While it may sound trite, when Italy and England take the field tomorrow at Wembley Stadium, there will be more than silverware on the line. With both clubs looking to erase the pains of recent failures and reclaim their place among the world's elite, the consequences of Sunday's Euro 2020 final will resonate well beyond this Pan-European panoply of football.
Italy's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, while embarrassing, was an inflection point for the entire program. No longer could the Azzurri rest on their laurels, simply assuming their place in the international pecking order was safe. Rather than relying on historical precedent, the shame and embarrassment of missing the 2018 World Cup forced Italy to genuinely reflect on how the program reached that point. What attitudes, assumptions, and misconceptions allowed one of the world's truly great footballing nations to fall so precipitously and so ignominiously into despair?
Italy vs. England: July 11th. 21:00 CET/3:00 EDT. Wembley Stadium, London.
In a sense, Italy followed a pattern set by USA Basketball some 15 years ago. With their usual assortment of NBA superstars, the U.S. waltzed into the 2004 Olympics believing the gold medal was a mere formality. It didn't take long for that presumed victory to become a waking nightmare. Finishing fourth in their group...fourth...the U.S. limped into the knockout rounds before falling to Manu Ginobili and Argentina in the semi-finals.
Spurred by the embarrassment of this failure, USA Basketball retooled the entire program, eschewing the 12 All-Stars-for-the-sake-of-it approach for a more nuanced mix of stars and role players. And the results have been astounding. While the gap between the US and some other nations is shrinking, America has maintained its place atop the basketball pyramid thanks to this more deliberate and purposeful approach, which may not have happened without the pains of 2004.
With the specter of their 2018 failures haunting them for the past three years, Italy faced its own reckoning. But rather than focusing on the players, Roberto Mancini's makeover focused on the approach. Italy's tried and true catenaccio tactics—a philosophy that has defined Italian football for decades—were cast aside in favor of a more aggressive and direct tactical approach.
Rather than letting the opponent dictate the match, Mancini flipped the traditional Italian approach on its head. Instead of squeezing the life out of the match and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake, Mancini's 4-3-3 system used a more direct, vertical, and aggressive approach to subdue opponents, and much like USA Basketball before them, the results have been impressive.
After tearing through the qualification rounds with a perfect 10-0-0 record while sporting an absurd +33 goal differential, Mancini's Azzurri renovation continued into the Euro 2020 group stage where Italy's record remained unblemished. While they faced some stiffer competition in the knockout rounds, they continued to prevail, folding in their old catenaccio tactics into Mancini's new calcio recipe.
Mancini and Italy now face their toughest challenge yet: The Three Lions of England, who have enjoyed their own renaissance over the past three years under Gareth Southgate. And this Italy vs. England fixture promises to be a match for the ages, but it also promises to tear the Chiesa di Totti apart at the seams.
When the whistle blows tomorrow, our crew will be split between our lone Englishman (Dallagente) and our three Italian-American writers (myself, Steven, and Jimmy), while our resident Belgian (Jonas) will serve as a neutral UN observer, watching from afar in his blue helmet and Kevlar vest while the rest of our hopes rise and fall with every kick of the ball.
You may have noticed a decidedly Italian bent to the preview thus far, and with good reason. In order to get a better understanding of what's at stake for England tomorrow, we pressed our English scribe for some context: What would a win mean for England, and what makes this particular team so different from all the hyped English sides of the past?
The English Perspective
Obviously, you can’t speak for a nation of millions, but give us the general impression among your social circle. Is this England team finally capable of “bringing football home?”
dallagente: I definitely can’t speak for most of England, and please also keep in mind I’ve only been back in England for the last one and a half years (not by choice either) compared to the years of living in Italy before then, so I’m isolated from a lot of the way of life here.
From what I can tell, speaking with family and friends, this England team plays in a way that is absolutely capable of bringing it home. The semi-final was an exception, at least for the first half against Denmark, where England started to play panicked, hoof football like the old days. But most of the tournament has seen England play with a calm, composure and execution that you’ve never seen before as an England fan.
