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Women's Euro 2022: Why Italy can pack a punch (guest post)
Yash Thakur breaks down an exciting Italian side
Hi everyone, Grace here. Here are two all-too-rare things from this newsletter: an article not from me and an article on women’s football. It’s a subject where I really feel experts do a much better job than me vaguely stumbling around and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Yash did a brilliant job with this article that really goes into the tactical nuances of Italy, and I highly recommend you all give it a read.
Italy were the pioneers, hosting the first “Coppa del Mondo” before FIFA cared about women’s football. The first “European Championship” winner? Italy in 1969, though this was pre-UEFA involvement and doesn’t count as an official title. The juggernauts of yesteryear are under the spotlight again.
Italy are the forgotten figures of women’s football, ones that peaked too early before the cameras could capture it. The arrival of Milena Bertolini in 2017 helped Italy break past the slumber that previous head coach Antonio Cabrini put them in. After dwindling for most of the 2000s and early 2010s, Bertolini’s arrival helped wake up the sleeping giant.
While Italy’s men’s team were sulking after a failed qualification for the World Cup in 2018, Bertolini’s side were back in the biggest stage after a 20 year absence. A World Cup run that showed the grit and perseverance of the side and saw them pull off a late win against Australia. Although they got knocked out at the quarter-final stage, they gave a very good account of themselves.
With Serie A Femminile set to become a professional league next season, things look on the up in Italy. As Gli Azzurri mourn a failed qualification again, Le Azzure look well poised to make it to back-to-back World Cups, currently sitting atop their qualification group with 21 points from 8 games.
The colors of their sleeves are the same.
The passion during the national anthem is the same.
The intensity and the strong sense of togetherness between the players is the same.
But there is still something so unique and alluring about the current Le Azzure. In this piece we will run down through the players and the tactics that form the side ahead of this summer’s Euros in England.
Style of play
Bertolini’s Italy is flexible in their approach, they prefer to prioritize defensive solidity with 4-1-4-1 or 5-3-2 formation against a ball dominant opposition while preferring a 4-3-3 otherwise. The team is a blend of an experienced spine, consisting of Laura Giugliani and Juventus’ trio of Sara Gama, Barbara Bonansea and Cristiana Girelli, mixed with players in/on the cusp of their peak years, like Lisa Boattin, Valentina Bergamaschi, Manuela Giugliano, Ariana Caruso and Agnese Bonfantini.
AC Milan’s Laura Giuliani is a mainstay in goal. The 29 year-old is good with her feet and has got great reflexes to pull off jaw dropping saves. She acts as a +1 in possession when Italy build from the back, allowing the CBs to split and push fullbacks high. She is also quick off her line to sweep up the threat behind the defensive lines.
While most of the back 4 picks itself, the RB/RCB is a position that can be tweaked based on their approach. Elisa Bartoli takes the reins at RB to offer greater defensive solidity while sacrificing slight offensive output. The center backs in the lineup are good vertical passers and often break the first line of press by their passing. Both Elena Linari and Sara Gama are good distributors of the ball and have a proclivity to carry the ball forwards. While this pushes the opposition back it also limits the space Italians get to work through the opposition lines.
This strategy falls in line with Italy’s idea of utilizing their wide players for progression and they have one of the best on-ball players in the team in Lisa Boattin playing at LB.The 25 year-old is an alumnus of the Brescia youth academy and currently plays for Juventus. Her talent has been making waves since the 2014 U17 World Cup. Blessed with a magical left foot, Boattin can curl a perfect delivery into the box from wide areas from open-play and dead ball situations. Her comfort on the ball and in tight areas has seen be an important part in the possession phases. She is good in offensive and defensive 1v1 situations, exhibiting great reading of the game. The range on her passing is absolutely brilliant, she can take up positions on the inside and find targets in behind with ease.
The midfield is where a lot of changes happen based on personnel selected. While Italy have options in the middle of the park, the tendencies of a lot of the midfielders tend to overlap. It’s a balancing act, where you want enough defensive security without having to sacrifice the dynamic runs from the midfield.
The midfield revolves around the metronome, Manuela Giugliano. An attacking midfielder in her youth days, Giugliano has transitioned into a deep lying playmaker as time went on. The exquisite range on her passing makes her capable of putting her team in behind the opposition defensive lines in a single sweeping move. It comes in handy when switching the point of attack, forcing possession onto the opposition’s weak side and forcing them to shift laterally. Her tendencies to make forward runs still persist from her youth days.
