Italy struggled to a 3-1 victory away at a hardworking, 10-man Armenian side in the Group J Euro 2020 Qualifier. Armenia took the lead after 11 minutes, with Alexander Karapetyan finishing well on a quick break, before Andrea Belotti equalised after 28 minutes. Karapetyan was harshly sent off on the stroke of half time for a second booking, allowing Italy to dominate the second half. They struggled to break down a resolute Armenian defence, and it took late goals from substitute Lorenzo Pellegrini and Belotti to hand them the 3-1 victory and leave them top of Group J, with 5 wins from 5.
Armenia opted for a 4-5-1, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan tasked with providing the support for Karapteyan.
Italy lined up 4-3-3, with Belotti being handed a start after his impressive start to the season, scoring 7 goals in 8 Serie A and Europa League games.
In what was expected to be a routine Italian win, there were a number of signs that will worry Roberto Mancini, despite their 100% record in the group. The biggest of these for Italy is their back four, and in particular the struggles of central defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Alessio Romagnoli, who struggled against the team ranked 98th in the World.
Italy opted to press high early on, with there being early warning signs after only three minutes as Armenia broke the press easily, which isolated the two Italian CBs with Italy’s full backs pressed high. Armenia made sure when they did break, they committed enough players forward to create an overload, and as shown below they were able to create an opening through a cross that found Kapetaryan at the back post, who saw his shot saved.
Armenia’s goal followed on 11 minutes, as a sloppy pass from Federico Chiesa set them on a quick break from deep in their own half, and they were able to capitalise on the issues showcased above. The image below shows where Armenia were able to break from, and the positioning of Italy’s full backs had left the Italian centre halves exposed. Left back Emerson is circled below, and it was the space left behind himself which was exploited well.
With Italy overcommitted up the pitch (shown below) when the challenge was won, Armenia’s attackers broke quickly and isolated the slower Italian centre halves.
Karapetyan’s movement between the two defenders should’ve been dealt with better, however he finished expertly and gave Armenia the lead, identifying Italy’s main worry of losing the ball when overcommitted, and defending with such a high line.
However, after the goal Italy settled and managed to gain control of the midfield, on what was admittedly a difficult pitch to adapt to. Jorginho was particular vocal after the match regarding the state of the pitch, however it was he and Marco Veratti who helped regain control of the game. Their link play with Emerson down the left side was fundamental to Italy finding a way back into the game and as shown by Emerson’s and Veratti’s heat maps below, a lot of the play was focused down the left flank.
Aided by Veratti and Jorginho consistently being able to link with him, Emerson’s positioning created a problem for Armenia’s right back, who then had to contend with either Bernadeschi or Chiesa drifting inside. As shown below, the overload was able to create an excellent chance for Bernadeschi after 22 minutes, and also showed the other Italy’s main tactics. Whilst creating 2 v 1s out wide, they also looked to overload the box for crosses, and it was this combination that worked for Italy’s first and second goals.
The build up to the goal is shown below, again with Italy creating this 2v1 down the left side, whilst looking to pack the box.
In isolating the right full back, Emerson was able to beat his man, and subsequently pick out Belotti at the back post, who’s good movement left him with an easy tap in.
On the stroke of half time, Karapetyan was harshly sent off for a second yellow, which led to Armenia sitting deep and looking to soak up Italian pressure. Whilst Veratti and Jorginho looked to create and were fundamental to controlling the game, Italy struggled to break down the compact Armenian side, and their defensive worries were once again exposed at times.
On 58 minutes, Nicolo Barella picked up a necessary yellow card as Armenia broke in similar circumstances to their opener. With Florenzi and Emerson caught high up the pitch, Mkhitaryan broke through the Italy midfield and once again had the two Italian centre backs backtracking, leading to Barella being forced to bring him down. As Armenia tired these breaks were reduced, however it does show an area of major worry for Italy moving forward, and could see a change in centre halves for their trip to Finland on Sunday.
Italy eventually broke Armenia down after 77 minutes, following another well worked 2 v 1, before subsititute Pellegrini was able to get free in the box and head home. As touched on before, this was indicative of Italy overloading the box, subsequently making it hard for Armenia’s defence to cope with. 3 minutes later, Belotti added a third as they saw out the game comfortably.
Alongside Emerson, it was Veratti’s performance that stood out as he controlled the midfield. The big worry for Italy is that he will be missing against Finland through suspension, and will be replaced by Stefano Sensi, who has impressed for Inter this season in their opening two games. Veratti’s match stats showed how imperative he was to their patient build up, completing 90 passes at 90% success rate, which was even more impressive given the state of the pitch. He also contributing three key passes, often difficult against such compact defences, whilst his defensive work can’t be underestimated. He won possession eleven times, three times of which came in the final third, indicative how he led the Italian’s high press.
An important win for Italy as they remain with maximum points after five games, it is Finland up next, who lie second and recorded an impressive 1-0 win over Greece, with Teemu Pukki netting again. Veratti will be a miss, and in particular the defensive worries at centre half will need to be looked at ahead of Sunday’s game, as Italy look to make it six from six.