Italy went into their final group game in need of a result against Germany after their slightly surprising loss to Czech Republic. Despite this, they looked confident and determined to progress, with a talented squad and a fiery attitude. Di Biagio wasn’t afraid to make changes – leaving Petagna out of the starting lineup and going with a front three of Bernardeschi, Berardi and Chiesa who had earned his place in the eleven. Germany went with a predictable eleven, no changes, including new Dortmund signing Mahmoud Dahoud, Bayern acquisition Serge Gnabry and captain Max Arnold.
Italy’s key players
Breakthrough season last year, just 18 years old, Milan’s goalkeeping sensation embroiled in contract stand-offs and constant speculation. Undoubtedly one of the biggest talents in Italian football and potentially most sought-after goalkeepers in the tournament. Fantastic shot-stopping and dominating physique amongst the attributes making him a key part of the defence. Played every minute of Milan’s Serie A campaign, with 4 man of the match awards.
The 23-year old enjoyed a very good season with Atalanta on the right-hand side, as they went on to secure European football by finishing 4th in Serie A. Fast, physical and a threat going forward, Conti has proven his worth in style this season, making 33 league appearances and scoring an impressive 8 goals and registering 5 assists.
The 21 year old central midfielder, enjoying a good season for Sassuolo, earned his first full international cap. Eyed closely by Roma, with rumours of a buy-back deal on the horizon. Will look to try and control the game in the middle alongside Benassi – both having a fair amount of experience in Serie A. Pellegrini scored 6 goals in the league, contributed 6 assists, and was prominent in his team’s display in the Europa League. Has a fierce shot when alowed space in and around the edge of the area.
22 years old, with a decent season for Torino under his belt, has already played over 80 senior games for his club side as well as taking the captain’s armband for them and this under-21 national side. Scored 5 goals with 2 assists last season, will look to retain possession for his side in midfield, whilst driving forward and looking for opportunities to appear on the edge of the area. Should be a key element in organising and keeping team discipline in the middle of the pitch.
Not always a starter at Serie A club Fiorentina this season, but an impressive entrance onto the big stage for the 19 year old. An exciting winger with flair and skill, still slightly inexperienced but with big things expected and a family name to represent. 3 goals and 2 assists from the right in Serie A, and a Europa League goal to his name, Federico is fast putting himself on the radar.
Another young Fiorentina attacker, albeit with more first team expose and recognition than Chiesa, playing more predominantly as a number 10 for his club, but often roaming out and in-field. His attacking creativity was a big part in Viola’s season, as he contributed 11 goals and 4 assists in 32 appearances last season. His skill on the ball, ability to open up defences and movement off the ball will undoubtedly cause problems to the opposition defence.
Germany started in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Gnabry, Meyer and Weiser the attacking line behind Selke. Italy similar, but without the focal point of Petagna, and an extra midfielder. However, Di Biagio’s side often had one more man pressuring the opposition high up the pitch. At the start of the match, Benassi ran around a lot doing this, almost offering himself as a second screen of pressure behind the initial wave. His roaming actually found him in a position where he was arriving at the back post unmarked for Chiesa’s cross, but the ball was claimed by the keeper. He had another chance with a header further into the half, when he passed out wide and continued his run into the box, getting on the end of Conti’s cross but nodding it straight at the keeper. Gagliardini started off sitting deeper, almost in a pivot role, which allowed Benassi and Pellegrini more freedom, and he actually found a very nice pass out wide to Conti in the opening stages. There were a few times where Gagliardini was unsure of which German player to mark inside his own half, and thus left the man receiving the ball with a bit too much space, but this positional awareness and discipline will come with experience. Neither team’s short passing was particularly good, which made for scrappy periods, but Italy had the basis of quite a good structure. Germany occupied Italy’s half at times, and Italy dropped back to cover the spaces, making it congested and trying to control the tempo.
Germany’s best chances to threaten Italy appeared to be when they could sneak inside of Italy’s midfield line with the ball, and surprise their defence – often with Gnabry cutting inside and trying to square them up or whip in a ball. Generally, Italy were more switched on and focused when it came to not allowing the opposition near the penalty area – they protected it better from open play. Occasionally, an accurate forward pass from Germany would catch Italy out a bit as they reacted slightly too late in getting the right person to engage the ball and left Benassi, Berardi and Pellegrini wrongside (pic below), but usually they dealt with the threat without getting stretched. Italy sometimes struggled to take advantage of fast transitions, with the ball sticking with their midfield for too long and not being able to find a way to release their strikers. Around the 62 minutes mark, Pollersbeck played a risky ball along the ground through the middle which was intercepted well, but Italy were unable to take advantage or fashion a route to goal. A couple of their best chances, in fact came from long range efforts from Pellegrini. The quality of attacking passing wasn’t great in general, and Italy were called offside a fair few times in their build-up.