Following that, what’s the biggest difference between this team and some of the more hyped squads of the Beckham/Gerrard/Lampard generation? Why is the optimism seemingly higher than any other tournament in recent memory?
dallagente: Beckham’s golden generation were made of players who grew up in a 4-4-2 culture, and coaches like Eriksson and even Fabio Capello felt like they had to keep that 4-4-2 identity in the national side (which Capello later admitted was his biggest mistake as England manager). The chemistry between the big names in midfield was not there, and England’s frontline lost Michael Owen to injury, so you were left partnering Wayne Rooney with the likes of anyone ranging from Emile Heskey to Peter Crouch.
Football fashion has moved on a lot since then, and I think high-pressing becoming so mainstream means that even the stereotypical idea that 4-4-2 will always get outnumbered by 4-3-3 or more European formations in midfield is outdated. But, either way, England plays tactically fluid and their ability to create overloads in the half-spaces on either flank is unmatched. Then you’ve also got players who have achieved dominance at club level even on the European scene, like the City and Chelsea players this season, and players who’ve grown up under more European-style coaches at club level in the Premier League.
Back in Beckham’s day, it was seen as an upset of the European powers if Manchester United or Liverpool made a deep run into the Champions League, and English players who played abroad (Owen Hargreaves) were looked at like aliens. Now there’s not even really a need to play abroad (though it’s always welcome when guys like Sancho and Bellingham take the chance) because the Premier League sets the standard for European club football. So there’s a different set of expectations that England coach Gareth Southgate has to cater to when he’s calling players up to the England squad nowadays.
What exactly would winning Euro 2020 mean to the average English football fan? Is one title enough to satisfy nearly 60 years of disappointment, or are people expecting Southgate’s squad to become a mini-dynasty in the mold of Spain’s 2008-2012 run?
dallagente: I honestly don’t think anyone in the nation has dared talk about anything beyond Sunday night. Personally, if England does win Euro 2020, I’d expect that to be the beginning of trying to go for a dynasty because football is set up that way nowadays. The wild-card factor of knockout football is being watered down by FIFA and UEFA in the early stages of tournaments as much as they can get away with it, and we’re a long way from the 80s where it would have been incredibly hard for any big nation to survive two, pure knockout-format tournaments in a row over two to four years.
Now you have seedings, you have the kind of run that England has been given en route to getting to this Euro 2020 final. Who’s to say they won’t get another “easy” run at the World Cup 2022? The average age of this squad is a shade over 25 years old, and I think the first eleven is even younger. So yeah, you’d definitely say any success this summer should be a launchpad to an England assault on the World Cup.
Now, if England can’t bring it home, what sort of reaction would you expect from fans, the players, and even the FA? Would it be a blip on the radar or could a tide of negativity potentially derail all their progress?
dallagente: You’d probably see England beating itself up (the nation much more than the team, who would get over it much faster) and poking fun at itself for daring to believe, thinking we’ve gotten carried away with the hype again and branding ourselves as a bunch of bottlers when the pressure is on. I don’t think there is as much self-hatred, self-loathing, or navel-gazing running through English culture as there was two or three decades ago, but it’s still there in the background when things go wrong. That’s also why I don’t fit in, in this country, and I’m much more at home in Italy, because I have space in my life for ironismo but I don’t give much of a damn about self-deprecation. I feel it’s more sincere to wear your heart on your sleeve (with all the faults that involves) than try to play it down.
You may have an advantage in answering this question, but do you think English fans are underestimating Italy because of the old perception that Serie A is slow and boring? What do you think the average England fan will find most surprising about Mancini’s Italy?
dallagente: I actually believe I’m at a disadvantage when answering this question, as I haven’t watched the Premier League in years (thanks, Mike Ashley) and I’m in my own Serie A bubble when it comes to talking with other football fans. So I’m actually overly exposed to the arrogance of Serie A fans instead. If you tell me there are arrogant Premier League fans, I believe you, as every league and country has them.
