Despite the video game era so often times masking the realities of football behind a bunch of one’s and zero’s, football matches are not won on rating’s cards.
The amount of work that both Gareth Southgate and Roberto Mancini must go through to prepare for tomorrow’s final, along with their coaching staffs – and of course, the players – is considerable, to say the least. And the reality is sometimes a match is won before a ball is even struck in anger; it is so often won in those tactical meetings, and in those training sessions.
For England, a nation that has seemingly found a new gear as they have reached one round after the next, the onus is on the Three Lions to continue that trend when they once again square off against their opposite number on their home patch at Wembley. Even more so, the responsibility falls on Gareth Southgate in identifying what and where to focus on regarding Italy‘s expected match plan and tactical deployment.
Southgate changed the script against Germany to stunning effect when England ran out 2-0 winners in what was Joachim Löw’s final match in charge for Die Mannschaft, and even if he does not pull a similar change in the final, targeting certain key matchups on the pitch will do wonders for the Three Lions’ chances of finally bringing it home.
Here are three key matchups that could hold the key to an England win at Wembley.
Luke Shaw vs Federico Chiesa
Few players have that such an incredible impact on their national side this summer than Federico Chiesa. Son of former Italian international Enrico Chiesa, the Juventus winger did not come into the tournament as first-choice in Roberto Mancini’s front three, but his work rate on both sides of the ball, technical quality, and ability to drive play from the opposite flank from Lorenzo Insigne has proven crucial to Gli Azzurri as the tournament progressed.
For England, Luke Shaw has had a superb summer showcase of his own and the Manchester United left-back has truly begun to show just how good he can be. The Southampton youth academy product has been right up there with the best left-backs this summer, along with the now-injured Leonardo Spinazzola, and Denmark’s Joakim Mæhle. But the task at hand against a firebrand like Chiesa will likely be Shaw’s toughest test yet.
The key will be if Shaw’s ability to get forward and offer a creative option from wide deliveries will aid in pinning Chiesa back deeper on the pitch in a bid to stop him from truly getting off to the races in the final third. The proposition of Chiesa constantly running at the heart of the England defense is a terrifying one given how influential he can be, but if Shaw can win his battle, England has just that much better of a chance of coming out winners tomorrow evening.
Raheem Sterling vs Giovanni Di Lorenzo
Italy’s team game has been arguably the best on offer all summer long despite how well England has kicked on in the knockout stages. Despite that, they still have weaknesses that can certainly be exploited, and one of those could well be right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo.
The beneficiary of having a workhorse midfield trio in front of him, and the efforts of Federico Chiesa regularly pinning the opposition back in their half thus giving him protection, it is unlikely he will have the same comforts against England. The sparkplug all summer for England has unquestionably been Raheem Sterling despite Harry Kane coming on strong with four goals in the knockout stage and a chance to end as golden boot winner.
Sterling put England on his back on many occasions in the group stage and has continued in that vein as the tournament has progressed. His desire to constantly be direct and get at the inner workings of the opposition backline is regularly on display and was a chief reason why England won their penalty against Denmark with ultimately proved decisive. The sight of Sterling at full tilt getting into the final third – or worse – getting into the penalty area is a nightmare proposition to negotiate.
The potential mismatch against Di Lorenzo, who has yet to truly be put to the test other than perhaps against Spain, could leave a confident Sterling licking his lips at the chance to really see what he is worth.
England vs Italy in the midfield battle
Kalvin Phillips has seen his star rise quite a bit this summer after the Leeds United midfielder has formed a brilliant pivot partnership in England’s midfield with Declan Rice. One of the standout performers at club level as well, Phillips recently spoke about the difficult matchup that he and Rice face when they come to grips with their counterpart trio of Jorginho, Nicolò Barella, and Marco Verratti.
Mancini’s trusted midfield triumvirate has been exceptional throughout Euro2020, but against Spain, they faced their most difficult task when starved of the ball and finding it difficult to distribute possession in a manner that they were accustomed to before that. With Barella, his late runs into the final third offer a tricky opponent to keep tabs on especially if England does not revert to a back three, while the combination of Veratti and Jorginho has expertly kept the ball more often than not, with both players boasting just a shade under a 93% pass success rate.
But for Rice and Phillips, and perhaps Phillips especially, the high-octane, high-pressure ability that the pair are capable of could be a key attribute that could help Italy’s midfield become unstuck. Phillips – the prime example of what Marcelo Bielsa’s training regimens can achieve for one’s fitness levels – has hardly put a foot wrong all summer while his mobility and ability to constantly press the opposition off the park has been one of the biggest plus points in Southgate’s tactical locker.
As for Rice, his completed passing numbers (92.1%) are in the same neck of the woods as Jorginho and Verratti, and with the ability that the England pair have to play off one another while offering balance in most areas, the Three Lions could well successfully subscribe to that age-old adage that if you win the midfield battle, you will win the match.