Netherlands hosted Italy in the second round of the League A Group 1 of the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam on Monday evening. The home side entered the match on the back of a 0-1 triumph away to Poland three days earlier, while the Italians had managed only a 1-1 draw at home against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the opening round.
Despite the game seeing only one goal, it was a lively affair with plenty of attacking intent from both sides, even if there weren’t too many clear-cut chances.
Physical approach pays off for Italian defenders
The efforts of Memphis Depay, Quincy Promes and Georginio Wijnaldum, who constituted the Dutch front three, to cause worry for Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, always seemed too tame to achieve their purpose. It comes as no big surprise that the experience and physicality of the Italian centre-back duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci played a big part in that. Fullbacks Leonardo Spinazzola and Danilo D’Ambrosio followed their example well.
German referee Felix Brych is well-known for his reluctance to flash cards too often; to give penalties probably even more so. The Italian back line took full advantage of that; the Dutch forwards will likely have left the pitch after the final whistle severely bruised and with their shirts stretched as far as the fabric would go.
Immobile targets Veltman
Another thing that shouldn’t have really surprised anyone was that Italy striker, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, preferred to drift to his left and take on Joel Veltman in the heart of the Dutch defence. Veltman is certainly a decent player in his own right and nothing can be said against him, but it only stood to reason for an experienced forward such as Immobile to avoid clashing with the 2019 Ballon d’Or runner-up Virgil van Dijk.
The Liverpool centre-back is often named by those that have played against him as their least favourite opponent, and for good reason. Therefore, it was only right for Immobile to see Veltman, for all the quality of the Brighton and Hove Albion man, as the weak link in the central area of the opposition back line. Nonetheless, it has to be said that Veltman stood his ground pretty well against the Serie A top scorer.
Ake is not a fullback
Nathan Ake just left Bournemouth to join Manchester City for a reported fee of £40m. Though primarily a centre-back, he has often been described as a versatile left-footed defender, and this time he was deployed on the left flank of the back line.
The 25-year-old has been known to put in a fine performance in that role indeed, but it can hardly be said of this game. Promes, who played ahead of him, was left alone going forward far too often, without the support of the fullback which is so essential for the way wingers play in modern football. At the back, Ake was expectedly good for most of the match, but the goal scored by Nicolo Barella which won the game for Italy can be put to his account. As Immobile went wide to the left once more, he lifted a cross towards the far post where Ake stood watching on the edge of six yards, allowing Barella to storm in, jump unopposed right in front of him and score.
To make it perfectly clear, Ake is a very good player who is likely to help Man City a lot in their bid wrestle the Premier League title back from Liverpool in the upcoming season, but the game against Italy didn’t show him in the best light, and one of the reasons could be that he’s simply not a fullback.
Kean still lacks end product
A young attacking player, with plenty of talent but obviously lacking end product – it’s a well-based narrative we’ve often heard before. A lot has been said about the early years of Raheem Sterling, or Adama Traore in that aspect. Moise Kean, who came off the bench for Italy to replace the injured Nicolo Zaniolo towards the end of the first half, definitely falls into that category. On several occasions towards the end, when the Dutch were pushing forward in search of a late equalizer and there was much space for counterattacks, the 20-year-old Everton man wasted good opportunities to set the game completely beyond the reach of the hosts.
There is definitely a reason why Juventus chose to part ways with him permanently last summer, though for a significant reported fee of £25 million, and why he currently has no place in the starting XI for either Italy or Everton. In 2019/20, he made just six starts in the Premier League.
But we’ve seen Traore, and especially Sterling, develop into extremely formidable attackers that no defender wants to face, and there’s no doubt that the same will happen for Kean at some point in his career.
Italy deserved the points
To put it simply, Italy were the better team in this contest. There is a lot of quality in this Dutch side, that fact can hardly be disputed, given the names of the players selected by coach Dwight Lodeweges. It was all there to be seen, but the visitors always found ways to limit the effect of that quality and they took the three points home deservedly. The only period of the game when Netherlands seemed like they could actually score were the final few minutes, when Luuk de Jong entered the fray from the bench and van Dijk went upfront to join him as another centre-forward – too little, too late.
Italy now top the A1 pack with four points. Netherlands are right behind with three. Poland, who beat Bosnia and Herzegovina in Zenica, have the same tally as the Dutch, while Bosnia sit at the bottom with one.