I don’t think England fans will be thinking of Italy, heading into this final. You could see that as underestimating Italy, but that’s the luxury you have when you have better players: The conversation is focused on how best to use your own first eleven. That’s also the sword hanging over Gareth Southgate’s neck, because if you want a Serie A-style coach who’s more focused on how to take away the opponents strengths as a first priority, then Southgate is your man (I never thought I would have said that about him given how he first started out back at Middlesbrough). We’ve lived in a parallel universe where Italy are the more progressive side and England have a manager who’s seen as employing “negative” tactics.
I think England could be surprised by Italy’s midfield, who are a very capable trio of players and Steve outlined it perfectly in the podcast when he said a lot Sunday’s game will be down to how Jorginho plays. If Jorginho helps Italy control the midfield, Italy will get players up in attack to force England’s wide players back. We’ve already seen Southgate’s defensive tactics leave Kane, Sterling and Saka outnumbered in attack in many games already. If those players get frustrated by Italy’s defence and control of the game, then the pressure is going to be on Southgate to bring a more offensive player off the bench to help even up the numbers in attack, like Foden or Grealish (though Foden has just picked up an injury today). If England loses the game, people will say Southgate should have used more attacking players in the first eleven all along.
Is it Coming Home or Coming to Rome: Tactics, Predictions and More
Italy barreled through most of their matches until they ran into Spain’s tiki-taka torture masterpiece. Are there any lessons in there for Gareth Southgate? Can England (or should England) mimic Spain’s approach to slowing down Italy’s attack?
dallagente: Both Spain and Austria have shown that, when you get up in Italy’s faces and close them down high and early, Italy drops back and relies on Bonucci and Chiellini to be the emotional fulcrum of the team. As good as Jorginho, Verratti, and Barella are individually, they don’t show much understanding of how to counter-press or defend as a unit, and they’ve been left at sixes and sevens all over the pitch when they get rattled (which is normal at international level when you’re not club-mates with much training behind you anyway).
It wasn’t just Spain’s possession game that rattled Italy for me, but the Spanish front three pushing up high on Donnarumma and the backline from any restart of play. And I think that’s easily doable for England’s frontline to do the same, and especially doable for Kalvin Phillips to go aggressive in midfield. So for sure England will have to exploit that as an avenue into taking control of the game.
ssciavillo: I have to agree with Sean that the pressing would be the biggest lesson to be taken from the Spain match, as well as, Austria match which is where Italy has had the most trouble. It’ll be interesting to see if England tries to mimic that and if they do, how the Italian midfield copes with the pressure.
Bren: I wasn’t paying quite as much attention to Spain’s pressing in that match, apart from how quickly they swarmed Italy on the rare occasions in which they lost possession, but by simple virtue of holding the ball they seemed to visibly frustrate Italy, who looked incredibly anxious when they managed to recover the ball. So in that light, I think the Spanish did set a precedent but I’m not sure England has the requisite midfielders to pull that off. But the basic plan Spain put on display did work for most of the match, so England would be wise to at least consider that approach.
Jonas: England doesn’t really have the refined players like Spain (Pedri, Rodri, Ferran, Olmo, Alba). They have decent players but they depend more on physicality and flashes of Sterling or Kane. It’s the final, not the time to experiment or change the tactics. You’ve come this far, don’t throw it all away.
Okay, if England doesn’t follow that model, how can the Three Lions defeat the Azzurri? Is there any particular approach or any particular players that could lead to an English victory?
dallagente: If England struggles to create chances because Bonucci and Chiellini turn up in top form, then would you want to keep pressing Italy over 90 minutes? I think if it’s still 0-0 after an hour, then England might want to ease off pressing and see if they can’t hit Italy on the break instead. At that point, you’re looking at any fast guy like Saka or Sterling to be the hero, and there’s always the aerial threat of Harry Maguire at corners.
ssciavillo: The thing that scares me the most is the pace of players like Sterling and Saka. The two of them are burners and with Spinazzola out at left-back, Italy doesn’t have a whole lot of pace left in defense and the midfield isn’t the quickest either. So, it worries me that if Italy wins the possession battle that England could hit them on the counter with the pace those guys possess.
