For Italy and England, there was a lot at stake in the Euro 2020 final at Wembley. The Azzurri had failed to even qualify for the Fifa World Cup in 2018 and had not won the European Championship in 53 years. For the Three Lions, the desperation was even bigger. They had not tasted success of any sort since the 1966 Fifa World Cup victory and playing at home in the final presented their best chance to end the drought.
England and Italy’s roads to the showpiece were built on defensive stability and thus a cagey contest was on the cards at Wembley. But when England left-back Luke Shaw fired the home side into the lead in just the second minute to score the quickest goal in a Euro final, all such notions were put to rest.
England were flying, Wembley was bouncing and Italy were trembling. Roberto Mancini’s men were behind for just the fourth time in 25 matches and for the first time in their last 18 matches. England had their opponents out of their comfort zone and a boisterous home crowd that cheered every English touch made matters more hostile for the Italians.
The Three Lions had conceded just one goal in the entire Euro 2020 campaign and Italy’s task was cut out. In addition, Gareth Southgate had set up with a bit more caution for the final as Kieran Trippier had replaced Bukayo Saka in the line-up to make it a back five.
However, the move wasn’t meant to be a defensive one on paper. The English forwards stayed narrow, engaging the center-backs and also forcing the Italian full-backs to stay close. This left acres of space for the English wing-backs who made the most of it when Trippier found Shaw with a cross for the opening goal.
But Italy, who were on a 33-match unbeaten streak coming into the final, were not going to lay low. They started pushing left-back Emerson Palmieri further up the pitch. Lorenzo Insigne also drifted wide to link-up with Emerson and push Trippier back. The Atletico Madrid defender who had spent the first fifteen minutes of the match in Italy’s half slowly dropped deeper as the half progressed.
On the other side, Shaw was also forced into more defensive work as Federico Chiesa found his feet in the game. The Juventus winger was Italy’s brightest spot in attack with his bag of tricks and often linked up with Nicolo Barella on the right.
But despite the tactical tweaks, Italy’s challenge in the early exchanges of the game was more mental. They had to cope with a fast English start backed by the crowd. Mancini’s men thus didn’t try to force the issue after falling behind but instead slowly felt their way into the game, taking the sting out of the home side.
Italy were outnumbering England in central midfield and that forced Harry Kane to drop deep to help his team out. It reduced the pressure on the Italian centre-backs while on the ball and it allowed the Italians to slowly take charge of the match through the composure, experience and passing range of Leonardo Bonucci.
Even though they didn’t create a chance of note in the first half and had their first shot on target only in the dying minutes of it, Italy had regained lost ground. They had silenced the crowd, stemmed the flow of English attacks and pushed the hosts into a defensive mode.
“It was a tough game. We started in the worst possible way. It was difficult for us, the fans in the stadium gave England all their energy. But we were quiet and calm, and that was important. We started to play. We talked at half-time, we said we needed to find the right pass, take the right shot. We have to control the game, this is the way to win,” Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini told ITV Sport after the game.
In the second half, Italy slowly began to impose themselves. Mancini asked Chiesa and Insigne to drift inside and play a lot closer to Ciro Immobile. The front three also effortlessly swapped positions causing the English backline problems. Southgate’s men, who were getting overwhelmed in the middle of the park, took the bait and dropped deeper in order to protect the lead.
But the growing pressure told as Italy equalised rather scrappily from a corner. The goal further gave Azzurri the momentum and England who had entered self-preservation mode found it extremely hard to get back on the front foot.
Italy outpassed England in the game by 400 passes and Southgate’s men could never really regain control of the match that they lost either side of half-time. With the wing-backs pushed behind, the seasoned Italian defenders dealt with the English front three quite expertly to deny them any joy.
None of the English forwards who started the game – Kane, Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount – had a shot on target during the entire game.
Italy played the game on their terms where they could maximise their technical quality and minimise England’s superior physicality. The Three Lions did well to defend in numbers and deny Italy a second goal but in doing so and coping with Italy’s technical superiority, they all but sacrificed any threat that they could pose at the other end.
“We didn’t keep the ball well enough in that initial period in the second half. It was our lack of composure in possession that turned the game. The way they used the ball was better than us,” Southgate said after the game.
But Italy were dealt a blow when Chiesa, their most creative player was forced off with an injury. His replacement Domenico Berardi was more static with his positioning and was largely camped on the right-hand side of the front three.
Chiesa’s departure and the resultant lack of fluidity to the Italian attack thereafter allowed England to wrestle back some initiative but Southgate’s changes – bringing on Saka for Trippier and Jordan Henderson for Declan Rice – didn’t really provide enough impetus. It was only after Jack Grealish came on in extra-time that England seemed threatening. But it was a bit too late in the game. Southgate’s over-cautious approach proved costly for England in the end as they didn’t make enough use of their home advantage. The Three Lions didn’t give the crowd enough moments to fully regain their voice.
Italy’s centre-backs Bonucci and Chiellini had excellent games and were a big reason for the lack of productivity from the English attack. The duo also provided the source of inspiration and energy for the rest of the team in extra-time.
Chiellini’s famous celebrations of defensive interventions as if they were goals themselves were in evidence again as he congratulated Bonucci for seeing off a dangerous late break from Sterling. It brought the team together when it needed to battle.
But the wily old fox was also pragmatic when required as he hauled down Saka by his collar to pick up a booking in stoppage time. It was one for the team as he prevented Italy from being exposed to a counter-attack.
Bonucci, who was awarded the player-of-the-match, got the all-important equaliser for Italy to become the oldest scorer in a Euro final.
Midfielder Jorginho too was firm with his tackling, probably escaping a red card in extra-time for his tackle on Grealish, but the Italians’ tenacity stopped England from regaining the initiative despite Italy losing their attacking edge after Chiesa’s departure.
In the penalty shootout, it was all about Gianluigi Donnarumma whose massive presence between the sticks put off the English penalty takers.
Italy became the first team in European championship history to win two consecutive penalty shootouts, a testimony to their mental strength.
From the embarrassment of missing out on the World Cup, the Italians have come a long way under Mancini. And as they added a 34th unbeaten game in a row, the most important one among all, their redemption story is complete.
After a few years of underachievement, Italy are back to doing what they do best – winning trophies. They are now part of an elite company of four teams to have won the World Cup and the Euros multiple times.
This Euro 2020 triumph may not be the zenith in Italian football history but this famous victory, on the back of an incredible run that culminated with a win over England in their own backyard, will be one they’ll cherish for a long time.