Image: Wikimedia Commons / Valerio Pennicino
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Valerio Pennicino

Spinazzola holds the key for Italy against Belgium

The Italian team, set for their quarter-final against Belgium tonight, performs as a squad greater than the sum of its parts under the reign of accomplished former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini.

It feels wrong to use the phrase ‘greater than the sum of their parts’ for a team with such great individuals, but those individuals given the opportunity to express themselves and excel, something we rarely see at international tournaments, and none more so than Roma wide-man Leonardo Spinazzola.

Replacing Emerson, whose replacement comes around due to his lack of playing time at Chelsea, Spinazzola travelled 700km south to join Roma in 2019 from Italian rivals Juventus. Only playing for ‘I Bianconeri’ 12 times in his five years at the club, Leonardo saw himself loaned out to Atalanta, twice, Vicenza and Perugia. 

Persistent injuries have plagued the player brought through the Siena academy. This season alone has caused him to miss 17 games with four separate injuries. However a welcome turn of fortunes has come just at the right time for Spinazzola to shine.

He has spent the majority of his playing time this year as a left midfielder in a 3-4-2-1, creating a formidable partnership with Henrik Mkhitaryan who would play on the left of the two attacking midfielders in-front. 

Throughout all competitions Roma’s emphasis on attacking play focused on the left-hand side, with 37% of their attacks coming down the left flank. Its primary cause is Spinazzola’s brilliance this season along the touchline.

This season Leonardo Spinazzola has, for fullbacks, ranked in the 99th percentile for progressive carries per 90 minutes, with 9.39 in the 97th percentile for dribbles completed per 90 minutes, with 2.21 and 97th percentile for touches in the attacking penalty area per 90 minutes, with 4.08. 

Throughout the Serie A this season, he ranked eighth in players dribbles past, ahead of his country counterpart, Lorenzo Insigne and Juventus star-man Cristiano Ronaldo. Consequently, he also ranked sixth in carries into the opposition penalty area, above Belgian frontman Romelu Lukaku and teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Spinazzola constantly looks to overlap in the attacking phases of the game

Leonardo has a special trait. Like great Italian left-backs before him, including the iconic Paolo Maldini and Gianluca Zambrotta, he is right-footed. Playing in the first two group games left-back in the Italian 4-3-3, Spinazzola is still asked to play just like the new breed of attacking fullbacks do in the 21st century. 

Like Emerson would do before him, he constantly looks to overlap in the attacking phases of the game. Defenders look to push him towards the outside onto his supposed ‘weaker’ foot, but Spinazzola is more than capable to put crosses in with his left and has done so regularly this season. Again, in the Serie A this season, he ranks ninth in crosses this season and fourth with crosses into the penalty area.

Spinazzola has featured in the first two games of the group stage, whilst being chosen to be rested in the third whilst Mancini made eight changes to the starting XI. The first game of the tournament, a 3-0 trouncing of Turkey who left everyone wanting more, saw Leonardo rise to the occasion with a Man of the Match performance, showing his electric pace and energy down the left-flank. He showcased his attacking threat with two shots on target and completed three dribbles, more than anyone else on the pitch. 

While not truly tested in a weak group, when called upon, Spinazzola nullified any attacking threat, especially counter attacks. Throughout the first two games, he recorded the fastest sprint time for any player at Euro 2020, at 33.8 km/h, a valuable commodity for both attack and defence.

In their last-16 clash against Austria, Spinazzola re-emphasised his good form from the group stage, putting in another Man of the Match performance. The game was far tougher than expected for Italy, as the tough Austrians pushed them all the way, but it was the dominant Spinazzola, who pulled them out of a hole, crossing brilliantly for Federico Chiesa’s opener in the 95th minute.

Their toughest challenge yet, however, is still to come, as they take on Belgium, one of the tournament favourites in the quarter-final. 

The combined forces of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard will be a completely different and more difficult challenge for the Italian defence, and the Italian faithful will be looking towards Spinazzola to continue his strong performances to carry his nation to a tournament win, something his national counterpart in Maldini never achieved.

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