In what was arguably the outstanding team performance of the tournament, Antonio Conte’s Italy overpowered Spain to secure a 2-0 win and book their place in the quarter-finals. Italy’s defensive quality has been well documented in recent weeks, but here we look at the three defensive keys to beating Spain last night.

Flexible wing-backs

With Antonio Candreva out injured, Conte chose Mattia Di Sciglio as the left wing-back and Alessandro Florenzi on the right. In attack, both would push on down their respective flanks as can be seen below.

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However, their responsibilities differed when Italy defended. In the first half, Italy mostly defended in a 4-4-2 shape, in contrast with them attacking in a 3-5-2. When possession was lost, Di Sciglio would drop down to become a left back and create a back four with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci centrally and Andrea Barzagli to the right. Florenzi, on the other hand, would defend as a right midfielder, creating a midfield four with Daniele De Rossi, Marco Parolo and the ever-energetic Emanuele Giaccherini. Up front Graziano Pellé and Èder would still work together.

4-4-2Here we see the midfield four and front two. The deep positioning of the strikers makes it increasingly difficult for Spain to play centrally.

4-4-2 4We see the midfield again with Florenzi on the right. Di Sciglio, circled in blue, has dropped in to create a four man defensive line.

4-4-2 3
Here we see the back four clearly.

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The two wing-backs circled to highlight their different positioning in defence.

florenzi hbIf Di Sciglio went up high to press on the right, then Florenzi duly dropped into the back-line with the other three shuffling across. The versatility of the three defenders and the wing-backs to play in different positions with the same results is impressive, and highlight great tactical understanding of the players and, of course, a lot of work on the training ground with Conte and his staff.

Conte’s tactical work creates a flexible team

Throughout the game, Italy’s shape changed both in attack and defence. The team was prepared for every possible outcome of the game tactically. You get the feeling that the game played out exactly the way Conte would have liked.

hög pressWhen playing Spain, you can basically choose between two strategies. Either you drop off and allow them time on the ball to play but try to reduce the space in behind you, or you take the game to them by pressing them high and try to disrupt them, like Chile did at the 2014 World Cup. Conte chose the latter and, as can be seen above, wanted to press them high. To do this, he pushed Giaccherini high against Pique, with Pellé dropping in on Busquets and Éder ready to press Ramos. Florenzi and Di Sciglio pushed high against the Spanish full-backs, and Spain were forced into a lot of longer balls.

hög press 2Throughout, Italy attempted this high press. Pellé again marking Busquets with Èder and Giaccherini either side of him.

If the press was unsuccessful and Spain could get into Italy’s defensive third, Florenzi would drop into the back four to create a back five in their low block defending. Conte’s team therefore showcased their ability to seamlessly switch between a back three, a back four and a back five in the game. Tactical preparation, top class.

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In the second half, Italy dropped deeper and increasingly defended more in a 5-4-1. They were still rock-solid.

5-4-1 2
This is how it mostly looked in the second half when Italy defended deep. A back five, and Èder joining the midfield to create a midfield four.

5-4-1 3
Absolutely no space to play through the Italian wall.

Stop Busquets, stop Spain

Sergio Busquets has been the main orchestrator for Spain ever since the 2010 World Cup, and it’s been increasingly evident over the last few years that if you stop him you stop Spain playing. Conte duly did.

hög press 3
As we discussed earlier, Pellé would pick up Busquets and man-mark him for the entirety of the 90 minutes. The pressure against the two centre-backs also meant there was never an opportunity to go back to circulate possession, instead Spain were forced long.

Again, high-pressing from Italy with Pellé marking Busquets. By stopping him playing his normal game, Italy disrupted Spain’s possession game and won the ball back more than they would have otherwise.


Antonio Conte produced a tactical masterclass in how he stopped Spain playing and made sure it was his Italian side that dominated the game from the first whistle. The impressive wing-backs Di Sciglio and Florenzi were key men in the ever shape-shifting Italian team and the work-rate of all Italian players as well as Conte’s tactical preparation were the keys to victory. It’s often said that a team is the image of it’s coach and with Conte’s Italy this is certainly the case. After overpowering Spain the sights now turn to Germany, and it will be intriguing to see how Conte plans to deal with the World Cup winners from 2014. If he can prepare his team tactically as well as he did before this game then at least Italy will have a chance of stopping the title-favourites.