Vicente del Bosque described it euphemistically as “not the path we wanted”.
Defeat to Croatia in the final round of group games had dumped Spain into the more daunting half of Euro 2016’s knockout bracket – the same part that already featured Germany, England and France.
More immediately, though, the loss condemned Del Bosque’s team to face Italy in the last 16. As the former Spain midfielder Xavi explained in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, this was the one team that his countrymen had been most eager to avoid.
“When it comes to philosophy, character and competitiveness, I think you are the most uncomfortable rival there is for Spain,” he told the pink paper. “The history of the Italians is built on sheer competitiveness. For this reason Spain has always feared Italy.”
Well, that might be one reason. Another is bitter experience. Before 2008, Spain had not beaten Italy at a major tournament for 88 years. From the 1920 Olympics onwards, they suffered nothing but disappointments against the Azzurri – culminating in that infamous 2-1 defeat at the 1994 World Cup, when Mauro Tassotti rearranged Luis Enrique’s nose.
Even the win that ended the hoodoo was unconvincing, Spain’s richly talented Euro 2008 squad requiring a penalty shootout to beat a lacklustre Italy – who had lost their tournament opener 3-0 to Holland and were missing Andrea Pirlo through suspension. Still, in that moment a weight was lifted. Spain went on to win the tournament, kicking off the most successful era in their nation’s history.
Italy, by contrast, entered a phase of prolonged introspection. After they crashed out of the 2010 World Cup at the group stage, hard questions were asked about the lack of talent coming through on the peninsula, as well as the declining performances of Italian club sides in Europe. For the first time, they found themselves looking upon Spain’s successes with envious eyes.
Arrigo Sacchi, the man who had masterminded Italy’s 1994 win over Spain, was hired to overhaul the national youth set-up, promising he would imitate the model used at Barcelona. The senior team’s new manager, Cesare Prandelli, brought an attractive brand of possession football that reporters nicknamed “Tikitalia” – a riff on Spanish tiki-taka.
Impressive results made it easy to embrace such a change. Prandelli’s Italy finished as runners-up at Euro 2012, almost beating Spain at their own game during a tournament-opening 1-1 draw, only to get thrashed 4-0 by the same opponents in the final. Tired legs, rather than tactical mistakes, took the blame.
A second consecutive group stage exit from the World Cup, though, killed off the footballing revolution at a stroke. Prandelli resigned and the newspapers lamented the end of an era. La Repubblica looked back with misty eyes on those early days when he had changed perceptions of a whole country.
“Abroad they regarded us with shock,” lamented Gabriele Romagnoli, “as though we had shown up with un-fiddled balance sheets and a leader who speaks different languages. It was, it seemed, too un-Italian to be true.”
And perhaps, in the end, it was. Speaking to the Guardian before this tournament, the Italy centre-back Giorgio Chiellini argued that this period of “Spanish-isation” had caused the country to lose sight of its footballing strengths, leading to a “generational gap for defenders between 1987-88 and 1994 in Serie A that’s incredible”.
The appointment of Antonio Conte to replace Prandelli represented a return to Italy’s more traditional footballing values. The soon-to-be Chelsea manager is a tactical obsessive with a paranoid streak who cares more for aggression than aesthetics. Most of all, though, the one thing he really cares about is winning.
Before this summer, his Italy teams never drew the sort of glowing reviews that Prandelli’s used to achieve. Qualification for Euro 2016 was a grim slog in which Italy twice beat Malta 1-0 and required an 82nd-minute winner from Chiellini to overcome Azerbaijan at home. Little wonder that public expectations for this tournament were so low.
And then came the win over Belgium. “Italy played the most beautiful game of Conte era,” ran a breathless match report in Gazzetta. “They did it playing in an Italian style – but in the most noble sense of those words – without using catenaccio, but defending themselves with a compact and intelligent block to then counter into those spaces that [Belgium manager Marc] Wilmots presumptuously failed to close.”
Whether by luck or design, Conte – who used a variety of formations throughout qualifying – had stumbled upon a system that maximised the modest talent at his disposal. Italy’s hybrid 3-5-2 – which became a 3-3-4 in possession but a 4-4-2 when not, with one wing-back dropping and the other stepping forwards while the three central midfielders slid across – was mesmerising in its fluidity.
It was a victory for tactics over individual technique, a victory for sheer bloody-mindedness, and, yes, a victory for defensive cynicism too – Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci among the players to collect bookings for “necessary” fouls as Italy dug in to resist Belgium’s attempts to respond in the second-half. A victory, in other words, for those traits that Spain always used to fear the most.
As Xavi noted, the return to a three-man defence is especially bad news for La Roja. “When Italy need to come out with the ball, having three at the back and two wide players means they have five possible people to carry it out – which makes it difficult for Spain to press as they would like,” he said.
“Then, playing with two strikers complicates things further forward, because it occupies both of our centre-backs and then one of the two full-backs has to step forward to close down [Antonio] Candreva or [Alessandro] Florenzi – leaving you with only three at the back. At the World Cup in Brazil, both Holland and Chile chose to use a 3-5-2 against us and it put is in great difficulty.”
Perhaps nobody is “terrified” of Italy any more, as the editor of the Madrid-based newspaper Diario AS claimed to feel in the summer of 2008. Spain, with their midfield trio of Cesc Fàbregas, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta can hardly look enviously upon Emanuele Giaccherini, Marco Parolo and a declining Daniele De Rossi. An injury to Antonio Candreva has further weakened Italy’s starting XI.
Conte, though, may have a trick or two more up his sleeve. Italy trained behind closed doors again last week, the manager doing everything in his power to keep his tactical plans a secret. All we know for certain is that he will make sure his players give everything: just as they did in running further than any other team (a combined 353km) in the group stage. The majority of Italy’s starters should have fresh legs, too, after being held out of their final group game against Republic of Ireland, even if Chiellini did note that, given how hard Conte pushes them in training, “it’s all relative”.
If the path ahead looks ominous to Del Bosque, it is not only because he knows that his countrymen have lost their way on similar terrain before.
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