Tactical Analysis: Italy’s Possession-Based Football at Euro 2020

Italy spoiled the hosts’ party at Wembley as Roberto Mancini’s men beat England in an epic penalty shootout to win Euro 2020. The Azzurri won their second European Championship title in history, something they had waited more than half a century for since their triumph in 1968.

To make it sound even more extraordinary, Italy had a 33-game non-losing streak before the Final and the record was extended to 34 when Gianluigi Donnarumma saved a crucial penalty to deny Bukayo Saka.

Before the start of Euro 2020, Italy were named as one of the teams with a chance of winning the tournament by the bookies; yet many football experts had doubts whether this Italian team was good enough to deliver on one of the biggest stages of all.

After the Azzurri missed out on the last World Cup three years ago, Mancini has completely revamped the way Italy play, replacing the old-school catenaccio with an exciting brand of possession-based football.

To find out the reasons behind Italy’s success at Euro 2020, we delved deeper into the tactical nuances of the Azzurri’s performances throughout the tournament.

Line Up and Tactical Set Up

The way Italy lined up and set up in most games at this summer’s Euros was virtually identical to the way the team played during the qualifying campaign. Mancini stuck with his newly introduced 4-4-3 formation, which was never talked about much in the Italian national team setting until the former Manchester City coach took over the Azzurri in 2018.

Although it looked like a traditional 4-3-3 on paper, the formation was mostly converted into a 3-2-4-1 in the game situation, which we will discuss later. Originally, a back four with Giovanni Di Lorenzo at right-back, Leonardo Bonucci at right center-back, Giorgio Chiellini at left center-back and either Leonardo Spinazzola or Emerson Palmieri at left-back formed the first line of the system.

In midfield, Jorginho was to occupy a single pivot role, with Nicolò Barella and either Marco Verratti or Manuel Locatelli playing slightly further forward. The front three had Lorenzo Insigne on the left, Federico Chiesa or Domenico Berardi on the opposite flank, and Ciro Immobile was the only recognized striker in the team occupying the center role.

Italy’s line-up and set-up at Euro 2020 (Photo: tactical-board.com)

The way Mancini decided to alter his team’s original 4-3-3 to a slightly different shape was by changing the positions of the wide players and central midfielders in particular. As we can see in the graphic below, Insigne was shifted to a more central “number 10” role, which meant that the entire left flank belonged to the left full-back. Either Spinazzola or Emerson were now given more attacking duties as they had to compensate for the lack of players on that side, as Insigne was now tasked with playing more as an inside forward.

This meant that the right full-back in Di Lorenzo was instructed to remain deeper instead of joining the attack on the right, turning Italy’s back four into a three-man back line when in possession. The absence of the right-back on the right flank was compensated for by the right winger, either Berardi or Chiesa, who was tasked with keeping a position very wide in order to provide width and stretch the pitch.

As a result, Barella was given permission to move into the inside right channel, creating a four-man midfield line, with Immobile positioned centrally as an out and out striker. One of the two, Verratti or Locatelli, had to drop a little deeper, thus usually forming a double pivot with Jorginho.

Italy’s 4-3-3 shape was altered to 3-2-4-1 in most games (Photo: tactical-board.com)

This tactical shift in formation allowed Mancini to get the best out of some players by having them take on certain roles they are accustomed to at their Serie A clubs, meaning playing to their strengths. Consequently, the Azzurri were still able to dominate possession without losing fluidity in the central and wide areas, while remaining solid at the back and resilient to counter-attacks as they had a back line of three and two holding midfielders to stop any danger coming their way.

Italy’s 3-2-4-1 shape in possession at Euro 2020 (Photo: tactical-board.com)

Italy in Possession: Build Up Play

Since Mancini’s appointment as Italy’s head coach in 2018, the Azzurri have emerged as one of the best possession-oriented teams in the world. Their core characteristic is an exceptionally meticulous build-up play with a clear identity and tactical structure, led by an all-round adept back line and a world-class midfield that possesses an outstanding ability to retain the ball. Such a polished structure gave Italy a strong framework to dominate the game in terms of possession against most opponents, allowing players enough freedom to create while remaining strong defensively and in transition.

Italy build their play out from the back with three defenders, one of whom is a right full-back (Florenzi / Di Lorenzo), who in this case is used as a right-sided center-back, meaning Bonucci shifts more to the center and takes an old-school libero role, while Chiellini drifts from the center to the left half-space and becomes a left-sided center-back. Further up the pitch, Jorginho is usually the deepest midfielder, theoretically creating a diamond shape; however, in most cases, it becomes more of a pentagon, with either Locatelli or Verratti also playing relatively deep to support the Chelsea man. The other central midfielder, Barella, can then push further forward on the inside right channel and link up with players further up the pitch.

Such a solid tactical framework in the early build-up phase enables the wide players, in this case the left full-back, to stay wide and take on more attacking responsibilities, while a three-man back line and a central midfield duo provide solid defensive protection. This tactical plan worked wonderfully for Italy with Spinazzola in the side, as the 28-year-old Roma man is an exceptionally attack-minded full-back who makes deep, overlapping runs into the opposition half, often plays like a winger and is sometimes the highest player in the Azzurri’s attack.

