Sometimes, you need something bad for something good to happen. You have childbirth before the child, rain before the rainbow, the Warriors going 3-1 up to blow a 3-1 lead. And if you switch on a football match to find a tactically well-executed borefest, there’s a good chance that if you turn it off and give it an hour you’ll come back to a more enjoyable game to watch.
For an hour or so, the Under-20 sides of France and Italy put in a performance that was not so much cagey, as dull, to the point that figuring out why it was dull was only just enough to keep you awake through it.
The game was dull for a number of reasons. Both sides played a 4-1-4-1 and both sides wanted to keep the middle of the park congested. Italy, for their part, dropped their striker back into an attacking midfield area when they didn’t have the ball, perfectly happy to let the French defenders pass it amongst themselves.
The French wingers tucked inside a little too much, which just made the French into an undefined hapless blob in the area a decent number 10 would operate in. Although the wingers were moving inside, they weren’t moving for anything – not moving for passes which their centre-backs or central midfielder might be able to make to them, and not moving in a way designed to move the Italians out of shape.
When France didn’t have the ball, they were at least a little more active. Unlike Italy, they put a little bit of pressure on the opposition centre-backs. It didn’t quite make Italy’s back-line jumpy, but it did speed up the process of Italy trying to move the ball up the pitch. Sometimes that worked, more often it didn’t, some of the time Italy just broke through the first wave of the French light press so that they could keep the ball some more and consolidate possession.
The level of physical energy and mental concentration that these defensive structures require was always going to take its toll at some point though, and in the last half hour the game became much more end to end and much less boring.
By that point, Italy were 2-1 up. They’d opened the scoring just before the half hour, working the ball into a crossing position on the left. The ball was wonderfully flighted, arcing, curvaceous, although France’s left-back Maouassa lost his man, Orsolini, at the back post and deserves as much blame for the goal as the cross does credit. The full-back was partly ball-watching, and partly misjudged the flight of the ball, Orsolini pulling back a yard or so to volley the ball low and through the French goalkeeper’s legs.
France equalised in the 36th minute, finally stringing together some nice passes on the right flank, moving towards the centre of the pitch, with attacking midfielder Harit being brought (or ‘brought’) down just inside the box by an ill-advised challenge by Italy centre-back Coppolaro. Striker Augustin scored from the spot.
He looked tired and a little peeved by the end of the game. The amount of service he received limited him, most of the time, to shots from 20 yards. Even when France had the ball for a decent spell of time in the final third, there was a lack of movement and energy (part of which Augustin was responsible for) which never opened anything up for the side and kept the game a little on the early-era Coldplay side.
The French also, when attacking, set-up to prevent counter-attacks with a protective ring of midfielders around 25-30 yards out. It’s a decent strategy, and one which top teams do use – if any ball bounces free it’s you who pounce and keep possession rather than your opponent – but too often it slowed their attacks down or limited any dangerous passing options they might otherwise have had. It also only mostly worked at stopping the counter-attacks, so it’s not as if the trade-off they were making between defence and attack even properly materialised.
Italy’s second was a shameful goal to concede. It came in the 53rd minute, just a long throw from Italy in their own half down the flank. Their striker chased it, got to the byline, and fizzed in a cross which left-winger Panico headed in from about a yard out. France’s other full-back was at fault this time, a few yards ahead of his man until it was too late, seemingly misjudging how fast he needed to be running to get back adequately.
Though the game opened up after an hour, it was not entirely a more watchable affair. After about ten minutes of interesting end-to-end football, it became the tired, almost reluctant, kind of game that happens when two sides are knackered but there’s still time left on the clock.
The best part of the post-Italy’s-second game even came before the last half hour, Italy ‘keeper Zaccagno pulling off an amazing save in the 58th minute. A well-hit Augustin shot was deflected downwards, away from the top corner where Zaccagno had been diving to and forcing him to adjust mid-flight to get as much of his hand on it as he could.
For an hour, both congested midfield, and Italy sat deeper than France (Italians defending deeply? Quelle surprise). Then it was tired end to end. Italy were a bit better, and France were a little worse defensively, and Italy won.
FT: France Under 20s 1 (Augustin (p) 36’) – Italy Under 20s 2 (Orsolini 27’; Panico 53’)
France Under 20s: Lafont; Michelin, Onguene, Diop, Maouassa; Toussart; Blas, Poha, Harit, Saint-Maximin; Augustin
Italy Under 20s: Zaccagno; Scalera, Romagna, Coppolaro, Pezzella; Mandragora; Orsolini, Vitale, Pessina, Panico; Favilli