Germany 1-0 Portugal: Gomez gets the nod upfront, and nods in the only goal
The quietest of Euro 2012’s four games so far ended with a narrow German victory.
Jogi Löw had a few decisions to make – Mario Gomez, rather than Miroslav Klose, started upfront and Mats Hummels was picked over Per Mertesacker in the centre of defence. At right-back, Jerome Boateng played up against Cristiano Ronaldo, despite rumours that Lars Bender would be played out of position there.
There were no surprises in Paulo Bento’s team selection. Miguel Veloso played deep in midfield contrary to reports that Custodio would get a game, and Helder Postiga was the centre-forward.
This was a low-key, cagey match that never seemed likely to produce many goals.
Portugal were 4-3-3 and sat deep in their own half with three relatively defensive-minded midfielders, and rarely looked to break forward other than with the two wingers. Their out-ball was always either to Ronaldo moving inside from the left, or longer balls to Nani down the right. Postiga was rarely involved.
Germany’s shape was the usual 4-2-3-1, with Mesut Özil drifting from side to side, and the two holding midfielders, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, taking it in turns to go forward. The full-backs stayed relatively deep, probably fearing that they’d leave space in behind for Ronaldo and Nani to break into if they attacked. When Ronaldo did recievethe ball on the run, Boateng stayed narrow and showed him wide.
The key battle in this game was Özil against Veloso: Özil naturally plays right-of-centre, Veloso naturally plays left-of-centre. Veloso tried to stick tightly to Özil, and although his tracking was generally very good, Özil is just so clever at finding pockets of space in the channels and on the flanks, and his constant lateral drifts were often too good for Veloso. The Portuguese midfielder was reluctant to move a long way from his designated central holding position, for fear that other players would move into that zone and cause problems between the lines.
Özil’s movement is generally lateral anyway, but with Veloso scared outside the width of the penalty box, Özil’s passing chalkboards were the definition of a central winger (nominally playing as a central playmaker, but never actually receiving the ball in the centre of the pitch). Germany struggled to create clear-cut chances, but their best moves in the first half generally came after good work from Özil.
Elsewhere in the midfield zone, Meireles and Moutinho tracked the runs of Khedira and Schweinsteiger. As the German duo moved forward in turns and switched from right to left, Meireles and Moutinho were happy to be drawn out of their natural position, as long as their opponents didn’t find space when venturing forward. Khedira and Schweinsteiger didn’t want to over-commit, the Portuguese midfielders were concentrated solely on breaking up play, and so the first half was something of a stand-off.
Portugal relied on counter-attacks and set-pieces. On breaks, they got the ball to the wingers well, but Ronaldo and Nani couldn’t produce a moment of magic to get into goalscoring positions. From a set-piece, Portugal came very close when Pepe hit the bar following a corner.
Bento’s side will be criticised for playing in a negative manner, but looking at Portugal’s side logically, it’s difficult for Bento to justify playing an attacking game. They have no number ten or a real creative influence to break down a packed defence, and their best bet is relying upon the wingers on the break – that’s the only way Ronaldo and Nani will be able to compensate for the lack of a prolific striker and a creative midfielder.
Besides, no-one is surprised when sides play this way against Spain – it’s standard practice. Therefore, it’s hardly shocking that teams will play this way against Germany, a side widely considered to be very close to the level of Spain.
The difference, however, is that while Spain are narrow and often lack a traditional number nine, Germany have a prolific central striker in Mario Gomez. With Portugal’s midfield three staying narrow, Germany were sometimes allowed space on the flanks to get crosses in, and although the goal came from a deflected cross and can hardly be attributed to a piece of genius tactical thinking, the mere fact that Germany were happy enough to centre the ball demonstrates one reason why they’re more of an all-round threat than Spain. Gomez had also threatened from a couple of earlier deliveries from wide, then nearly connected with a low centre from Thomas Muller minutes later.
Perhaps Portugal even opened up too much. In the ten minutes before Gomez’s goal they’d become more offensive, playing higher up the pitch, pressing more, getting Joao Moutinho into space between the lines (his pass to Ronaldo looked like it had created the best chance of the game, but Boateng got a superb block in) and pushing Meireles forward to the edge of the box. Germany pounced when Portugal had finally started to play football.
At 1-0 down, Bento decided to bring on Silvestre Varela for Meireles (Nelson Oliveira had already replaced Postiga upfront) and Portugal went to a loose 4-2-3-1 system, with plenty of movement from the three nominal wingers behind Oliveira. And, with an extra attacking player, Portugal played very good football – there were sharp combinations, movement into channels, an extra dribbler to run at the German defence, and much more urgency in the play. Germany defended well – Hummels in particular – but needed to make some desperate blocks at the back, and Manuel Neuer was also forced into action.
Portugal played ultra-defensive well, and they played all-out-attack well. It was the transition stage that seemed to cost them the game.
This wasn’t a complex match. Portugal started the game playing reactively, Germany were patient in the number of players they pushed forward. Only Özil’s movement, and his battle with Miguel Veloso, provided tactical interest.
Löw’s decision to start with Gomez just about paid off – although he seemed to be preparing Klose just before the switch. Klose still seems a better fit because of his combinations with the other attackers in high-speed moves, but if future opponents are going to park the bus against Germany but give them time in wide positions, Gomez might be the better option.