If there is one thing to never do in football it is to underestimate the collective powers of an Italian football team. La Squadra Azzurra – individually average on paper – produced a tactical masterclass to put Belgium in their place and make some of their most vaunted look like novices.
“Lukaku didn’t have a great night and De Bruyne can do better too, but now is not the time to talk about that,” Belgium manager Marc Wilmots told UEFA’s official website. “We need to club together to qualify for the last 16.
Star names like Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne will be licking their wounds, wondering where it all went wrong after they both had nights to forget against an Italian team brilliantly set up by new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte to exploit Belgium’s shortcomings. The antithesis of Conte’s tactical precision was Belgium’s manager Marc Wilmots, naive once more. The first error was to place Marouane Fellaini in a number ten position, effectively nullifying and diminishing the influence of his two best players in De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Him operating in that space meant both were less able to cut in as both love to do, particularly Hazard, and both were ineffectual for the first half. De Bruyne was particularly poor and battled with Lukaku for the ignominy of being the worst on the pitch, only completing just over two-thirds of his 37 attempted passes. The only players worse on that front were Lukaku himself, substitute Dries Mertens, and Thibaut Courtois. Then the whole point of Fellaini comes into question. The tall, mop-haired Manchester United man played well enough for what was asked of him with the tools given (except for fluffing his lines with the goal at his mercy), but without natural width it was again pointless. Certainly, Wilmots didn’t expect it to come from Jan Vertonghen or Laurent Ciman.
What the Italians did so masterfully was to focus on the weaknesses of each Belgium player and the system as a whole. It was as removing bandages and exposing wounds which had not had the proper healing time. Lukaku looked uncomfortable without the space afforded to him by more expansive and less meticulous teams. His only pronounced weakness, ball control, was exposed in a manner that made him look like a football neophyte. In truth, he was recorded with three bad touches and was disposed once but it will seem like 30. So stifling was the grip Italy had on the Belgian attack. Lukaku must be swallowing a rather large humility pill but it is not every day he will face three defenders of that class and intelligence. It is that his miscontrols were so pronounced that will be the overriding narrative and he must feel that a fair few was knocked off the astronomical prices quoted for him before now. If he does stay at Everton, he will have a manager that will hopefully not feed his and his father’s ego for he is a prodigious talent, still, but perhaps needed a sobering to the fact that he needs long hours refining a heavy touch. He reminds of another Belgian much hyped who let his mouth do a little too much work and lost sight of what was unfinished in his own game in Adnan Januzaj. Cause for reflection.
When Lukaku himself was mercy pulled, it appeared as if he never left as his replacement put up touches that were just as heavy to be dispossessed twice with one ‘bad touch’ in just about 20 minutes. He too couldn’t cope with the lack of space as balls were fizzed in awkwardly by under pressure players to under pressure strikers. It isn’t that only these three highlighted struggled. Belgium did. This is why Belgium were largely restricted to non-threatening long range shots from Radja Nainggolan, Mertens, Axel Witsel and De Bruyne for much of the match. Gianluigi Buffon was very happy.
Make no mistake and give them the respect they deserve; this wasn’t Catenaccio. Italy didn’t defend for their lives. They didn’t wait for the counter. Conte ever so often reminds us he doesn’t do that. That same Belgian weakness on the flanks was exposed and the lack of a natural fullback was like a sonnet to the ears of the Azzurri. So often they used the width of the pitch to unsettled Belgium who made it shockingly easy. If Italy possessed more quality in the final third it might have been 3 or 4-0 and we would be talking rout.
Antonio Candreva was afforded acres of space, so too Emanuele Giaccherini and Matteo Darmian. They all could have been more efficient. Belgium will be lucky they were only themselves motivated and guided by a carefully implemented tactical system. It was all so calm. Shots were more frequent from Belgium, but they never seemed threatening. That is the Italian way, to allow non-threatening possession and shots rescued by the odd brilliant block if the situation becomes slightly concerning. One would be forgiven for thinking Andrea Pirlo made the trip for Italy’s first goal. It was another Juventus alum, Leonardo Bonucci, who played what was a sublime long range pass to Alessandro…no, Giaccherini. Giaccherini showed why he had to go on loan to Bologna from lowly Sunderland for much of the match, but produced one control showing pure technique to bring the pass under control with his left foot and finish with his right. His five ‘bad touches’ would be forgiven. Such is football. Nobody will remember that his touch let him down so many other times but they will remember when he told the football, ‘Oh, behave’.
The second hammer blow was from Graziano Pellè, largely anonymous and wasteful for much of the match again rewrote his story by condemning the favoured team to a sobering defeat. The narrative of this group hasn’t been written just yet as both teams face winnable matches. For Italy, cause for cautious optimism knowing tactics will need to be altered against teams they will be favoured against. For Belgium, a series of slaps in the face as they know they will need to do more than show up and be talented to impress this time around.