A match of experiments between Italy and England finished 1-1 on Tuesday after each team took a turn controlling play. England played a more experienced side, but manager Roy Hodgson’s system tweaks leveled the odds against an unseasoned Italian team.
Wayne Rooney tucked underneath Theo Walcott and Harry Kane in a three-forward set. Jordan Henderson and Fabian Delph stepped ahead of Phil Jones in a shape that could be described as either 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield.
Rooney has played either in the top line or just underneath for both club and country recently, which fit into Hodgson’s desire to tinker with the system in a friendly. He drifted freely between midfield and forward lines, looking for the ball at his feet and spraying diagonal passes.
Henderson and Delph stepped forward into the half-spaces on either border of the 18-yard box as Walcott and Kane moved higher. In the back, Jones dropped between the center backs to allow the fullbacks to roam the touchlines.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon represented nearly half of the Azzurri’s caps alone, making his 147th appearance. Manager Antonio Conte kept the same 3-1-4-2 system in place despite his personnel changes, with Brazilian-born Éder partnering Graziano Pellè up top.
Along with Buffon, central defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Ranocchia formed the most experienced block of the Italian team. They, and debutant Mirko Valdifiori in defensive midfield, frustrated England in the first half.
England showed potential in the middle third but could not connect passes or circulate possession quickly enough to create more than a couple chances. Rooney hit the crossbar on the Three Lions’ best effort of the opening 45 minutes.
England pressured high, but if the Azzurri could breach the first line of pressure, Pellè and Éder often had time to turn and involve Matteo Darmian and Alessandro Florenzi. Italy looked for the forwards as early as possible, England’s back and midfield struggled to reduce the gap between them as the higher players pressured.
The narrowness of the midfield also left room for the opposing wingbacks. As a result, Italy looked to get the ball forward as early as possible.
Darmian created several dangerous opportunities down the left in particular, as England right back Nathaniel Clyne struggled to contain him. Hodgson replaced Clyne at halftime with Kyle Walker, who surpassed Clyne’s effectiveness on both ends of the field with his pace and ability to serve crosses.
Italy also struggled to sustain pressure in the attacking third. Its best chances came on combinations in wide areas and crosses, as the central midfield triangle could not transition from defense to attack quickly enough to support the forwards.
Despite controlling much of the ball in the early stages, England fell behind on a second-chance cross from Chiellini after a corner kick. Pellè flicked over Joe Hart and into the goal from an unmarked position in the near-post space in the 29th minute.
The first half finished with neither team seriously threatening the opposing goal. Pellè’s tally was the only shot on target from either side.
Just before halftime, Chris Smalling went off feeling unwell, and Jones moved into the back line. Michael Carrick went into defensive midfield, and he provided a much steadier anchor for the diamond midfield.
Hodgson’s understandable intent in putting the defensive-minded Jones in the No. 6 spot didn’t pan out, but Carrick turned out to be a catalyst for changing the flow of the match back in England’s favor.
Ross Barkley entering in the 55th minute sent Rooney to the top line. Finally, with Andros Townsend’s introduction, the Three Lions looked at their most ferocious and regained control of the match.
Executing a diamond midfield can be tricky, but England’s squad fit the requirements — Hodgson just had to put the pieces in the right places. The team looked strongest in the final 15 minutes, culminating in Townsend’s equalizer, with all players in their proper positions.
Barkley again showed promise as the primary playmaker, displaying his skills when he’s afforded the freedom that the No. 10 spot provides in a diamond midfield. Rooney also played better when he moved closer to goal, interchanging with Barkley and Kane at the appropriate moments.
Friendlies offer the proper opportunity to experiment, which Hodgson did, but he returned to a winning formula when the new ideas didn’t work as expected. Aided by Conte’s changes in a short period stunting the Italians’ rhythm, England played a much better second half.
Conte perhaps expected his team to defend even more than it did, with its relative inexperience, but the Azzurri newcomers performed admirably against a team closer to full strength — at least in personnel, if not the system of play.
Neither team played particularly well on the back of Euro 2016 qualifiers, but both showed positive flashes in a non-competitive match. A draw was the proper result on the full balance of play, marking England’s first failure to win since the 2014 World Cup.