Bren: I’m expecting this to be an incredibly close and agonizing match, and whether it’s 1-1 or 0-0 after 75 minutes or whatever, I think England has the advantage simply because of Harry Kane. He’s head and shoulders above the rest of the attacking players on either side, so if this comes down to one moment, one set-piece, one cross, etc, I think Kane could make the difference. So if they don’t follow the Spanish model to frustrate Italy, then England needs to play to their strength, to utilize the one weapon Italy has no counter for— Harry Kane.
Jonas: Southgate should just grow some balls and play Sterling, Foden, Sancho, and Kane all at once. Throw in Saka and Mount if it’s necessary. This is the final. One game, one shot, one opportunity. Eminem 8 Mile style. Throw everything you have at them.
When it comes to scoring goals, Italy has thrived with a collective approach, but will their lack of a Kane or Sterling in attack hurt them in this match? If it’s the 87th minute and the chips are down, who’s scoring the goals for Italy?
dallagente: I’ve often felt Kyle Walker can let his concentration fall off just when you don’t need him to, so it could be Insigne, Chiesa, or even Immobile curling in a right-footed shot from the left side if they’re given too much space for even a moment. It’s also always within Nicolo Barella’s power to make a late run in the box as the extra man in attack, and just bury it past the keeper.
ssciavillo: I don’t mind the collective approach for the Azzurri. It was the same approach in the 2006 World Cup when Luca Toni only had two goals from the striker position and Marco Materazzi was the joint team leader as a center back. So, the collective approach can win games and tournaments. And in some ways, it can be seen as an advantage since even when Ciro gets shut down, Italy still has enough scoring to win matches. If it gets late and it’s 0-0, I’m going to tip Chiesa who’s got the pace to beat a tiring defense and has had a knack for big goals this tournament.
Bren: The collective approach cuts both ways. On the one hand, it keeps opponents off-kilter because they don’t know where to concentrate their efforts, but on the other hand, when the chips are down and you have no leader to turn to, then what? In American football, we have the saying that on any given Sunday, any team can beat any team. But what makes that more likely: a collective approach with no alpha (for lack of a better word) or one proven star who can rise to the occasion?
Logic would prefer the collective over the individual, but if it comes down to one moment, one pass, or one kick of the ball, would you prefer the strength by numbers approach, or would a proven superstar make you more comfortable? Which approach is more likely to bear fruit when it matters most?
Jonas: Immobile and Belotti aren’t the best strikers in the tournament but Italy has a lot of weapons. And you can always count on Bryan Cristante scoring with a rocket from 20 yards, of course. England depends too much on Kane and Sterling, I don’t see Rice or Mount carrying the Three Lions on their back and guiding them to glory. Jorginho or Barella on the other hand, can.
Speaking of Kane and Sterling, how can Italy neutralize their impact on Sunday? Does it fall down to Chiellini and Bonucci or is there a way for Mancini to simply scheme them out of the match without relying solely on his veteran center-backs?
dallagente: I mentioned earlier, but Southgate relies on individual talent a lot in attack. His setup often leaves England at a numbers disadvantage when going forward on the break, at which point sometimes England have to slow it down and wait to create an overload from out wide instead. So I could see England’s attackers getting frustrated on Sunday if things go wrong, but then again Harry Kane is just that good that he can change the game plan on his own, in an instant.
ssciavillo: As always, I think Chiellini and Bonucci will be key in dealing with Kane in particular, which is a task that will be especially relished by Chiellini. Sterling will be a tough customer for those two if he can get into space on the break, but I think defending in numbers will be key to keeping him out of positions where he can really hurt Italy.
Also, don’t overlook the importance of Jorginho sitting deep in the midfield. He may be known as the metronome of Italy’s midfield when in possession, but his low-key defensive work is just as important. In the last match against Spain, he was credited with 8 interceptions. It’s that kind of work that could frustrate an English attack that has needed the most touches per shot attempt of any team in the tournament.
Bren: You make some great points, dalla—and I guess it’s kind of the inverse of my previous answer about the collective vs. the individual. If England becomes too Kane-reliant tomorrow, I think Chiellini has enough size, strength, and “assholeness” to frustrate Kane, which could, in turn, frustrate the entire English attack by removing Kane as the hub of Southgate’s offense. In other words, if Kane is constantly smothered, then England has no reference point to rally around, no outlets to ping balls in and out of the box, and everything will grind to a halt.
