Israel U-21 0-4 Italy U-21
Saturday 8th June, Match Two, Group A, UEFA Under-21 Championship, Bloomfield Stadium
With Luca Marrone’s tournament ended through injury, Riccardo Saponara was brought in to replace him for Italy’s second Group A match, against hosts Israel.
Saponara started on the right of midfield, a position slightly unfamiliar to him. Alessandro Florenzi moved inside to deputise for Marrone. In the second half, with Lorenzo Insigne forced off through injury, Saponara moved to the left, before switching back to the right, when Nicola Sansone replaced Marco Verratti.
Good use of the ball
Throughout the contest, Saponara was tidy in possession. With Italy always playing through Verratti (140 passes, 97% accuracy), he often only received the ball in the final third. His link up with Giulio Donati was a constant theme in the first half, while he also combined with Ciro Immobile and Manolo Gabbiadini, who would often drop deep and come wide. His use of the ball was never too expansive. He was arguably the most restrained in that regard of the Italian midfielders. He only attempt three long passes – all accurate. Throughout the contest, he made 83 passes at an accuracy of 90%. That stat is slightly mis-leading, however, given the nature of the second half and the way Italy were so easily able to retain possession against ten men.
On the right, Saponara rigidly held his wide position when Italy were out of possession. However, when looking to receive the ball in the final third of the pitch, he often came inside off the flank. Lorenzo Insigne moved similarly on the left. When he did so, Saponara usually stayed wide. Israel’s two central midfielders – Nir Biton and Ofir Krieff, were often fairly deep and when Italy’s build up was more measured, there was little space for Saponara to move into. In possession, Israel were quite adventurous and as a team they pushed up. When Italy had the ball in deep areas and tried to build from the back, Israel pressed them. Occasionally, they overturned possession, but when Italy were able to play through them, there was plenty of space to be exploited on the counter-attack. It was in these situations that Saponara’s movement inside became more frequent and created openings. By coming narrow, there was space for Gabbiadini and Immobile to move wide (as he did for the opening goal), or Donati to support from full-back. As a natural trequartista, coming inside allowed Saponara to influence the game from his best position.
In the second half, as he switched to the left and Israel – a man light, were forced to sit deep, he held the width more, as there was little space in the centre.
While Israel’s early ambition was admirable, and effective to a certain extent, they were also vulnerable to the counter-attack. As such, an Italy goal seemed increasingly inevitable and it was duly delivered on 18 minutes by Saponara. The move typified the type of opportunity open to Italy in the early exchanges. The break-away was well worked and wonderfully created by Insigne. It was also a demonstration of how both Insigne and Saponara became more dangerous and difficult to track when coming in off their respective flanks.
Before Italy took the lead and the subsequent dismissal of Eyal Golasa, Israel caused the Azzurrini some concern and created a handful of good openings. Having seen England succumb to Italy by sitting deep, and his own side suffer using similar tactics in their first half against Norway, Israel Coach Guy Luzon chose a more adventurous approach. As well as pressing high up, the full-backs – Eli Dasa and Taleb Twatha, were ambitious with their forward movements. Twatha, in particular, got forward to good effect, forcing Saponara to drop deep out of possession. With Golasa moving inside, space was created for Twatha to overlap. At times, he was able to get into good positions. With Alon Turgeman also drifting wide, on occasion, there was a danger that Donati could have been over-loaded.
For a player used to remaining high up the pitch without defensive responsibilities, Saponara protected Donati reasonably well. He was sometimes a little slow in retreating when Israel broke, but his closing and willingness to engage Twatha, and particularly Golasa, was admirable. In the first half, he made two tackles – as many as any other Italian player, and one interception. He was also fouled going in for a challenge with Golasa, which saw Israel’s number ten dismissed.
With Insigne off injured just before half-time, Italy had to change personnel in midfield for the second period. Fausto Rossi, who replaced Insigne, came into the centre, with Florenzi now on the right and Saponara moving to the left. His combinations with Claudio Biraghi were similar to those with Donati. He didn’t move centrally as he had done in the first half (as mentioned above), but he did come slightly off the flank to allow Biraghi to overlap. Israel, down to ten men, moved Mohammed Kalibat out to the right from his first half forward position. He sat deep in front Dasa, who was no longer able to push forward.
With the dismissal of Golasa, the second half became a non-contest. Italy dominated possession, having 79% of the ball. The way in which they controlled the game and gave Israel no chance to get forward was impressive and showed maturity. For Saponara, it was a comfortable half. With Kalibat and Dasa pinned back, he was able to stay high up the pitch – often in line with Immobile and Gabbiadini. With Sansone replacing Verratti on 70 minutes, Saponara was moved back out to the right. Again, he held the width, with Mattia Destro and Immobile coming quite deep at times in the centre.