Not many people are surprised to see Spain in the final but I can say that Portugal definitely gave them a run for their money. The game between Spain and Portugal was terribly clogged in the midfield zone which isn’t surprising as Spain plays very, very narrow (except for Jordi Alba’s stellar performance bombing out of the left side of defense) but Portugal is known for its wingers but they were rather anonymous. Both sides played strikers that were terribly uninventive and played horrible games. Portugal’s wingers needed someone attacking the goal and Nani’s bad game didn’t help either. Why Del Bosque went with Negredo is beyond me and he eventually brought on Fabregas and switched back to his seemingly preferred False 9 system. When this happened, Spain slowly pressed back into the game and they were very close to winning it in extra time. Portugal disrupted Spain very well in midfield but they had nothing to offer in the final third (besides Ronaldo’s chance that he bottled). This game will be heavily analyzed by Italy due to a number of reasons I’ll mention later. Much is being made about Ronaldo not taking an earlier penalty. I don’t agree with all this vitriol towards him. Drogba took Chelsea’s decisive fifth; Fabregas took Spain’s. If Portugal had gotten down to their fifth and it was to win it, wouldn’t have everyone said it should have been Ronaldo to take it? It was just unfortunate that Bruno Alves’s shot struck off the post and out and Fabregas’s somehow bounced in. The cruel reality of penalty shootouts.
Now onto the shock entry in the Final: Italy. While I was impressed by the Netherlands in the lead up to the tournament, the majority saw Germany as the team with the best chance to knock off Spain. Germany played well in every game up until the Italy game but Italy has been a dark horse in this tournament when they arguably should have been given a lot more respect. The revitalization of the Azzurri under Prandelli is quite shocking compared to their run-up games to Euro 2012. Prandelli, out of the quarterfinalists and arguably the whole tournament, has been very bold with his systems. His 3-5-2 system played extremely well against Spain but his 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond confounded both England and Germany with their technical midfielders. Pirlo has been the linchpin in that midfield and has dictated Italy’s games. It will be very interesting to see who is the more decisive, Pirlo or Spain’s Xavi or Alonso. Italy’s biggest question was if Balotelli would show up at the tournament or not. His clinical header and thunderous strike against Germany would scream that the world class striker that we know he can be has arrived. But, will his temper get the best of him if Spain bosses the ball around and he doesn’t get a sniff of it for extended periods of time? Germany and Low knew they had to compensate for Italy’s midfield four but Kroos was completely ineffective and it seemed that Klose should have started over Gomez. Germany only had to play their game but they played to try to prevent Italy’s and they failed. Germany had many good chances to score more goals but Buffon had a barn-stormer of a match (not to mention Pirlo’s goal-line kneed pass to Buffon). As Germany was chasing the game, Italy had numerous chances to put the game out of sight but their finishing was still lackluster. In the end, Italy deservedly won a difficult match and earned a spot to try and dethrone Spain from football ascendancy.
The obvious questions, tactically, for Spain and Italy are whether or not Spain will play with an out-and-out striker or use Fabregas in a False 9 system. Also, if Italy is to go with their 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, the center of the pitch will be extremely clogged and bogged down so then Spain has to offer more than Jordi Alba on the wings. Who will the width come from? On the Italian side, it’s a little more straightforward. Will Prandelli go with his 3-5-2 that played surprisingly well against Spain or with his 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond that has dominated the past two games? I think Italy should go with their 3-5-2 to exploit the width that Spain does not inherently have. If this does happen, I think Spain have to play Torres up top and get him running at De Rossi – he did not play that well as sweeper and looked very suspect at times. De Rossi is obviously not a sweeper nor a natural defender and using the False 9 system could work but the likelihood of De Rossi’s two shielding central defenders being pulled out of position is highly unlikely. Spain need to exploit the space behind the wing backs if the 3-5-2 system is used which means width is required. Jesus Navas should be included. Spain has an abundance of the same type of midfield player and while Iniesta can offer extra width on the right, Alonso and Xavi can’t do that on the right side. Arbeloa rarely bombs forward and it seems his teammates don’t trust him doing so either. Width may not be the end all be all for Spain when facing Italy’s 3-5-2 but it is if they face Italy’s 4-4-2 and midfield diamond. Jordi Alba should have a huge game against that formation but help is needed on the other side of the pitch to further pull Italy’s defensive shape out of whack. Against Italy’s 4-4-2, I do not think Torres or Fabregas’s False 9 have an advantage over the other since they both should work if more width is included into the Spanish side.
In short, it should be a very interesting day for us tacticians and to see what battles will follow and how Prandelli and Del Bosque deal with them during the game. I think Italy will go with their 4-4-2 with the midfield diamond and Spain will play with Fabregas as the False 9. I think it will be a very scrappy close game until someone injects some pace and width into either side. I genuinely wish Prandelli would use his 3-5-2 but his 4-4-2 system has worked very well these past two games. I think it’ll be too close of a game and ends in a draw and down to penalties. My pick: Italy to win on PK’s. Let the hate mail begin.