Italy v Spain: Wembley Euros showdown a celebration of the 'tiki-taka' resurrection

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When a dominant force appears to be nearing the end of its imperial period, it is a moment many on the receiving end will hastily relish – often prematurely so.

Spanish football's hegemony around the turn of the previous decade – the Euro 2008 and Euro 2012 successes of the national team either side of glory at the 2010 World Cup, along with Barcelona's swaggering dominance and two Champions League crowns under Pep Guardiola – certainly fitted this template.

A playing style founded in the slick, intricate passing and aggressive, intelligent pressing that became celebrated as tiki-taka (although not by Guardiola, who viewed it as "a load of s***, a made-up term), was equally admired and feared.

Admired because, well, how could you not be left in awe by the manner in which Barca and Spain were throwing all previous football logic to the wind? Feared because they looked like teams with cheat codes, impossible to stop.

Bayern Munich's 7-0 aggregate win over the Blaugrana in the semi-finals of the 2012-13 Champions League certainly took some of the shine off, although Guardiola had left Camp Nou by that stage.

The next season he was in charge of Bayern Munich, who were ransacked by a counter-attacking Real Madrid to lose 4-0 at a shellshocked Allianz Arena in the 2013-14 semis.

"Barca 0-7 Bayern. Bayern 0-4 Madrid. Pattern Developing," tweeted former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville as the latter match wound to a close, although his posts during the game left little doubt over what he suspected that pattern to be.

"Football has returned after a sabbatical!

"Heavy Metal and Rock & Roll Football… Swan Lake has retired! Hallelujah!

"We need manipulators of the ball/players that drift/lads that pop up in the pockets! Do we F@@k!"

Neville revelled in the apparent end of tiki-tyranny and he was not the only one. When Spain's World Cup defence ended in the ignominy of a group-stage exit at Brazil 2014, the detractors seemed to have a cast-iron case.

And yet, Spain arrive at Tuesday's Euro 2020 semi-final against Italy at Wembley looking very much like Spain. Somewhat more surprisingly, the Italy team awaiting sometimes look even more like Spain.

 

Sergio Busquets, Koke and Pedri versus Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barrella is a dreamy midfield battle in prospect. They're manipulators of the ball, players that drift, lads that pop up in the pockets. Those reports of death seven years ago were greatly exaggerated.

'The first battle will be for possession'

Fittingly, Italy's deep-lying conductor Jorginho and the prodigious Pedri, a Spain playmaker in the shuffling, shimmering tradition of Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, head into Tuesday's match having attempted 381 open-play passes apiece.

No midfielder in the tournament has made more. Koke is up next on 358 – numbers Busquets (246) would certainly be up alongside had Rodri not been preferred for the opening two games after the veteran was forced into isolation at the start of June due to a positive COVID-19 test.

 

Verratti also began on the sidelines through injury but has quickly made up for lost time.

No player in the competition has created more chances from open play than the Paris Saint-Germain star's 10, with Pedri on nine. The Barca teenager has been involved in 35 shot-ending sequences – another tournament best that shows how integral he is to how Spain operate.

Jorginho and Verratti register 31 and 30 on this metric respectively, although the expected goals (xG) value of the chances coming from Pedri's involvements is a staggering 7.7 – comfortably in excess of his rivals despite not yet having an assist to his name.

 

Spain (34) and Italy (25) are one and two at Euro 2020 for build-ups, which are open-play sequences that have 10 or more passes and end with a shot or at least one touch in the opposition box. Unsurprisingly Spain boast the most moves of 10 or more passes (147) and are the only team into triple figures.

"The first battle tomorrow will be for possession of the football," Spain boss Luis Enrique told his pre-match news conference. "They can defend if they have to, but they are most comfortable with the ball. And we always want to have it."

Pressing matters

Such frictionless play in possession is in line with Neville's allusions to ballet, but there is a more rugged, harder edge required where Roberto Mancini and Luis Enrique' teams both rank highly in yet more reverence to the fashion of 10 years ago that refused to go away.

Creativity and efficiency with the ball is one thing, but the essential ingredient when it comes to making this playing style work is a collective commitment to winning it back quickly.

 

Spain have 47 high turnovers – the amount of times they have won back possession within 40 metres of the opposition goal – the joint-second highest at Euro 2020 alongside fellow semi-finalists Denmark. Italy are slightly back on 42 hight turnovers, but 11 of those have led to shots and yielded three goals.

Those are both better than any other team. Spain are next up with 10 high turnovers but no goals from them, another hint at the profligacy that might yet cost them dearly this week.

No side has more pressed sequences than Spain 105, which are instances of the opposition starting a move in their defensive third and having three or fewer passes before losing possession in their own half. Italy are third on 73.

Luis Enrique remains fully committed to a high defensive line, with Spain's average starting distance of 47.8m the furthest from their own goal of any team at the tournament.

For this not to be a vulnerability, a high level of pressing is required and La Roja's average of allowing 8.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) suggests they harry opponents far more intensively than any other side, with group-stage departees Poland next on 11.5.

