Italy’s EURO 2020 triumph proves defense wins championships

The Azzurri received some well-deserved praise for their free-flowing attacking football, but they wouldn’t have won EURO 2020 if not for some good old fashioned defending, writes Vilizar Yakimov.

Italy brought football to Rome in the sweetest possible way, but eventually, it was not their fluid and attractive game that won them the trophy, as the triumph took much more than that.

Yes – Mancini’s men absolutely dominated possession and pinned England back almost immediately after Luke Shaw’s opener in the Final, but the story of the game goes far beyond the 65% of possession and 19 shots that the Azzurri registered at Wembley Stadium.

The truth is, if it weren’t for the ugliest of tap-ins by Leonardo Bonucci and a Giorgio Chiellini master-class at the back, the outcome of the Final could’ve been completely different.

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The image of Chiellini pulling down Bukayo Saka already became a hit on social media and this episode really showed what this Italy are about. The no-nonsense defending of Chiellini didn’t allow Harry Kane a sniff on goal, as the English captain failed to register a single touch in Italy’s penalty box and ended the game with zero attempts towards Gigio Donnarumma.

Mentioning Donnarumma, it’s really incredible how a 22-year-old has effortlessly filled the big gloves of Gigi Buffon. Two saves in the penalty shoot-out in the final, another one against Spain in the semi-final and, putting aside a few shaky moments with his feet, a calm and composed throughout the tournament.

Donnarumma was rightfully named EURO 2020 Player of the Tournament, but the truth is other members of Italy’s backline would’ve also deserved the award. Leonardo Spinazzola was arguably the best outfield player before his unfortunate injury, while a case can be made for both Chiellini and Bonucci, who managed to end the tournament without being dribbled past a single opponent.

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The fact that a goalkeeper was named Player of the Tournament and the names of three Italian defenders were also in the running is a bit ironic, as the Azzurri had won over both fans and media at the beginning of the competition thanks to their beautiful offensive displays. 

The imperative back to back 3-0 wins against Turkey and Switzerland showed that Italy could be very dangerous going forward, but despite that, Gary Neville infamously said that “Italy won’t have enough” once they face better opposition. Well, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Italy had the toughest possible route to the Final and the Azzurri showed in each of their knockout stage clashes that they still have their hidden, uglier side behind their pretty face.

They created enough chances but overall struggled throughout their Round of 16 clash against Austria, so even then, it took unity, passion, grinta and experience to go through. Mancini did a tremendous job, as two of his subs, Federico Chiesa and Matteo Pessina, stole the headlines after netting twice in extra time. However, the 2-1 victory wasn’t as nearly as beautiful and convincing as the ones in the group stage and came after long periods of suffering.

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It was another similar story during the 2-1 win against Belgium in the quarter-finals, as Nicolo Barela and Lorenzo Insigne scored spectacular goals, but somewhere in the shadows, Chiellini decorated his return to the starting line-up with an imperative display to keep Romelu Lukaku at bay. 

Arguably the toughest game came in the semis, as Spain were just too good on the ball, so Italy had no choice but to defend. This was probably Italy’s worst game from a technical point of view, as the usually strong midfield made too many mistakes, resulting in only 30% of possession.

It was once again a mix of pretty and ugly, as Federico Chiesa opened the score after Italy had absorbed pressure for the majority of the game. However, Luis Enrique’s decision to finally put an established striker on the field paid off, as Alvaro Morata’s strike took the game to extra time.

It had become obvious that Italy could not outplay Spain, so everybody had to dig deep. Chiellini and Bonucci were literally dragging themselves on the field, Chiesa cramped, Spinazzola’s energy was missing and everybody was obviously exhausted. Yet, somehow the Azzurri made it to the penalties and when you have the best goalkeeper in the competition, you always have a chance.

Video: Donnarumma and Berardi mock England

With a bit of luck, skills and a Pirlo-esque calmness from Jorginho, a place in the final was booked against England at Wembley. After falling behind less than 120 seconds, it once again became clear that Italy had to show much more than their attacking side. And this is exactly what they did.

It’s hard to understand why Gareth Southgate tried to out-defend the masters of defending, especially considering all factors that were in England’s favour, such as playing six out of seven games in front of the packed Wembley, with restrictions for travelling fans, and after scoring an early goal. Not to mention a much easier path to the Final and the questionable penalty against Denmark.

Unlike England, who were solid but weren’t brave enough and lacked a more attractive face, Italy had the right mix of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and this is why the EURO 2020 trophy deservedly ends up in Rome.

@vilizar_yakimov