England and Italy have played 27 matches against each other, the former have won eight, the latter 11, but the bliss of winning or the agony of losing this forthcoming 28th clash at Wembley on Sunday the 11th of July would be unmatched for this set of players and these nations.
The massive final of Euro 2020 that we have at our hands is being played amongst arguably the most convincing, well-deserving, and dominant teams of the tournament. Italy, after starting the tournament with a statement performance against Turkey on the opening day, never stumbled until the semifinal against Luis Enrique’s Spain. To prevail in that game, the Azzurri, despite being the second-best team on the pitch, relied on their wealth of experience and maturity as a unit. Barring the semifinal, the Italians have played bold and beautiful football, and have dictated matches on their own terms.
Italy entered the tournament with a 27-match unbeaten run, which has now become a 33-match unbeaten run, and yet it was not far back when the country was in shock as their beloved, proud football team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Roberto Mancini was appointed subsequently, and the transformation has been no less than radical. Traditionally, Italy is a land of defenders where defenders would prefer dying before conceding a goal. They still do that, but now that is not all that they do and rely on to win football matches. After Mancini’s arrival, the Azzurri have been more assertive and attacking on the ball and off the ball. He has managed to harmonize the rigid defending ways of the old guard and the offensive potential of the quality players available to him, and we have first-hand witnessed this in this tournament as Italy are not only the team with the second-most clean sheets (3) and the second-least goals conceded (3) but also the team with second-most goals scored (12) and attempts made (108).
England, on the other hand, have gone through the gears as the competition has progressed. They have not always been easy on the eye, although that has also improved in the knockout stage, but they have quintessentially played like a successful international side. They have been smart, sturdy, and adaptive. The Three Lions have let in merely one goal and have the most clean sheets (5) in the tournament. While players like Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, Harry Kane, and Harry Maguire have stood out, there has not been a single player who has let the team down.
The fact that Gareth Southgate has found and stuck to a stable playing XI, especially given the motley of quality options and combinations available and the immense media pressure, has been supremely impressive. He has created an inclusive environment and made sure that even the players not featuring in the starting XI are contributing in some capacity. And one thing is very certain: In reaching the final of a men’s major tournament after 55 long years, Southgate and his squad have comprehensively answered their critics (and the critics were aplenty).
Kane vs Chiellini and Bonucci
Captain Kane started the campaign poorly, but over the course of the tournament and after breaking his duck, he has been up to speed, and his importance is reflected in the manner in which England have played in the latter stages of the competition. When he is more involved in the playmaking process, England look a more cohesive unit, and the attacking threat that they pose intensifies.
The timeless pair of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci have 219 caps between the two of them, and they don’t just defend, but like to bully strikers, as Romelu Lukaku (and many, many others) found out. Alvaro Morata once described the prospect of taking on Chiellini in training as ‘being put in a cage with a gorilla and you have to steal his food’. And yet, Enrique and Spain, using a fluid, interchangeable attack line with Dani Olmo as a false nine found the defensive duo’s kryptonite.
Whether Kane is allowed to drop deep, pull the strings, and rattle the two towering center-backs or, on the flip side of the coin, if his impact is nullified by those two giants could tilt the game in favor of either of the teams.
The Midfield Melee
Both Italy and England prefer to play with the ball, rather than without it. In their semifinal against Denmark, the Three Lions demonstrated a masterclass in possession. They used the ball for different needs and purposes, acclimating to the match situation. From the advent of the second half till the end of the first half of extra time, Southgate’s team pushed and probed and pressurized the Danish in the search for the second goal. Once they got the breakthrough, they still looked to retain the ball but only to play keep ball and manage the game, and how well did they execute that!
The Azzurri midfield and, by extension, the whole side was humbled and overwhelmed by the Spanish midfield, but one must not read too much into it because, from what we have seen, the game against La Roja was an anomaly. Otherwise, the midfield of Nico Barella, Jorginho, and Marco Verrati/Manuel Locatelli stamping their authority has been the norm.
Both the midfield trios would look to press their counterparts, which trio does that more efficiently or, alternatively, resists the press better and sets the tempo of the game would go a long way in deciding the outcome of the final.
Impact from the Bench
It is often stated that to win a competition you need a proper squad, not just a capable playing XI. Coming into Euro 2020, Italy and England were among the teams having a quite strong, deep bench, and the course of this tournament has also shown that they have made optimum use of that strength. 25 out of 26 players have featured for the Azzurri while the Three Lions have played 21 players.
Southgate has been proactive with his team selection and substitutions. Usually, he opts for a 4-2-3-1 formation, but he did not shy away from going to a 3-4-3 system, like he against Germany and, in the second half of extra time (once they look the lead), against Denmark – two teams whose wingbacks were the most hazardous – in order to match their shape and cancel out their numerical supremacy in the wide areas. To achieve this end in the Denmark game, Southgate boldly substituted a substitute. Moreover, the number of game-changers that warm the bench for England are baffling and they can always come in handy when a high-pressure game gets stretched.
Federico Chiesa, the 23-year-old Juventus winger, has been the brightest spark for the Azzurri in the last few games, and it was his impact from the bench that pulled Italy through against Austria in the pre-quarterfinals and consequently cemented his place in the starting XI. However, the midfield is where the richest substitutions are available to Mancini in the form of Locatelli, Matteo Pessina, and Bryan Cristante, even though the options accessible in defense and midfield are also fairly decent.
Although England perhaps pips Italy in terms of quality of choices and tide-turners available to them outside their playing XI, it would boil down to which manager reads the game better and utilizes his substitutions more expertly.
While the Azzurri have never lost against England at a major tournament, winning three and drawing one, and the Three Lions have won just two of their last 14 meetings with Italy in all competitions and just one of their eight competitive meetings, on this coming Sunday, when both the sides meet, none of this would matter. Wembley would be ready and jumping and thumping, and only 90 minutes or 90 minutes plus extra time or 90 minutes plus extra time plus penalties would ascertain whether it would be the thousands of English fans or the small bracket of Italians who would be shouting at the top of their voices by the end.