Emanuele Giaccherini scored the game winner for Italy in the 32nd minute from an inch perfect diagonal ball over the top from Leanardo Bonucci. Graziano Pelle sealed the win for Italy in the 93rd with a thumping volley from a cross from the excellent Antonio Candreva.
Italy and Belgium found themselves in historically unfamiliar positions going into this match. Belgium's highest ever finish at a European Championship was third in 1972 when they were the host nation and only four teams made the finals. Italy on the other hand have won four World Cups, a European Championship and have been Euro runners up twice, including in 2012.
However, Belgium are currently second in the FIFA World Rankings, boasting a wealth of big name players throughout the squad. By contrast, this Italian side has been considered by many to be the weakest they've brought to a major tournament in some time with expectations low.
Despite being the top ranked side in the tournament, there were still large doubts about whether Belgium could be included in the group of tournament favorites. Some of those doubts centered around the relative inexperience in big games among the squad but an even bigger question was whether they could develop more cohesion and tactical nous under manager Marc Wilmots than they showed in the World Cup in Brazil where they often looked disjointed and less than the some of their very talented parts. The answer to that question today was an emphatic no. You'll struggle to find a clearer example than this match of tactics and a superior manager winning out against more talented opposition.
Facing the most gifted manager in the tournament in Antonio Conte, Wilmots' side looked desperately unprepared against Italy's 3-5-2. At halftime, with Belgium down a goal after being thoroughly outplayed, it was shockingly written in a Telegraph live feed that journalist Raphael Honigstein had mentioned that a Belgian colleague had told him Belgium had trained once during the week against a 3-5-2 and the first team were beaten 4-0. Belgium looked utterly helpless at how to approach a system they rarely come up against.
Both wide attacking midfielders Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne stayed high up the pitch when Italy were in possession which left the two holding center midfielders- Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan- to defend nearly the entire width of the pitch in midfield. Italy's wing backs, Candreva on the right and Matteo Darmian on the left, took up extremely wide positions on the touchlines. With Belgium defending as a fairly narrow midfield two, the Italian wing backs continually found the space to collect diagonal balls into the channels. This forced Jan Vertonghen and Laurent Ciman to close down the ball in wide areas from their fullback positions, leaving a large gap between themselves and their center backs. Italy's two midfield shuttlers Marco Parolo and Giaccherini, and the second striker Eder, were able to run into that gap and overload the Belgium fullbacks. With 2 v. 1's in the channels, Italy were comfortably able to get to the endline and provide cut backs and crosses into the penalty area.
Defending with only a midfield two also created defensive problems for Belgium in the middle of the pitch. With Fellaini, Hazard and De Bruyne all staying high up the pitch when Italy were in possession, Nainggolan and Witsel had to cover a tremendous amount of ground. Not only were they responsible for defending Italy's center midfield three, they also had to worry about quickly shifting into the channels to help their fullbacks when Italy got the ball in wide areas. As a result, the two split some 10-15 yards apart from one another in positions somewhere in between the middle of the pitch and the touch line, leaving a huge gap between them. Italy were easily able to play forward passes between that gap into Pelle dropping off from the center backs. Higher up the pitch Fellaini, Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku didn't press the Italian center backs or Danielle De Rossi in his holding midfield role so they were able to comfortably pick their heads up and find a forward pass.
The screen shot below shows an example of Belgium's bizarre defensive shape. Andrea Barzagli is able to easily collect possession from Bonucci. De Bruyne and Hazard are neither trying to close down the ball nor drop in to midfield to give Belgium a midfield bank of four. Nainggolan and Witsel split to either side of the center circle so they can shift wide if the ball goes into the channels, leaving a large gap in the center of the pitch. In the left of the shot you can see Pelle dropping off from the center backs to exploit the space where he can receive a penetrating pass. Belgium's defensive shape was basically a 4-2-4 which is something you might see out of teams that like to press hard high up the pitch. However, the front four did almost no pressing in the first half and Italy were easily able to play through a surprisingly disjointed defense.
Wilmots' did improve in the second half as the front four worked harder to get tight to the ball higher up the pitch, forcing Italy into more hopeful long balls forward and some sloppy giveaways. It's a mystery why Wilmots didn't take this approach earlier in the match given the age and athleticism of his side relative to Italy. Of Italy's three center backs and three center midfielders, only the 29 year old Bonucci is younger than 30.
The Red Devils were disorganized and uninspired in the opening 45 minutes raising questions about whether Wilmots is suited to getting the most out of a squad bursting with talent. Both Lukaku and his second half replacement Divac Origi were massively disappointing. Lukaku couldn't seem to bring the ball under control and gave away possession time and again. Origi missed two straightforward opportunities from inch perfect crosses from De Bruyne. The Manchester City wide man was too quiet himself for long stretches of the match as was Hazard on the opposite side of the pitch. Belgium should be more comfortable in their remaining matches against Ireland and Sweden, sides that will play formations that will cause the Belgians less confusion. However, if they aren't better organized and more committed from the opening whistle they'll be no guarantee they get points from those fixtures.
The Italians were unsurprisingly organized- the Juventus quartet of Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci at the back is the best defense in the tournament. They used the space the wingbacks were afforded on the channels well. Candreva was particularly excellent down the right. Parolo and Giacherrini offered enough energy and endeavor in their shuttling roles and although Pelle was guilty of squandering a couple of first half chances to make the score 2-0, he ultimately finished off the chance that put the result beyond doubt. Despite this excellent, professional performance, Belgium were an ideal opponent for this Italian side. They tried to take the game to Italy, leaving space for Conte's side to exploit on the counter. Belgium also used a relatively high line and didn't put much pressure on the ball, which ultimately led to Italy's opener when Bonucci was able to pick out Giaccherini in behind the defense with a long diagonal. Italy and Sweden will not look to have as much of the ball as Belgium. They'll drop deeper and force Italy into unlocking them with more creative buildup play. With few creative options in the squad, Italy could struggle to create chances. However, with the win today they're virtually guaranteed a place in the last 16 with just one more point. They're a better team than both Ireland and Sweden, coached by the best manager in the tournament so I expect them to win this group.