Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final between Italy and the Netherlands marks an incredible accomplishment for both sides. The Azzurre have only once reached this stage before – back in 1991 – while their orange-clad opponents have never before got past the round of 16, meaning the two teams are already making a major impact this summer.
“We really believe this side has allowed the women’s game to break new ground back home,” said Italy head coach Milena Bertolini after her side eliminated China in their last outing. “We can see that from the viewing figures, what we see in the press and from the messages we receive from back home. I know cultural changes take a lot of time, but this team are able to break down some of those prejudices and they are enacting change and that’s their mission.”
Indeed it is, but Bertolini will also have her players fully focused on the task at hand, proving in the aforementioned victory over China that they are one of the tournaments most tactically aware teams. Earlier matches had seen Italy use a 4-3-1-2 formation, but the coach switched that in the last 16, dropping Aurora Galli in favour of Valentina Bergamaschi and opting for a 4-2-3-1 framework from the outset.
That system gave the Azzurre a numerical advantage in midfield against China’s 4-4-2 setup, which they exploited via a direct, long ball approach. While often losing the initial aerial duel, Italy had four players against just three opponents, repeatedly dominating the second phase of play and suddenly they were in possession high up the field against a back line which struggled to contain them.
Furthermore, whenever they lost the ball, Italy displayed a previously unforeseen tenacity in their pressing game. When China looked to recycle possession of the ball by playing horizontal passes, the Azzurre did not give their opponents time to rest, triggering their press early and often with their front four immediately hounding China’s central defenders and deep-lying midfielders.
The impact that had on the rhythm of the game cannot be underestimated, and it is something the Netherlands must be fully aware of as they head into Saturday’s encounter in Valenciennes. The Oranje have alternated between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 throughout the tournament, often switching during a match to disrupt their opponents.
They have also repeatedly been seeking to overload the wide areas of the field and attack down the wings, their counter attacking play some of the best at the tournament so far. However, they were extremely fortunate last time out against Japan, a game where it looked like the Netherlands’ players had seriously under-estimated the technical quality of their opponents.
A repeat of that against Italy could prove far more costly, but this is one quarter final clash that should be especially tight. No country in the last eight has attempted fewer shots in the four games to date than Italy’s tally of 46, but the next lowest is the Netherlands with 47, figures that serve to underline just how difficult this game is to predict.