By Kelvin Yap
Coming into the game, Italy were widely expected to play 3-5-2, and it wasn't a surprise when Prandelli revealed that Daniele De Rossi would start the game behind Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini as a sweeper.
The surprise came from the Spanish camp, when it was announced an hour before kick off that Vicente Del Bosque selected six midfielders to start for Spain. On paper, it was a 4-3-3 formation, but practically, the shape turned out to be more similiar to a 4-6-0 formation.
A three man defence up against a false nine attack? It was a dream come true for any tactical-savvy football fan.
Against a narrow three man defence that lacked height in the middle, there were two things that the Italians were going to be afraid of: 1) a big, strong striker and 2) out and out wingers.
And it so happened that the Spain squad that Del Bosque set out to face Italy didn't have either in the six midfielders he set out.
Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso were deep-lying midfielders; Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas were attacking midfielders who play through the middle; David Silva may play as a winger, but his preference to cut in to create chances means he's not an orthodox winger.
The plan for La Roja was to meet Italy's five-man midfield in their own game by simply overcrowding and outpassing the Azzurri in the middle of the park.
In a sense, it's the first step to a tactical victory for Prandelli as he made Del Bosque adapt his team to match the Italians' style.
Fighting fire with fire
The basic idea up front for the Spanish was to confuse the trio of Italian defenders by putting six midfielders in front of them and take turns to run into the box and take up the role as a striker.
It didn't quite work out as Prandelli set his trio out with a zonal system; Chiellini and Bonucci were deployed on the left and right respectively while De Rossi played as a sweeper to tidy up behind both of them.
Further to Italy's favour, De Rossi is a natural defensive midfielder and he was effective in snuffing out the foraging runs that Spain made because they were typical of a midfielder's movement, which was routine for the Roma player.
To illustrate the point, a striker's movement would have been different and create space, which showed when Fernando Torres came on and had two glorious chances to put Spain ahead.
Granted, he failed to convert both chances, but the space he found behind the defence is testament to what an actual striker could and would do.
The lack of width in the Spain attack also made it easier for the Italians to defend in the box.
When the Spaniards switched the play to the flanks, it was easier to penetrate the defence but there was nobody on the overlap for them to drag the Italian defenders out of position because the wingers kept on cutting in to take on the defenders and they ran into more blue shirts instead.
In the end, Del Bosque realised that and brought on Jesus Navas, an orthodox winger, in the second half, which proved to be more effective as he managed to drag the Azzurri wider on the right for Spain to cross in and create more chances.
Of course, another way would have been top have the full backs like Jordi Alba overlap and create a two versus one situation at the back, but it was too risky defensively given the threat that Italy's wing-backs pose on the counter attack.
With six playmakers on the field, there was also a risk that Spain would overdo the passing game when all six of them took on the role of creating chances, which was evident at some points of the game when they kept on passing to each other but nobody took the initiative to fire a shot despite the many openings.
As a whole, the strikerless formation wasn't an entire failure. It worked when Fabregas scored in the second half, showing what a group of talented passers can do when they wreak havoc in the box based on their raw ability.
Still, one could not help but feel that if Del Bosque had kept it simple and started Cazorla and Navas on the flanks with Llorente in the middle to aim crosses at, Spain might just have done better in breaking down the Italian back three.
Parking the bus in the midfield
Defensively, the crowd of midfielders was also supposed to have a benefit for Spain since they ‘outflooded' the Italians in the middle, but it didn't quite work out that way.
Del Bosque ‘parked the bus in the midfield', to modify the popular phrase, with all six of the midfielders rotating and congesting the middle, but it was simply bypassed by the brilliant quarterback-like passing of Pirlo.
Pirlo was helped by the fact that the back three of Chiellini, Bonucci and De Rossi were all comfortable passers of the ball. They were content to ping the ball among themselves to get the attention of the Spaniards, allowing the Juventus midfielder that extra yard of space needed to send a pinpoint pass across the field to launch an attack.
Del Bosque wisened up to this and set Busquets pushing up to deny Pirlo time and space, but it ended up with Marchisio and Motta being able to sneak in behind the line and become the fulcrum for Italy instead, which forced Busquets into a few rash challenges of which he was lucky to escape a booking for.
In summary, Spain were missing the anchor character who could win the ball in midfield. In Euro 2008, they had Marcos Senna to put in the tackles, but Busquets and Alonso were simply not the types to dig in and win the ball for them.
Old is gold
It's actually fair to say that Italy's goal was borne of Pirlo's intelligence alone.
Having played most of the game deep right in front of his own defence, the Juventus midfielder made a rare foraging run into the Spain half, and easily skipped past Busquets, who was anticipating a pass into the middle for Marchisio.
With that extra space, Ramos came out of the line to close Pirlo down and the 33-year-old took the chance to play Antonio Di Natale through on goal with a perfectly weighted pass - the Udinese striker made no mistake against an onrushing Casillas to open the scoring for Italy.
Despite playing deep in midfield, Pirlo impressed with his running and he was the first player to cover 5 kilometres in the match, always looking for an outlet to link up play for his team mates.
Overall, Italy would be the happier side after the open, exciting draw although Spain had the better players, had more of the ball and created more chances; Prandelli's tactics worked better than Del Bosque's and the Azzurri looked more dangerous on the attack than La Roja. In fact, Italy are one of the most efficient teams in the Euros so far, looking secure in defence, coordinated in midfield and lethal in attack.
Perhaps more importantly, it vindicated the adaptation to a three man defence and the fact that Italy are a force to be reckoned with despite the chaotic off-field scandals.
For more tactical insights and updates, you can follow Kelvin's Twitter account @plevyakin