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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Right-footed left-backs hold the key in Italy versus Belgium clash

Belgium have only beaten Italy once before in a competitive match -- in the 1972 European Championship quarterfinals.

Written by Sandip G | New Delhi |
Updated: July 2, 2021 2:43:54 pm
Belgium's Romelu Lukaku celebrates with Kevin De Bruyne during a UEFA Euro 2020 match. (Reuters)

Belgium’s right wingback Thomas Meunier and Italy’s right-back Giovanni de Lorenzo could sit over a coffee table and discuss a peculiar puzzle that encounters both in their quarterfinal clash. How do they nullify the threat of a right-footed left-back and left wingback?

Not incidentally, both flanks-men in question, Italy’s Leonardo Spinazzola and Belgium’s Thorgan Hazard happen to be their team’s most influential players in the tournament too. Spinazzola’s electrifying pace has been electrocuting defences while Hazard’s tricky movements had his markers cursing and cussing.

In the past, they could have been called the wrong men on the wrong flank, but this Euro, it has been a mini-trend with Denmark and Czech Republic, too, employing right-footed left-back.

England too had experimented with Kieron Trippier in the opening fixture against Croatia. Italy’s was a genuine ploy; as they had other left-footed left-backs like Emerson Palmieri in the squad; Belgium’s was out of exigency after Timothy Castagne got injured and there was not a suitable replacement.

Castagne has returned from injury but it’s less likely that Hazard would be deposed of the spot that he has made his own.

READ | The fall of Goliaths give a new twist to UEFA Euro 2020

The dimension they bring is unique and unusual, and hence uncomfortable for their markers. Contrary to the stock-in-trade left-footer who sashays down the outside channel and overlaps, they drift infield, which is a more direct threat. The inside passing is deadlier, if less spectacular than running along the lines and centring just in front of the goalmouth, where the opposition defender is the favourite to allay the threat.

Flexing muscle, he could make him drift further away from the box and nearer to the corner flag. The full-back thus if stifled of angles to shoot or pass.

But a right-footer by the very virtue of being right-footed has more angles at his disposal. He could whip it into the box or swish it to his left, where the inside forward would be waiting. As is often the case with Italy when Lorenzo Insigne slips out in his link up with Spinazzola. When they are cutting inwards, they are facing the weaker foot of the opponent too (unless of course, he is an inverted full-back too). From that position he could scream it to the far post, an inswinger curving into the far post is obviously more dangerous, as Hazard has been throughout the tournament.

If they are able to shrug off the markers, they are in a better position to shoot goal-ward too. The angle is more conducive and the target is broader. A left-footer has a tiny angle to manipulate, and hence more often than not, would scan for passing options. It explains why both Spinazzola and Hazard have been trigger happy.
The goal Hazard scored against Portugal was a classic instance. He sliced infield, took a couple of touches and rasped a 25-yarder into the far corner. A left-footer would have had to twist his body to even attempt a shot, forget generating power and precision as did Hazard, who had plenty of acceleration room.

There is a blatant flip-side too. When tracking back, they are on their wrong foot trying to block the opponent’s run, forcing them to move across them. It makes them more vulnerable to mistimed and heavy tackling, offences that instantly enter the referee’s book. Maybe, it’s the reason both teams have three at the back. Belgium begin with a three-man defence while Italy morph into a back three when attacking, the right-back Lorenzo dropping back to join the pair of centre-backs. The strategy offers them stability.

Both teams, though, have an ageing backline. Giorgio Chiellini is 36; the same age as Thomas Vermaelen; Leonardo Bonucci just two years younger than them and the same as Jan Vertonghen. Compared to them, 32-year-old Toby Alderweireld might feel overwhelmingly youthful. Both have held on resolutely, making up for decaying pace and energy with the smarts and anticipation. The fate of the match, though, would hinge a lot on how the younger men on the right side, Meunier (29) and de Lorenzo (27), perform. Or rather, how well they don’t let the wrong-footers of their flank perform.

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