Romelu Lukaku found out the hard way how good Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are. The Belgium striker tried to get the better of Italy’s veteran centre-backs by going right up against them but they thrive on such tactics, and even someone who has scored 50 goals for club and country in the past year was kept quiet.
Chiellini and Bonucci have 219 caps between them so know a thing or two about how to defend at this level, ensuring Lukaku’s best chance came from the penalty spot. They like everything in front of them – they want to bully strikers, get round their ankles, kick and hustle them. England need to find a way of making them uncomfortable and something that makes most defenders twitch is an opponent with lightning pace.
England are blessed to have numerous forwards who can sprint at breakneck speed and can be a threat to Chiellini and Bonucci. Raheem Sterling has been at the forefront of England’s best attacking play. He is a potential player of the tournament and seems to be in the form of his life, making him a potent concern for Italy. Fast players in general, even if they have an off day in possession, will always be a threat when they get a chance to stretch their legs, something defenders hate.
What Sterling and Bukayo Saka or Jadon Sancho will need on Sunday is for Chiellini and Bonucci to be pulled out from the back to then hit Italy with pace. Spain did this well in their semi-final against Italy, utilising a false nine to bring out their defence. Harry Kane can drop deeper to attract defenders, a role he has played at Spurs, allowing the quick players to get beyond and use the space in behind down the sides. Italy’s defence do not want to be turned to face their own goal – that’s when they know they are in trouble, as the own goal Denmark scored proved.
Losing Leonardo Spinazzola was a huge blow for Roberto Mancini, as the left-back had been a standout performer in the tournament. It disrupts the backline and Emerson Palmieri has come into the team after a season spent mainly as a backup at Chelsea, meaning he could also be targeted by those happy to go at defenders.
The final could become a counterattacking game early on. You need those types of fast ball-carriers who release pressure and have the ability to take players on and commit them. Defenders such as Chiellini and Bonucci do not want that. However experienced you might be, it is difficult to defend against nimble players who are agile, quick, skilful and want to go round you.
Chiellini and Bonucci rightly have a reputation as two of the best defenders in the world. Their quality and intelligence have aided their longevity, and they have picked up a plethora of titles. England, however, will not fear them because of their reputation. They will respect their opponents but I feel this team do not care about who they face. There is a fearless mentality about this group which is very refreshing.
The longer the game goes on, the more important the England bench will become. Gareth Southgate does not have the best 11 in the tournament, although it is an incredible side, but the difference is the bench. If England can keep things tight for an hour, tiring Italy as they go, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish or Marcus Rashford could be very dangerous. These are players who can make the most of any extra space created to run into.
Southgate has employed his substitutes at the right time in the first six matches. It could turn into a chess match against Italy and Southgate is the best chess player going. Whatever the opposition throw at England, Southgate can turn around, get the playbook out and see who he can use to counteract it – that is what this squad is all about. They are constantly nullifying opposition strengths and maximising opposition weaknesses.
Sometimes managers can freeze in moments and not make a decision but Southgate is always reactive and decisive regardless of the situation. It was difficult for him to bring off Grealish – it is embarrassing for a player – but he knew it was important and was needed to see England into the final, and Grealish will have understood that.
Disrupting Italy will be important across the pitch but no one more so than Jorginho in front of the back four. Mason Mount could be the man to get in and around him, as he knows his Chelsea teammate well; he plays and trains with him, he knows his plans, movements and the pockets of space he likes to drop into. When a team operate with a deep-lying midfielder they want to play through, stopping that is critical.
England will have to be at their disruptive best to get the better of Italy in 90 or 120 minutes. Southgate will have set out his seventh bespoke gameplan of the tournament and England will embrace the occasion in front of a packed Wembley which has a greater confidence in a squad than I have ever seen.
After a 55-year wait to reach the final of a men’s major tournament, England could win the Euros in a blink of an eye if their speedsters get the chances they need to settle it.