As Romelu Lukaku lay disconsolate on the edge of the touchline, unable to fathom how his shot from two yards away from the goal was intervened at the last second, the Italian pair of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Spinazzola was feverishly celebrating near the side post.
Soon, Leonardo Bonucci and Giovanni de Lorenzo joined the melee. Their joy was boundless. As if one of them had scored a goal. A goal-denying block that was as worthy as a goal. Or maybe more than a goal in the context.
With Belgium accelerating in pursuit of their equaliser, Jeremy Doku burned down the left, burst infield and slipped a delicious ball to Kevin de Bruyne. He slid the ball towards Lukaku, unchained from the shackles of Chiellini on the rarest of occasions, and had to just trundle the ball net-wards. He did exactly that, bunting rather than blasting the ball, but only for Spinazzola (he was stretchered off in the 78th minute because of injury) to leap from nowhere and plant his thigh between the ball and Lukaku.
The whole sequence — Spinazzola sniffing the danger and snuffing out the shot without resorting to a wild tackle or cynical lunge — was a homage to the high defensive art that Italian football still keeps close to its heart. It was not a last-ditch rearguard effort, but a masterclass on defending.
Vibrant and velvet might be this Italian team, but they have neither forgotten nor forbidden the soul of their football. Their defence, still, is their essence. Defence as artful science or scientific art, defenders as surgeons and painters, scientists and sculptors. Those that snatch the ball off the feet without disturbing the shoelaces or splitting the shin-pads. In the past, Italy did have bruising wind-up merchants, who were at times crude and cringe-worthy, but a majority of them from the 90s to this time have been smooth operators. Banking on intelligence, anticipation and positioning than smouldering physicality. All the negative stereotypes of Italian defensive arts – niggling and pinching and sly shirt tugging – are unnecessary for Paolo Maldini and his lineage of defensive artists and craftsmen.
Some of them might look belligerent. Like Chiellini, who resembles a brawler ready for a punch-up in a pub, who has broken his nose five times and had his ears chewed, but they rarely stoop to violence. He is eternally screaming and shouting, gleeing and gesturing. Strikers detest this kind of defenders, for they are always there, even if they are not there physically, like a shadow. They congest your space and kill your morale, they are never in haste or hurry, never clumsy or careless.
For Chiellini, son of an orthopaedic surgeon, it’s more science. “It’s a subtle psychological game, reading a striker’s mind,” he had said in his autobiography I, Giorgio. But it’s not something someone is born, but acquired over years. Chiellini does this by watching footage of his opponents weeks before the game, comprehending everything from the idiosyncrasies to movements and preferences.
“It helps me form a connection with them. I need to know what they like most, which runs they make. It’s my way of getting on their wavelength and syncing up with them. I watch every goal a team has scored that season too. You get an understanding of how they play, how they score and how you might be able to guess their intentions.”
He seemed to have studied Lukaku so minutely that he was a completely neutered force. This was another tribute to the great Italian defensive tradition–man‑marking and the ability to win one‑on‑one challenges, which has gone out of fashion in this era of zonal marking.
Each defender has his own role. Chiellini is the aggressor. One of the most natural ball-playing centre-backs around, he bounds out for opponents high up the field. Bonucci is something of a defensive regista, a self-anointed “soldier” launching attacks and closing down the time and space that the adversaries get on the ball, always in the right place at the right moment, moving earlier without allowing the attacker to do what he wants.
In his duels with Kevin de Bruyne, the latter often emerged the second best while several of Italy’s thrusts began with him.
But his is a subtler craft than Chiellini, and hence you could miss him if you are not specifically looking out for him. Spinazzola is the attacking nerve (though he’s exceptionally schooled in the fine virtues of Italian defence). Di Lorenzo blends both, and drops deep to become the third centre-back when Italy is attacking. Even his moment of blemish, which resulted in the spot-kick, was a human exception.
Together, they are an impregnable force, keeping themselves relevant even as Italian football has shed its over-emphasis on defence. But Italy’s ambitions are fuelled as much by the enterprise of their forwards as by the rigidity of their defence. That defensive huddle, as Lukaku lay disconsolate outside the touchline, tells the story.