Soccer

Italy-England: Euro 2020 final bold predictions, featuring Kyle Walker’s crucial role, Roberto Mancini’s plan

The European champions will be decided on Sunday as two teams face off for a title that, despite their rich history, they have won remarkably infrequently. Italy’s only win came in 1968, a time when the Euros were unrecognizable compared to the 24-team behemoth of a competition they are today, while no one in England needs reminding of their 55 years of hurt on the international stage.

Let’s take a look at how the game could play out with some bold predictions:

1. Walker will save England once

For a side with John Stones and Harry Maguire — neither the springiest of chickens — at center back, there can often seem to be something rather cavalier about the defensive line they set up with under Gareth Southgate. With the obvious exception of the win over Germany, the knockout stages have seen the English defensive line creep further and further forward — both center backs have had more touches of the ball in the middle third of the pitch than the final third.

At its most effective, that line allows England to apply a stranglehold on opponents as they did early in the extra-time period against Denmark; almost three lines of attack camped inside or on the edge of their opponents’ half, so composed with the ball at their feet that they can pick and probe for minutes at a time. But the Danes showed a way to burst that bubble that threatened to envelop them, one that Southgate can rest assured that Italy will look to replicate.

On several occasions throughout the game, a Danish defender would hit the ball into the sizeable space between the English center backs and Jordan Pickford, who on his day can be the most chaotic of sweeper keepers, for Mikkel Damsgaard to chase. It looked like it might work, but almost without fail Kyle Walker would emerge from the corners of the television shot, moving like Roadrunner on steroids to chew up the ground to quell any threat. At this tournament he has been the perfect insurance policy.

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Along with Declan Rice, Walker ranks second among players at the tournament for interceptions, has won every tackle he has made and is still yet to be dribbled past. Thump balls over the top of him and he has the recovery pace to match Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa, try to beat him one on one and you will have to do very well indeed. The likes of Ivan Perisic, Robin Gosens and Joakim Maehle have not registered a single shot on target when matched up against the 31-year-old, while Timo Werner was largely chaperoned out of the round of 16 game by Walker.

Italy are unlikely to look for quite as many long balls as Denmark did, but equally if the chance is there to release Chiesa or Insigne in behind, they will take it. Walker might just be the man to shut down that avenue to goal.

2. Italy stick to system from Spain win

For all that tournament football may be a lengthy slog to the finish line that often sees teams oscillate from one tactical plan to another based on the fitness and form of their squad and their opponents, the tale of a team can often be written in the most low stakes of encounters early in the group stages. There, the timbre of what is to come can be defined and it is natural for many — this column included — to see every game that follows through the prism of those ideas we initially formed on a team. So Italy are the team that swatted aside Turkey and Switzerland, pre-tournament dark horses for many, in elegant fashion. Anything that has come since has not changed that.

And yet almost since the knockout stages began, that side of Italy has, at best, been visible only in flashes. They have never got close to monopolizing possession as they did against Turkey and Wales: Partly because of the increased quality of their opponent, partly the state of games against Belgium and, for a shorter time, Spain. It was natural to sit back and protect leads, and equally because a team that has rotated relatively minimally during this tournament is starting to look a little bit drained. That was particularly apparent in the semifinal when the constant probing of the Spanish attack seemed to have worn them out early on.

Where once they might have tried to throttle opponents high up the pitch, Italy are showing a greater willingness to drop deep, trusting Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to do what they have been doing for decades and hold attackers away from their goal. In the opening game, 40 percent of Italy’s ball pressures came in the Turkey third, per fbref. That number has been declining steadily to the semifinal, where it was 21 percent with significantly more defensive work being done in the Italian half of the pitch. 

It should be noted that the absence of Leonardo Spinazzola does seem to have discombobulated Italy, particularly down a left flank that looked capable of cutting opponents apart at will. It is still where much of their danger comes from even without the Roma defender, but the threat is rather more orthodox with Emerson haring down the byline. With Spinazzola and Insigne together, the duo would rotate the point of attack, one stationed wide on the touchline one moment before they exchanged a few passes and came out the other side in some entirely different setup. Behind them, Marco Verratti and on occasion Chiellini would be providing quick, accurate passes to build attacks with.

The absence has also been felt in pressing without the ball. Italy have won the ball back in their own left channel around the central area more frequently than anywhere else on the pitch, according to Sky Sports. In short, this was the spot where Italy won games before they lost Spinazzola. It may be again — Emerson was an impressive performer with little of the ball against Spain — but there is not the same alchemy to this team without their right-footed left back.

With Spinazzola, we may have seen a different Italy heading deep into the tournament. Without quite as much thrust down the left flank, it may be that they play in a rather similar fashion to the penalty shootout win over Spain, albeit with the possession battle ticking back towards parity. 

3. Kane finds the right time to reprise his Spurs role

If England learned one thing from Spain’s near success against the Italian defense on Wednesday, it will have been the success of Dani Olmo. Chiellini and Bonucci like nothing more than to impose themselves on a traditional center forward. Attacking them in close quarters is very much the soccer equivalent of posting up both Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert at the same time. You’re going to come away with bruises, quite possibly both physically and emotionally.

Better to take them out of their comfort zone, Luis Enrique rightly judged. Have them chase little guys like Dani Olmo on the perimeter. It worked to a tee, Spain finding seams in an Italian defense that one might never have expected such veterans to leave. Of his 73 touches in the game, Olmo only twice had the ball in the penalty area. Even when the more orthodox striker Alvaro Morata ended the fray, he spent much of his time outside the box, dragging the center backs out there before a brilliant give-and-go with Ferran Torres before his burst of pace took him into the area to slot home the equalizer.

It is fair to question whether Harry Kane would have the pace required for that move, even against two center backs with a combined age three years beyond the retirement age of 67 in Italy, but this may still be the moment where his tendency to drop into spaces finally proves to be the perfect fit for England. 

His tournament has seen his push toward a deeper role on the club stage being pulled against by a team blessed with plenty of creators, but no one who can occupy the box as well as the Spurs striker. Against Denmark, he found something akin to a happy medium with more than half his touches coming in the attacking third for the first time this tournament. The 10 touches he had in the box were by far the most of his competition so far. He was not on an island as he has been in earlier games and was still able to satiate his desire to drop deep and bring the ball toward goal — only Luke Shaw had more progressive carries than England’s No. 9.

It would take years for Kane to forge the instinctive understanding with Raheem Sterling that he has with Heung-min Son (Manchester City would certainly be prepared to let him try), one which propelled him to the top of the Premier League assist charts last season. But there have been signs that the past six or so weeks have seen an approximation of that relationship with England attackers. Take his perfectly judged through ball to Bukayo Saka from which England’s equalizer came against Denmark. Put Kane in those positions and he can deliver in more ways than his scoring … and it might be the best way to discombobulate two of the finest defenders of their generation.


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