Alvaro Morata decided to drop into the haven of space that had opened up in Italy’s midfield. It was a zone vacated by supposed Ballon d’Or contender Jorginho all night, and one from where false nine Dani Olmo had dominated the contest.
Picked out by Aymeric Laporte, Morata then embarked on a sequence that could’ve been another protagonistic act in his redemption thriller. He left Jorginho in his wake, combined with Olmo to bypass the wrath of Giorgio Chiellini and coolly finished beyond a committed Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Spain were deservedly on level terms and readying themselves for a grandstand finish. They’d sustained pressure against a New England Patriots-esque ‘bend but don’t break’ Italy defence and in a prime position to snatch a dramatic late winner.
But no such drama would arrive for nearly another hour (real-time). A hint of good fortune and Roberto Mancini’s shrewdness regarding his final few substitutions helped halt Spain’s momentum and restore some much-needed control within Italy’s ranks.
A penalty shootout would determine who’d play in Sunday’s final.
Now, such events are typically deemed 50/50 lotteries but the jocular demeanour of Azzurri skipper Chiellini at the coin-toss with the officials, manhandling little Jordi Alba in a way that bore an uncanny resemblance to John Coffey in The Green Mile, brought about a sense of inevitability regarding the outcome.
Italy were never going to lose that shootout. Not even when a nervous-looking Manuel Locatelli saw his and the Azzurri’s first penalty saved by quarter-final hero Unai Simon.
As James Horncastle notes in his recent article for The Athletic, these Italians ”were possessed by a disquieting lucidity.”
Italy were mightily fortunate to take this game to penalties, there’s no disputing that. Spain were magnificent throughout. So impressive, in fact, that Leonardo Bonucci described the contest as “the toughest game I have ever played”.
Much was made in the build-up of the stylistic similarities between these two sides and the prospect of half a dozen freakishly technical footballers pitting their wits against one another in the middle of the park. For many, the midfield battle was where the game would be one or lost, but Spain’s overwhelming superiority rendered such a duel irrelevant.
Luis Enrique’s side were able to dominate for a multitude of factors.
Firstly, Spain’s press seemingly perplexed the Italian defence. Centre-backs Chiellini and Bonucci were constantly harassed, while Donnarumma’s deficiencies in possession were manifested. Chiellini would finish the match with a team-high 84.7% pass completion (50 of 59), Bonucci with a pitiful 71.2% (37 of 52) and the error-ridden Donnarumma with 72.9%. In the face of Spanish pressure, panic often set in. Errors and hopeful punts upfield were commonplace.
Their Spanish counterparts, meanwhile, fared a whole lot better. While they weren’t under relentless pressure for the entirety of the bout, Italy certainly pressed high in the first half. Eric Garcia finished with a 97% pass completion (128 of 132), Laporte completed 93% of his 142 pass attempts, while Simon completed 87.9% of his passes.
Overall, Spain’s backline coped markedly better in the face of pressure which allowed them to retain possession and establish control.
Also, Pedri’s man-marking job on Jorginho has to be commended. The 18-year-old isn’t just a genius in possession, but he’s as astute as they get off the ball. Italy’s regista was limited to 49 touches and 39 passing attempts (both tournament lows) thanks to Spain’s stifling man-orientation in midfield.
Spain’s own build-up was excellent as well, with their ploy to escape Italy’s man-orientation clever. Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella were tasked with man-marking Koke and Sergio Busquets respectively in the build-up phase (particularly in the first half). So, to manipulate the positioning of their markers and create space for others, the Spanish pair often drifted away from central areas to open up not only a passing lane, but space for false nine Olmo to receive between the lines.
The RB Leipzig man had ten progressive receptions on the night, bettered by only Mikel Oyarzabal (12).
Pedri’s ubiquitous positioning in the left half-space persistently forced Jorginho into a dilemma: Should he vacate his zone and mark the Andres Iniesta regen? Or should he stay in his zone to track the movement of Olmo?
The Chelsea man tended to favour option one, allowing Olmo to enjoy his breakthrough night on the international stage. His function befuddled the Italians and allowed Spain to dominate the midfield.
It was these factors; the contrast in technical quality at the back, Spain’s effective man-oriented press and Dani Olmo’s function, that allowed Enrique’s side to sustain pressure and force the Italians into survival mode.
Their 70% possession and 908 passes compared to Italy’s 387 paints the picture of a dominant display without just reward. Spain out-shot Italy 16 to seven and won the xG battle by a 2.6 to 1.4 scoreline.
Chiesa & the counter-attack
Spain’s superiority rendered this clash a contrast in styles rather than a celebration of one. On the Catenaccio/Tiki-Italia continuum that I’ve just invented, Mancini’s side drifted heavily towards the former as the game wore on.
After half-time, there was a considerable deepening of their defensive line and a notable drop in intensity higher up the field. It was a testament to the Spanish, but Enrique’s men were soon caught out by Mancini’s alternate ploy.
All it took was three passes, a haphazard Laporte intervention and a bit of Federico Chiesa magic in a thrilling counter-attacking sequence that lasted 14 seconds to cut open a relatively untested Spain defence.
For Chiesa, who finished with such aplomb beyond a stationary Simon, it was another huge moment at this summer’s tournament following his superb opener against Austria in the round of 16. His reputation as a man for the big occasion has only been enhanced over the past couple of weeks.
Morata’s exclusion from Spain’s XI was a surprise considering Enrique’s vehement support of his striker throughout the tournament, but his use of Olmo had caught the Juve veterans off guard and worked a treat.
The Spain boss, however, acted swiftly after Chiesa’s opener by introducing Morata for Ferran Torres and moving the free-roaming Olmo out to the left.
Morata’s equaliser arrived 20 minutes later, but that high would rapidly dissipate into emotional turmoil when his tepid spot-kick was comfortably saved by a grateful Donnarumma. That allowed Jorginho to send the Azzurri through to their second European Championship final in a decade with the slickest of game-winning spot-kicks.
Morata was unable to replicate the success of club teammates Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi – who scored in quite spectacular fashion – in the shootout and, just like that, his Tarantino redemption thriller had evolved into a heartfelt Shakespearian tragedy.
The Juventus striker has won the hearts of many at this summer’s tournament but, most significantly, he’s yet to conquer his own mind.
When the dust settles, however, this game shouldn’t be remembered for Morata’s mental fragility in its tense epilogue. As president of the Spanish football federation Luis Rubiales said post-match, it was the striker’s effort that had allowed La Roja to “dream” in what was an absolute exhibition of a contest.
This was one of the all-time great European Championship matches.