Football Features

“He’s like a quarter-back” – The magnificent midfield match-up that will decide Italy vs Spain

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:27, 5 July 2021

The Euro 2020 semi-finals are upon us and Italy vs Spain promises to one of the biggest blockbuster battles of the tournament so far.

While England vs Denmark is a semi-final high on narrative, Italy vs Spain sees two of the best teams in the tournament so far go head-to-head for the right to make the final. This is the fourth consecutive Euros at which these two historic nations will take each other on, and it looks the most even yet.

This is an elite attack vs a rock-solid defence, and although Italy’s defensive record and Spain’s misfiring attack (10 of their 12 goals came in two games, they have just two in their other three matches) look like they could be decisive, the match will more than likely be decided in the centre of the pitch, where the two best midfields of Euro 2020 will line-up.

For Spain — priced at 3/1 to win Euro 2020 by Sky Bet — we will have Sergio Busquets, Koke and the young stud Pedri. And Italy — who are 2/1 second-favourites only behind England — will have Nico Barella, Jorginho and then Marco Verratti.

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Both Verratti and Busquets missed the first two games of the tournament through injury, and while Spain laboured without Busquets, Italy were just fine without Verratti as Manuel Locatelli stepped in. The Sassuolo midfielder can feel hard-done-by that he has been dropped, but while Verratti was a poor fit to face Austria and was a disciplinary problem against Belgium, this Spain match-up is perfect for him.

This is a match that will test the Italian pressing game to its utmost, as all three of Spain’s midfielders are press resistant — with Busquets in particular thriving against opponents coming at him. Italy are relentless, however, with Jorginho at the base of midfield being the start.

Against Belgium, in the highest pressure game Italy have faced to that point, Jorginho completed an astonishing 70/71 passes. He also registered the most interceptions for Italy and won possession back the most times, so is contributing defensively as well as being a passing metronome. Spain must get a handle on the Italian no. 8 if they are to progress.

Verratti’s qualities are obviously well known, but as are his weaknesses. He is somewhat rash in the tackle and can be wound up by high pressure situations. Against Belgium, he got booked in the first half and, in the second half, needlessly shoved Kevin de Bruyne off the ball in a move that a stricter referee could have punished. In the end, Roberto Mancini removed him before he got sent off.

Barella is the ace in the pack; playing further forward than his teammates, he is the Italian midfielder who engages opposing defences with final third passes and shots — his stunning goal opened the scoring against Belgium and showed how deadly his dribbling and finishing can be. Moreover, his slipped passes have made a key difference in some Italy goals.

Barella has spoken very highly of Spanish midfielders ahead of the clash: “Spain had great champions who inspired us all, such as Xavi and Iniesta,” said the Inter midfielder, before adding: “Sergio Busquets has also been among the best in the world for years, in both Spain and Barcelona. You just have to congratulate him for that, and now they also have Pedri and Koke.”

Koke certainly is the least heralded of the three Spanish midfielders, but he is a vitally important “glue guy” — the Atletico Madrid captain, who just won La Liga for the second time, offers safe passing and intense defensive security for a midfield that struggles to sweep and press at the same time. He can also take set-pieces and has an air of intensity that makes him more valuable than, say, Thiago Alcantara.

Pedri is the miracle of the bunch, as he is just 18 years-old yet also one of the best performing midfielders at Euro 2020. He took Barcelona by storm this season and now all of Europe is reckoning with the fact that this teenager is quite a bit better than anyone could have imagined. Only three midfielders at Euro 2020 have created more chances than Pedri (all 10, to his nine) and they are 30, 28 and 25, respectively. Pedri, again, is just 18.

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The Barcelona youngster can run, he can pass, he can even chase back and tackle. No task is too big and based on the way he’s handled the Euros with all the serenity of a seasoned veteran, no occasion is too big. Navigating the excellent pressing from the Italian midfield will be his biggest test yet, but everything we’ve seen from this young maverick indicates he’ll pass it.

But the main event of this midfield match-up is the immortal Busquets. The only remnant from Spain’s 2010 World Cup win left in the squad, Busquets at 32 is at the opposite end of his career to Pedri. Hell, he even outranks all of the Italian midfielders as well. His defensive prowess isn’t what it once was but his ability to control a game with his passing is still off the scale. He is doing it all for Spain at the base of midfield, and attempting 7.1 long passes per 90 minutes at the tournament shows how often he is driving it forward.

Barella singled him out for praise, and if that wasn’t impressive enough, he even managed to impress Roy Keane. And considering Busquets is a player with precious little athletic ability; being able to draw praise out of someone who places a premium on hard work and intensity truly shows the level of skill Busquets is operating at.

“When you think of the position, the level he’s playing at; he can’t run, he can’t tackle, he can only play in teams really that dominate possession,” said Keane on ITV, sounding like he was going in for the kill before changing tone: “But he’s a brilliant player. A great example for any young midfielder watching. One, two-touch [passing], do it quickly.”

Keane then made an always-risky cross-sport comparison: “He’s like a quarter-back. American Football. Watch his eyes,” which speaks to how Busquets, from a mostly static position, can dissect opponents with his vision. The Spaniard routinely drives the ball behind the opponent’s midfield to find his teammates in dangerous positions.

It’s that ability to always pass forward, to always make the right decision, that most impresses Keane. “The key, your first option midfielder, can I pass it forward? Nine times out of 10, he makes the right decision,” he added.

There is no doubt that Busquets is coming to the end of his illustrious career, he might be too far gone physically to dominate come the 2022 World Cup. But for now, Barcelona’s Grandmaster is still the main man, as evidenced by Spain’s midfield not clicking into gear until he returned from Covid to take his place in it. And if anyone is going to negotiate the phenomenal pressing and passing of the Italian midfield, and give Spain a chance at upsetting what has arguably been the best team at Euro 2020, it’s Sergio Busquets.