There may not be a more infamous date in Italian soccer than Nov. 13, 2017.
That was the night Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup. An uninspired 0-0 draw with Sweden after a 1-0 loss in the first leg of their playoff sealed their fate. Many launched an inquest into the state of Italian soccer and whether a major overhaul was necessary.
Nearly four years later, Italy is the European champion after toppling England 3-2 on penalties following a 1-1 draw after extra time at the Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium.
Four of the players who started that second leg in Milan also started this final and produced heroic performances to culminate a dramatic swing in fortunes from four years ago.
But all the credit goes to coach Roberto Mancini and his staff. Italy remains undefeated in 34 games, scored 13 goals during the Euros, conceded just four times and defeated three contenders en route to a second European title, its first since 1968.
Like the quarterfinal against Belgium or the semifinal versus Spain, there were some tumultuous moments for the Azzurri. Buoyed by a partisan crowd at Wembley, England was all over the Italians in the opening stages. Gareth Southgate’s late decision to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with Kieran Trippier at right wingback paid off immediately, with Trippier providing a sublime assist for Luke Shaw, who scored less than two minutes into the game.
In what’s been the tournament of the wingbacks, it was fitting that England’s combined for the opening goal. As he often did in the first half, Trippier sprinted into open space vacated by Emerson, picked out Shaw at the back post with a sublime cross and the Manchester United defender finished with aplomb.
That counter-attack exemplified why Southgate pulled the trigger on those tactical tweaks, particularly the return of the 3-4-3.
When England recovered possession and transitioned forward, Harry Kane dropped deep to hold up the ball as his teammates bursted forward. In doing so, Kane sucked Italy’s defence and midfield towards him, thus freeing up space for the wingbacks to run into. Shaw was free on the left and Tripper swept down the right with Kyle Walker overlapping, often in acres of space.
Off the ball, the 3-4-3 offered maximum protection against Italy’s full-backs in Emerson and Giovanni Di Lorenzo. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips offered protection on the flanks, and with Italy set up in a narrow shape off the ball, England capitalized on the counter.
Eventually, Mancini reacted. Off came Ciro Immobile in place of Domenico Berardi, Bryan Cristante replaced Nicolo Barella and the momentum began to shift. Suddenly, Berardi occupying a role on the right freed up Chiesa and Insigne, who, combined with Italy’s suddenly liberated full-backs, pinned England in their defensive third without a clear outlet.
Insigne’s and Chiesa’s touch map highlights their complete domination after halftime.
Then opportunism ruled with Leonardo Bonucci burying a loose ball off a set piece for the equalizer on 66 minutes. A renewed tenacity in Italy’s game led to a more organized high press from their forwards, Italy’s midfield took over, with Jorginho in particularly top form.
Both sides traded blows for the final hour until penalties sealed the fate of the match. For the Italians, they relived the euphoria of the 2006 World Cup while English fans are feeling that all-too-familiar gut-wrenching feeling of losing a penalty shootout.
But take nothing away from this run for England. Southgate has guided the Three Lions to back-to-back major tournament semifinals for the first time, along with its first final in 55 years. This was the youngest squad at the Euros, plus there is tactical flexibility to combat most situations, and those are noteworthy consolations ahead of the World Cup in Qatar next year.
The tactical aspect cannot be understated, either. Previous England sides have been bogged down by coaches trying to shoehorn the nation’s 11 best players into a team, when past experience has proven that it’s not a winning formula. Southgate managed to build on the World Cup semifinal loss to Croatia and it led to a first final in almost two generations. They could very well return to this spot in December 2022.
Of course, Italy will be rightly tipped for a fifth World Cup. The turnaround is nothing short of extraordinary and with more youngsters making waves in Serie A, this feels like the beginning of a glorious era for Mancini and Co.
Who would’ve thought that four years ago?