While Giugliano is a mainstay in the midfield, her partners are often rotated as per the needs. Juventus’ Ariana Caruso and Everton’s Aurora Galli (fondly referred as Yaya) are the duo that offers a lot of dynamism. Caruso is excellent at timing her runs into the box from midfield. She is an excellent presser and works really hard off the ball. Yaya, on the other hand, adds a layer of defensive solidity while displaying comfort in possession that allows Giugliano to roam forwards. She offers herself as a passing option on the flanks and through the middle in buildup phases as well.
Look at this build-up sequence. Yaya offers herself behind the first line of pressure then quickly releases a pass to Giugliano, who makes a third player run getting Italy into the final third. Her presence allows Giugliano to venture forwards with ample cover from midfield. When Yaya strikes the ball, it stays hit, showcasing her long range shooting at the FIFA WWC 2019 against Jamaica. Inter Milan’s Flaminia Simonetti is another option should Bertolini prefer to have more control and resilience in defence against an opponent.
Italian teams have previously been characterized by their stingy compact defence and, while Bertolini’s side is astute off-the-ball, they do it their way. Italy’s pressing depends on the opposition. They are a side capable of deploying a high press, but usually opt to sit in a mid block. They utilize a player-oriented marking system focused on forcing opposition to make riskier passes. The idea is to deny central progression during buildup or direct the traffic into a zone where they can suffocate the opposition aka towards the touchline. The marking scheme often forces the opposition into long balls, increasing the chance of a turnover.
The player-to-player marking is a double edged sword, though. It makes their defensive structure slightly easier to manipulate. Synchronized opposite movements can result in openings appearing in their team shape, and a player-to-player marking makes it easier to create isolation for teams and impose technical superiority.
When Italy wins the ball back, they are vertical in their passing, looking to travel the most yards following a turnover and catch the opposition trying to regroup. They tend to play the ball through the central zones following a turnover, but with a lack of bodies very high up the pitch, teams can often outnumber them in the final third.
While they aren’t the most potent side in attack, they do have the tools to account for something greater than the sum of their individual parts. The front line is spearheaded by Juventus’ Cristiana Girelli – a very good outlet – allowing Italy to move upfield quickly.
Girelli is one of the better aerial players in world football. She contests a lot of aerial duels and is really good at attacking the ball, often timing her jump and using her movements to create space for herself. Focus on how she peels away at the far post before meeting the corner and almost squeezing it in at the far post. The 32 year-old had the most headed shots in Europe’s top 5 leagues in the 20-21 season.
Her awareness in the box is excellent as she is quick to react to loose ball situations. She is very likely to be involved in any goalscoring move Italy creates.
Another stalwart in attack is Barbara Bonansea. The 31 year-old is a flamboyant winger, who is a force to reckon with. She is extremely good at creating chances and completing take-ons, showcasing amazing change of pace in the process.The quick and direct winger does her part in defensive phases as well. Offering further flexibility in attack is Valentina Giacinti. A striker by trade, she offers excellent workrate and can do a job from out wide as well. Capable of scoring and providing, Giacinti can offer a great option off the bench.
Italy’s attack is full of players above the mighty three-oh in age. The veterans lead from the front figuratively and literally for Le Azzure. Usually completing the attacking trio is Valentina Cernoia. The 31 year-old, a midfielder by trade, can do a splendid job from the wings as well. She likes to pull the ball back on to her dominant left foot to put excellent crosses in and is deadly from set-pieces with her delivery and direct attempts. She has a good shot from range as well.
Bertolini has a trump card in her pocket in the form of the 25 year-old Valentina Bergamaschi. The Milan winger is another versatile option that can play on either flank as a winger or a fullback. She is excellent at going forwards with the ball, offering greater offensive value. She is a bombing presence on the flanks with her pace, liking to run at defenders or make diagonal runs in behind, while being a good crosser of the ball.
When Italy defend, they do so in packs. When they attack, they do so with every ounce of energy in their body. Always together. They have a certain flamboyance about them that leaves a mark on the viewer. Completing the quartet in Group D alongside France, Iceland and Belgium, a run to Wembley seems like a long shot at the moment, but the Italians are bound to capture eyes and imagination once again in the summer.