place of the injured Mario Balotelli) sitting above Marchisio and Candreva, the Italian attack had the appropriate numbers to bother Busquets, Ramos and Pique in the middle. Candreva’s continual runs out to the right flank, just under Maggio’s forward bursts, particularly troubled the Spanish defense, as it routinely forced Busquets out of his natural central position. Yet for all Prandelli’s tactical adjustments, Gilardino just didn’t (or perhaps more rightly, doesn’t) have the quality that Balotelli does — or even Giovinco for that matter — an unfortunate reality the Italians had to face. Going into this match, we wondere from where the goals might come from, and apart from their dominance on set pieces (De Rossi especially might rue his scuffed header), Italy without Balotelli just didn’t have the necessary talent in the striking department.
With both managers making changes at or just after halftime, the match often looked like it was being played more on a chess board than a pitch, as Prandelli and del Bosque worked furiously in an effort to outmaneuver the other. Replacing Barzagli (who had a horrid first half) with Montolivo, Prandelli then moved De Rossi into the center of his back three, allowing his Italian midfield to play a more possession, passing based style — and having (astonishingly) completed more passes than the Spanish in the second half, the Italians rewarded their chess-master for his creativity.
With De Rossi playing centre-half for the entirety of the second half and beyond, both sides had central defenders who were comfortable on the ball. For Spain, the central pairing of Ramos and Pique offers a great deal of flexibility and freedom; an incredibly valuable skill-set from the back, and one that very few teams can match. But with De Rossi pulled back, both Italy and Spain had a bit of a creative safety valve in the back line: players who are both confident in, and capable of, playing smart, even creative passes from the heart of the defense. De Rossi, Ramos and Pique were routinely asked to start attacks, holding the ball until midfielders found the appropriate space from which they could trouble the opponent. Evident of their passing ability De Rossi (95%), Pique (93%) and Ramos (91%) each completed more than ninety percent of their passes, all while attempting a combined 38 (De Rossi: 14/15, Ramos 8/13, Pique 7/10) long balls.
Vicente del Bosque, having started Silva on the left wing, was forced to admit that rather than linking with Iniesta, the Manchester City man instead clashed with him — not unlike the problems Barcelona encountered with Fabregas and Iniesta. While Silva tends to move inside into a more creative role in the center of the pitch, Iniesta’s natural movement causes him to drift forward and to the left, often resulting in the two players being too close. Replacing Silva with Navas, del Bosque countered Prandelli’s change with a rather clever move of his own. Keeping Pedro on the pitch, Spain’s attack looked for the first time in a long time, like a proper trident: with Navas and Pedro flanking Torres (a true — if still struggling — number nine), the forward line had an enjoyable and effective directness.
Navas’ introduction marked a shift in the Spanish attack, as his willingness to take players on one-on-one began to open up the previously staunch Italians. Indeed, Navas’ 4 shots on target (with an impressive 100% shot accuracy) were twice as many as the rest of the team combined (Xavi: 1, Busquets 1). Navas’ performance throughout was stellar, so perhaps it was only fitting that the only player who tested Buffon through the first ninety minutes would also be the one to find the net on the winning penalty. And while del Bosque does not typically look to start Navas, his pace, directness and trickiness might all prove ideal in an effort to exploit Marcelo’s defensive deficiencies come the final.
While Pedro’s energy and pace often prove useful, the Italians dealt well with both, encouraging del Bosque to replace the Barcelona winger with Chelsea’s Juan Mata. With Mata not entirely comfortable (or at his best) in a wide position, Iniesta initially moved forward into Pedro’s now vacated space, allowing Mata to assume the former’s position in midfield. This however, as is often the case with the Spanish midfield, was by no means set in stone; Mata and Iniesta were permitted to roam, sometimes dropping deep while other times pushing forward.
Extra-time brought a sharp shift in philosophy, as the Italians adopted a more defensive philosophy; sitting back, they allowed the Spanish the space previously denied to them. Meanwhile, del Bosque used his final substitution, replacing Torres with Javi Martinez; and while most assumed the change meant a shift in formation (likely to a 4-3-3 with a false nine), the defensive midfielder took up Torres’ now vacated spot up front. With time becoming a factor, del Bosque’s final tactical tweak saw Mata move to the center, sitting just beneath Martinez (wow, that feels weird to write) who now lead the Spanish line.
The final thirty minutes were dominated by the Spanish, both in possession and in chances; though with most falling to Pique, Ramos and the defensive midfielder turned striker, none were converted. With both teams having hit the crossbar in the final act (Giaccherini for Italy and Xavi for Spain), penalties were less a formality than they often seem to become in cases such as this. Yet in a rematch of the European final, comprised of the last two World Cup winners, each captained by one of the world’s greatest goaltenders, penalties seemed the most dramatic, if not fitting conclusion. And after a penalty shootout that saw thirteen of fteen shooters score, the Spanish triumphed, having withstood and countered all the Italians could offer.