Kane is an incredibly unique player so it won't be as easy as all that, but I think the pieces are in place to frustrate him, which would, again, frustrate the entire English attack.
Jonas: Chiellini and Bonucci already silenced Lukaku, so Kane should be no problem. The quick and cunning Sterling is another matter. I hope Bonucci and co don’t commit a foul against him in the box and they get a soft penalty like Denmark.
Ciro Immobile has struggled in this tournament while Andrea Belotti has been an afterthought. Put yourself in Mancini’s well-tailored suit and pick one of these options: 1) Start Immobile, 2) Start Belotti, or 3) Bench both, use a false-nine with Insigne. Which would you choose and why?
dallagente: I prefer Belotti in this Italy team, but I can’t see Mancini doing anything other than starting Immobile.
ssciavillo: I think Immobile starts because it’s his runs that open up spaces for Insigne, Chiesa, and Barella to get chances on goal. I think Belotti could be suited to come in off the bench and mix it up with those big center backs if Italy needs to hold the ball up later in the match to grind out a win.
Bren: I am intrigued by the Insigne option but that seems like a drastic measure to take ahead of a cup final, so I suspect he’ll continue with Immobile. He’s been way, way off the mark so far but his runs off the last defender could prove pivotal tomorrow. Even when things aren’t going your way (in any sport), you can still rely on your physical gifts. Immobile knows how to move and how to find open space, so that could be Italy’s saving grace on Sunday.
Jonas: Though I’m not a fan, Immobile is the best option right now in Mancini’s system as Bren and ssciavillo pointed out. At least he hustles and runs all the time although he also gives away scoring chances. For all we know, Ciro scores an 89th-minute winner tomorrow. Starting Belotti and throwing in Immobile around the 70th minute when England is tired, could also be an option.
Apart from the strikers, which Italy player(s) will give England fits on Sunday?
dallagente: Jorginho and Verratti have the guile and experience to frustrate Rice and Phillips, who did let themselves be dominated slightly by Germany’s midfield in the round of 16. England’s midfielders are very young and can rack an early yellow card or two. If Italy are going to give England a scare in any way, it could be by frustrating England’s players into card trouble.
ssciavillo: I agree with Sean. I think it has to be Jorginho and Verratti. When those two are on their game and have time on the ball, they can both easily rack up close to 100 touches each. That could frustrate Phillips and Rice as Sean said. Plus, Verratti has been one of the best players in the tournament in shot-creating actions and both will work hard in the midfield to break up English attacks.
Bren: Yup, good points all around. Just to throw another name into the mix, I’ll say Emerson Palmieri. He’s not quite as good as Leonardo Spinazzola, but he made some pretty impressive runs in Italy’s last match and I get the feeling he’s being overlooked by...well, everyone. He knows these English players, the rowdy fans, and Wembley, so he won’t be rattled and that inside knowledge could prove beneficial for him and could help Italy remain balanced in the attack.
Jonas: Chiellini vs Maguire during corners is a fight I wanna see. I have a feeling Italy might score on a corner. A shot outside the box from a guy like Barella or Locatelli might work as Pickford doesn’t inspire confidence unlike Donnarumma.
Lastly, and most importantly, is it coming home or is it coming to Rome?
dallagente: I hope you like Baddiel and Skinner on repeat over the next month or so, because it’s coming home.
ssciavillo: Italy will complete its renaissance and bring it to Rome.
Bren: I can’t pick against my motherland, but I am scared. I think the confluence of England’s favorable travel schedule, the match being at Wembley and likely to be overwhelmingly pro-England does worry me. This match is going to penalties, I have no doubt. And if that’s the case, give me Donnarumma over Pickford.
I’ll say 2-2 at the end of regular time and then a nailbiter in PKs but Italy will edge England out.
Jonas: It’s coming to Brussels. Yeah, the loss still stings.
We hope you enjoyed this collaborative preview, and whether its coming home or coming to Rome, tomorrow's finale should be epic.