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Friday, July 19, 2024

Yamal and Williams represent a new era for Spain – and made Italy look old-fashioned

Let’s start with three questions.

First, can you think of any Spanish players who have had serious success in Italian football this century?

Second, can you think of the reverse: any Italians who have thrived in La Liga in that time?

And third, can you think of any top-class Italian wingers during that same period?

All these questions relate, in various ways, to Spain’s 1-0 victory over Italy in Gelsenkirchen. It was a travesty of a scoreline for an unbelievably impressive performance from Spain, who could quite easily have won 5-0 without anyone thinking it was harsh on Italy.

It was absurd that the only goal was an own goal, too, although it does point to some familiar Spanish failings in terms of being unable to convert dominance into goals. Perhaps that will come back to haunt them in the knockout stage. But that’s for a later date.


Calafiori’s own goal settled the match — but the scoreline could have been greater in Gelsenkirchen (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

For now, let’s marvel in probably the most cohesive performance of Euro 2024 thus far, when taking into account the quality of the opposition.

After all, over the last couple of decades, Spain versus Italy has been arguably the main battleground in European Championships. They have faced one another in 2008, twice in 2012, 2016, 2020 and now in 2024. They are the only two nations to have won both the World Cup and the European Championship in the last 20 years. And, most pertinently, they’ve always been very different footballing nations.

Some European nations go together neatly in football terms, but Spain and Italy are like oil and water. Returning to the first couple of questions, there’s been a sense that Spanish football has somewhat looked down on Italian football in recent decades, considering its football defensive, tactical and old-fashioned. Therefore, Spanish players haven’t ventured to Italy, and Spanish clubs haven’t signed Italians.

As Spain’s dominance of European football around 15 years ago became clear, they partly became the template for Italy. This was always a slightly controversial topic: some Italians are traditionalists and want to compete as typical Italian sides. But they won the last European Championship under Roberto Mancini with a likeable brand of football, and the reigns of Cesare Prandelli, from 2010 to 2014, and Luciano Spalletti, since last year, introduced more positive coaches.

The Spanish influence has been notable by their use of multiple midfield playmakers. Prandelli often used Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Motta, Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio together. Mancini could depend on both Marco Verratti and Jorginho. That was the Spanish way.

“We must take the initiative,” said Spalletti in his press conference yesterday. “We must have courage to play the ball,” agreed left-back Federico Dimarco. With Jorginho and Nico Barella in the engine room, perhaps Italy could compete.

But Spain have moved away from that approach of cramming as many playmakers into the side as possible. Whereas they once used David Silva and Andres Iniesta from the flanks — essentially bonus No 10s — now they use electric wingers.

Luis Enrique was sacked after the World Cup 18 months ago, in part, because it was felt his obsession with possession play was too predictable. Luis de la Fuente’s time in charge has been characterised by the idea that Spain are now more direct. In their opener against Croatia, they recorded less than 50 per cent of possession in a competitive game for the first time since Euro 2008. It’s about ‘modernisation’ and ‘verticality’.

And that verticality was obvious here, through their wingers. Down the left, Nico Williams produced the best individual performance of the tournament so far. Within two minutes, he bamboozled Giovanni Di Lorenzo and crossed for a header that Pedri should have buried.

Every time Williams collected the ball, Di Lorenzo looked terrified — to the extent that Williams even beat him in the air at one point, which produced a wild Di Lorenzo hack to bring him down.

His fellow defender Alessandro Bastoni did the same thing shortly afterwards, almost out of sympathy. Di Lorenzo is not a flashy full-back; he’s in the side to be solid. And when your solid full-back gets beaten like this, time and time again, you know you’re in trouble.

On the other flank, Dimarco didn’t fare much better against Lamine Yamal, the competition’s youngest player. Yamal dribbled inside to create a fine chance for Alvaro Morata. Later, he cut inside and grazed the far post with a curling effort, which seemed to inspire Williams to do the same, cutting inside from the left onto his right foot and smashing the ball against the woodwork.

This genuinely felt like a new Spain, using more of an old-school Dutch-style 4-3-3, with wingers that wanted to take on their man, that could go inside or out, that could cross or dribble.

Williams’ good work could have produced various goals, particularly when he dribbled at Di Lorenzo, who was scared to commit and backed off, allowing Williams to poke the ball inside for Marc Cucurella’s underlapping run and cutback. Somehow, Pedri sidefooted wide.

The goal eventually came from a menacing Williams dribble, and his cross was deflected into the path of the unfortunate Riccardo Calafiori, who turned the ball into his own net, for yet another Euro 2024 own goal.

Italy now produce Spain-style midfield passers but they still don’t really produce wingers. Federico Chiesa, one of the revelations of the last European Championship, is perhaps a rare exception, although he also feels like a shooter rather than a dribbler from wide — much like his father Enrico, a fine second striker at the turn of the century.

Italian wide players tend to be hard workers; tactically disciplined players who get through lots of running and allow the central players to shine. They don’t stretch the play or beat a man. It felt typical that even Spalletti, an adventurous coach, felt minded to introduce Andrea Cambiaso — a versatile, jack-of-all-trades wide player — to double up against the brilliant Williams and shut him down. That’s your Italian wide player. Not, of course, that he managed to stop Williams either.

For the first time, this really feels like a new era of Spain, a post-tiki-taka world, with Yamal and Williams the stars.

In midfield, Rodri is another Sergio Busquets, Pedri grew up admiring Iniesta, and Fabian Ruiz is an assured, solid left-footed passer. More of that type of Spain. But now there’s also speed, width, risk-taking and excitement.

Tonight, they were on a different planet to Italy. As always, these two footballing nations always feel very separate.

(Photos: Getty Images)



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