The first phase of Italy’s build-up play
Spinazzola’s EURO 2020 heat map (Photo: sofascore.com)

Both Bonucci and Chiellini are very comfortable in possession and can carry the ball further forward, with the latter often entrusted with this task as Italy preferred to set up their play down the left. As a result, Insigne was instructed to drift inside and occupy the inner left channel, opening up the left flank for Spinazzola to exploit. The left-sided central midfielder, either Locatelli or Verratti, would then also move more to the left side to create passing triangles, while Barella moved more centrally and Berardi positioned himself high and wide on the right. The reason for this was to build the system in such a way that the player qualities could be accommodated within the tactical framework.

Italy progress the ball from the defensive to the midfield third
Chiellini’s EURO 2020 heat map (Photo: sofascore.com)

In the image below, we see an almost identical Italian tactical structure in possession as explained above, but with Verratti occupying the left half / wing-space. The PSG man is one of the best midfield commanders in world football and has an exceptional ability to dictate play with his passing and ball carrying. As a result, he was often instructed to shift out wide to create play from deep, allowing Spinazzola or Emerson to take up a position as a left winger.

Verratti taking on a playmaker role from deep as Italy attack in a 3-2-4-1 formation (supposedly Jorginho moves further forward)

Italy’s preference for building play down the left side of the pitch is graphically illustrated in the figure below. As we can see, 42 per cent of their attacks were set up via the left side, which supports the analysis explained above.

Attack sides map of Italy at EURO 2020 (Photo: whoscored.com)

Italy in Possession: Progressing Through the Thirds

Once Italy moved into the attacking third, the danger came from the positional play and structure that had already been built up, providing freedom and creativity at the top of the pitch. The front three had great balance and were able to complete attacks once they successfully advanced in and around the penalty area. Insigne was a creative spark who usually preferred to stay a little deeper between the opposing defenses and was a great threat with his dribbles and combinations from the half spaces.

Spinazzola’s role was to provide width and penetration on the wing, making Italy very dangerous on that side of the pitch. Both Roma’s full-back and Napoli’s winger are very capable of going inside or out and creating danger in one-on-one situations, but can also combine well with each other. Italy built their play mainly down the left, as discussed above, with the three-man back line setting up in that direction before Insigne and Spinazzola set up their play. They often combined with one-two passes and moves, and Spinazzola often tried to isolate his right counterpart or right-back in one-on-one situations, while the actual right-back or right center-back chased Insigne’s inside movement.

Italy progress from the midfield to the final third
Spinazzola and Insigne progress play down the left side

Although Italy tend to build the majority of their attacks down the left, switching play was another big advantage of their positional play strategy. When the Azzurri were unable to work their way down the left side of the field, they would play the ball back to the center-backs, who would then pass it to the players on the right. As a result, Italy would now employ a similar concept of positional play, but with different players. In such situations, Berardi took over from Spinazzola, operating high and wide in the attacking third, while Barella operated in the inside right channel, resembling Insigne’s role on the left.

Italy switch their play to the right side, where they further build their attacking using the same tactical concept

This strategy often allowed Italy to overload the wide spaces, drawing the opposition to that side as well. Consequently, Italy played further through the lines when possible, looking for pockets of space between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines. When this was successful, it was often Immobile or Insigne who received a pass into these pockets of space. When this was not successful, Italy could shift play to the other side, with Spinazzola running free and having a large space in front of him to run into.

Italy progress through the thirds down the right

Italy Out of Possession: Defensive Shape and Pressing

With nearly 60 percent possession in six of their seven matches at the tournament, with the exception of the Semi-Final game against Spain when the Azzurri controlled just 31 percent of the play, Italy‘s best defensive tactic was to keep the ball and thus prevent their opponents from playing. However, on the occasions when Italy had to defend, they did it extremely well, and we will examine the reasons why.

Either being brought back in their own half and sitting in mid-block or pushing deeper into the opposition half, Italy’s main defensive plan was to be tight and compact in midfield. This tactical implementation meant that opposing teams simply could not play through the middle zones and had to force their play out wide. Nonetheless, Mancini’s men defended the wide spaces just as strongly, as both full-backs were quick to sniff out danger and close down the ball receiver, preventing opponents from progressing play down that side. But it was not just in the wide areas that the Italians were strong in one-on-one defence: The Azzurri players were also extremely reliable in man-to-man marking in the other zones of the pitch, as the second image below shows.

Italy’s narrow defensive midfield block
Italy’s full-backs were quick to close down the opposing wide players

A similar scenario can be seen in the following graphic, where Italy press the opposition deeper into their own half. As we can see, a four-man midfield line blocked the passing lanes for potential through balls through the central zones, forcing the opposition to play the ball to the full-back.

Italy pressing higher up the pitch and blocking central passing lanes
Consequently, the opposition is forced to play the ball out wide, with number of players being tightly man-marked

Another aspect of Italy’s defensive performance that made them so good at shutting down the opposition’s threat was counter-pressing. Their front and midfield players possessed an incredible amounts of energy throughout the tournament, which coupled with exceptional reading of the game and positional awareness meant that the Azzurri were one of the best teams when it came to regaining possession very quickly, as can be seen in the pictures below.

Italy’s forwards and midfielders giving the opposition no time on the ball


All in all, the Italian national team deservedly conquered Europe with their exciting possession-based and wide overload brand of football, coupled with an exceptionally solid back line and one of the best goalkeepers in world football.