PARIS — Three quick thoughts on Italy’s 2-0 win over Spain in their Euro 2016 round-of-16 clash.
1. Italy reveal Spain’s mighty fall
Giorgio Chiellini’s fiercely driven 32nd-minute goal did not just send Italy on the way to the quarterfinals, long before Graziano Pelle made sure in this magnificent 2-0 win over the defending champions Spain. It also summed up exactly why Antonio Conte’s supremely drilled side beat them so easily, and why it’s time for the Spanish to think beyond Vicente del Bosque as manager.
After more than half an hour when Italy had repeatedly outmanoeuvred Spain and had players so vibrantly running into space, they eventually overwhelmed the holders. The goal might have been from a set piece, but it was a microcosm of all that was happening in open play. Within milliseconds of the excellent David De Gea blocking Eder’s hard and low free kick, Italy already had three men around the goalkeeper to Spain’s one. That was the story of the game.
It was a 2-0 result that could have been 4-0, as Italy so often worked four-on-two situations, leading to Pelle eventually powering the clinching goal past De Gea.
The really troubling thing for Spain was that the Italians were offering the kind of intensity that had made the Xavi-Andres Iniesta generation the last two winners of this competition. The stark contrast here indicated how far Spain have fallen behind the elite level required, and just how influential Conte has been in taking Italy to such heights.
Right from the start, they were flashing the ball across the box to the point where a goal seemed inevitable. As De Gea made repeated saves — the pick of them coming from one Pelle header and then an Emanuele Giaccherini bicycle kick — the Spanish might have been thinking that they could eventually make Italy pay for not converting. You have to be somewhat sharp to do that, though. Italy were just too on it, too fast for them. The best Spain had in response was a long-range Iniesta volley touched away by Gianluigi Buffon, and then late crosses into the box for Alvaro Morata and Gerard Pique.
The fact that Spain had been reduced to that said much. It emphasised there was never going to be a resurgence under del Bosque, no matter how easily they beat minnows. Italy had shown them what the elite is now all about.
They look like they would be worthy champions. They will now play the world champions Germany — the winner of that could well be the winner of the competition.
2. Conte overwhelms Spain
At various points throughout the first half, Conte jumped to the edge of his technical area to roar at Daniele De Rossi because the Italian boss felt his main midfielder was taking too long on the ball. That would have come as a surprise to anyone who saw him so deftly nutmeg Iniesta, but that also sums up why Italy so convincingly outperformed Spain.
The team was relentlessly drilled by the best manager in the competition to perform the most sophisticated moves and also expected to apply them at the fastest pace. If there really were any drop-offs, they weren’t enough for Spain to do anything with. Italy just overwhelmed them.
It was especially bad in the opening half hour, when the game was won. Italy repeatedly had men over in every attack, and were first to so many balls.
Spain knew something was wrong to the point that Iniesta and Pique both felt the need to bark orders at their teammates, but these immediate instructions couldn’t match Conte’s ingrained ones.
Italy were just too regimented, too fired up, too sharp. Their manager was just too good. Put another way, imagine how Spain’s talent would look if they had Conte in charge.
Italy right now look the best unit in the competition. Their brilliant manager has made so much more of their players.
3. Del Bosque, Spain out of ideas
Del Bosque played the same starting XI for the fourth game in a row, but Spain did not play the same way as they did in the first two games of this tournament, or anything like when they were at their 2008-12 peak. So much of that reflects the conservatism and staleness that has afflicted this team, and why this is likely to be the manager’s last tournament.
Del Bosque is a coach that has stopped trying different things, and Spain are a team that have stopped doing the things that made them so great. For all the talk of the death of their style, you will certainly kill it if you do not do the essential basics of that style, from pressing to proper movement.
There were numerous examples of Spain’s lack of intensity — especially that three-on-one first Italian goal — but there was one particularly galling moment given their entire philosophy that stood out.
Toward the end of a conspicuously flat first half, Iniesta finally got a bit of space in the Italian half, and put his foot on the ball to await the right pass. None presented itself. Iniesta eventually had to play the ball back because no one was making a run and there was no option. For Spain, the country who gave the world a sophisticated new version of pressing-passing Total Football, to be guilty of that is remarkable.
That slackness went beyond the passing, though. Jordi Alba was barely looking at Alessandro Florenzi throughout the game, given Italy’s right-wing-back the freedom of that flank, and allowing Italy to so often overload Spain.
The deposed champions had no response, and neither did del Bosque. This was a man seemingly out of ideas.
The way they came out after the half-time break said so much. That was a period when Spain badly needed some motivation, some edge, some freshness. Yet, two seconds after the restart, Italy already had three men in space at the edge of the Spanish box.
This is a manager’s reign that has now gone over the edge; he now has to go. Del Bosque just kept playing the same team in the apparent hope they knew how to do the same things through muscle memory, but then showed no willingness to offer something truly different when it wasn’t working.
They were fatigued, flat and now they are out. They need something new.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.