One of the major plus-points to Italy’s performance was their energy and tenacity with and without the ball. Everything from closing down the Germany defence from the front, to the feisty attitude they showed after their goal. Berardi was stupid to get booked, and it got a bit heated after retrieving the ball, but Di Biagio’s side look like they have fight in them, not just here for some game-time, they play with passion and commitment. It seems like a good sign for the future. Benassi’s work-rate was particularly impressive, sometimes even being the furthest up-field pressuring the German defence on the ball, and Berardi was pretty good at tucking back into a central midfield position when retreating to cut off routes to goal, as well as occupying the left side to engage the attacking full-back Gerhardt when necessary. He was notably quick at closing down the man receiving the ball, despite being a reasonable distance away originally blocking the passing lane. Italy’s recovery pace when trying to get back from midfield to close down a German attacker was also very commendable – shutting down Gnabry on a few occasions.
The goal came about by an error in the German defence, but one that was hinted upon earlier in the match. The Germans like to play the ball out from the back, despite the opposition closing down intently, and a few times already they’d be hounded down on their right hand side. This time it was Toijan who took slightly too long on the ball in the right-back position, passed it to Dahoud who had three men charging in at him. Pellegrini slid in to dispossess Dahoud, Chiesa touched it on to Bernardeschi who calmly slotted it past the goalkeeper. Italy committed men to the cause in hassling the German players in areas they thought they could be exploited and it worked. The resulting scuffle between Berardi, Arnold and a number of Italian players was a bit unnecessary, but Italy took the momentum on. They actually almost engineered a similar scenario at the start of the first half, where Pellegrini pushed furthest forward, Berardi slid in (this time on Kempf), but the ball rebounded out of play.
Italy had the obvious threat from three attackers that all like to roam, but also from the likes of Conti and Barreca on the overlap. It was predictably Conti who provided the most danger going forward, although the crossing wasn’t of a great quality all game. He was a big, and recognised, outlet. Berardi was also looked for down the right over the top, being caught offside a couple of times. Chiesa, playing on the left (unlike for his club), was actually providing relatively good service, along with Barreca, but with no real target man it was a difficult and somewhat fruitless route to goal. The quick movement and interchange around the edge of the area that him and Bernardeschi see work for Viola didn’t seem to be there to the same extent. They both had a good game nonetheless. Neither team were able to produce a good cut-back from the byline to expose a free man in the middle. Gnabry did it once towards the start of the second half, after a nice through ball to cut open Italy somewhat at pace, but the cross was intercepted by Donnarumma.
Even into the second half, Italy often had the easier option to use the wider areas after retaining the ball in their own half, purely because they weren’t being closed down as much. This left them able to find routes along the ground to the wings to provide more options. The Germans, however, were often forced to kick it long or rushed into passes which didn’t give much hope of leading to an attack from wide. Conti, in both halves for Italy, notably recovered well to make tackles after giving the ball away in the opposing half. Barreca also made a couple of good tackles on the opposing side.
They, in particular Max Arnold, exposed a weakness in Italy’s defence here. We may be more used to Italy’s senior team commanding their area and dealing with balls into their box well, but Germany’s quality in their delivery was of high quality at times in the match. The first showcase of this was a disallowed goal after 6 minutes, which was wrongly chalked out for offside. The line isn’t quite good enough, and despite the ball coming in from deep, it is inch perfect to expose the fact that Kempf gets through without being tracked, to power home the header. Another example came towards the end of the half – Arnold again, from deeper this time, delivered a great ball towards the back post, where Stark ran in unchallenged in exactly the same position as Kempf who’s goal was disallowed. This time Stark couldn’t quite direct the header to a man, but he was worryingly open from an Italian point of view. The Italian staff probably addressed this at half time, because on 50 minutes Germany got a free-kick, and just before it was being taken Gagliardini waves his arm slightly to indicate to anyone behind him to cover the men running at the back post. The ball comes in and Benassi and Gagliardini both sprint into the box ahead of any potential lurkers at the back post, while Rugani glances it clear.
Petagna’s introduction was noteworthy, coming on with around 15 minutes left, tracking back and setting up an attack in which Bernardeschi put a lovely cross in to the far post but Conti missing the target. The substitute showed his ability again shortly after by controlling the ball nicely and producing some skill out wide on the edge of the box to cut the ball back, which was just intercepted. He held the ball up well on another separate occasion as well; his physical attributes and role at the top of the attack does seem to be of benefit to the team, albeit giving Di Biagio the tough task of deciding who to play and where in the Semis. The game fizzled out, with both sides knowing they would go through now, but it is Italy who take top spot in the group after a hard-fought and impressive display.
Notable bookings : Berardi, Conti (both suspended for semis)
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Italy U21s 1-0 Germany U21s