Italy's 13.4 PPDA aligns with a deeper starting distance of 44.2m, which shows Mancini taking into account the relative lack of pace for masterful veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at centre-back.

 

 Tiki-taka 2.0

Thinking back to 2014 and that moment of Iberian crisis, Juventus great Chiellini was probably another rubbing his hands together.

"Guardiolismo has ruined many Italian defenders a bit," he said before the Azzurri's humiliating play-off loss to Sweden that saw them miss out on the 2018 World Cup.

"Now defenders know how to set the tone of play and they can spread the ball, but they don't know how to mark. It's a great pity because we're losing our DNA a bit and some of those characteristics which had made us excel in the world."

However, the mistake of this point of view and the one adopted by Neville a few years earlier is to consider the Spanish/Catalan model as something one-dimensional and absolutist.

In practice, its main protagonists have demonstrated a capacity to innovate and adapt, while remaining true to the core playing principles Italy and Spain have shown at Euro 2020.

At Bayern and then again at Manchester City, Guardiola revolutionised the full-back position, encouraging his wide defenders to either bolster the midfield or join the attacking line to give greater possibilities for the numerical superiority that the system demands.

 

Leonardo Spinazzola was arguably Italy's stand-out player of the tournament before suffering the cruel fate of a ruptured Achilles tendon in the quarter-final win over Belgium.

The Roma man proved a relentless attacking threat with seven chances created and six shot-ending carries. In the kind of free-flowing 4-3-3 Mancini has adopted, it is certainly not unusual for a full-back to become a thrilling auxiliary attacking threat.

Luis Enrique followed Guardiola's path as a former Barcelona B head coach taking over the first team in 2014 and his construction of the MSN forward line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar meant the Blaugrana carried a more direct threat as the likes of Busquets and Iniesta continued to control central areas.

For all the tiki-taka stylings of Mancini's Italy outlined above, their 12 direct attacks are second only to Denmark at Euro 2020, a definite nod to Luis Enrique's revamp of the Cruyffian blueprint.

It is also true that Mancini's current team look more like Guardiola's Manchester City than the City he coached to Premier League glory in 2011-12.

The Trequartista thesis

Mancini and Italian football itself has been on a journey over recent years, but not the one most frequently and crudely barked out.

The Azzurri's shift to become Euro 2020's great entertainers was not as simple as Mancini flicking a switch and turning out the lights on catenaccio, the infamous ultra-defensive tactic that has encouraged an unhelpfully one-dimensional view of Italian football.

Mancini's own international career was one of being shunted to the margins because his prime as a quicksilver forward of rare gifts coincided with Roberto Baggio's peak years. After hanging up his boots, he came through the halls of the Italian Football Federation's (FIGC) Coverciano headquarters, completing its famed Il Master coaching qualification.

Nestled in a picturesque location below Monte Cereci, five kilometres east of Florence, this is hardly a school of defensive authoritarianism.

"We have to make a mix of our football culture with the cultures of other European countries," Renzo Ulivieri, the director of the FIGC's Scuola Allenatori told Stats Perform in late 2019.

"I think that our best quality is we are not closed, but we are open to other football cultures. We mix our culture with others."

Ulivieri welcomed Guardiola to deliver a seminar and also waxed lyrical about Jurgen Klopp. Mancini's thesis when he studied was entitled "Il Trequartista", dedicated to how best to use on-field artists such as those he has crammed into his Italy squad.

 

At Euro 2012, Cesare Prandelli did something similar and the Azzurri played some delightful stuff. It's hard to imagine a midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi – now one of Mancini's assistants having played under Luis Enrique at Roma – doing anything but.

In the final, they were thumped 4-0 by a majestic Spain, casting them unfairly as something of a Spain-lite. Despite adding a young Verratti to the mix at the 2014 World Cup, Prandelli's approach was less successful and Italy fell at the group stage.

If that encouraged concerns such as Chiellini's over a loss of traditional values, then the listless failure to reach Russia 2018 under the ill-fated Gian Piero Ventura showed a team with no values at all was palpably worse.

Mancini harnessed and unleashed a gifted generation, meaning Spain are in an unusual position heading into this semi-final. The football nation they generally view as a mortal enemy in stylistic and moral terms has been rebuilt in their image.

Perhaps there will be more of the pantomime villain time-wasting that snuffed out Belgium or a no-nonsense victory to match how Antonio Conte's Italy bested Vicente del Bosque's flagging world-beaters at Euro 2016.

The Azzurri might remain the 'Big Bad', as when Mauro Tassotti brutally smashed an elbow into Luis Enrique's face during Spain's defeat in the 1994 World Cup quarter-final – his bloodied face remaining a defining image of the rivalry.

"Please no, that is so long ago now, my nose is better now," Luis Enrique chuckled when the incident was raised pre-match on Monday. "I've spoken with Mauro since and he is a good guy."

Battered and smashed up to smiling and back on top. You could say the same for the famed Spanish playing style that promises us a Wembley feast.


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