Germany v Italy preview
Euro 2012 has been a fine tournament, but we’re still waiting for a truly classic match. Could this be it?
There is a good chance. In each of the quarter-finals there was one side looking only to defend, and last night’s semi-final was contested between two cautious sides. But both Germany and Italy want to play good football.
“We cannot sit deep, Germany will press us high up the pitch, and we are ready for this,” says Cesare Prandelli. “We will not change what has brought us here, it would be a shame to waste the work of two years.”
“We have to think of a way to play better than Italy in midfield and dictate the tempo of the match,” Jogi Low stated. “We will not let Italy show us how to play football. It’s a confidence thing. We have to be cheeky, we have to be strong and brave.”
If the coaches are true to their word – and there’s no reason to suggest otherwise – this should be tremendously entertaining match.
Having made three surprise attacking changes to his side for the 4-2 win over Greece, Low has three huge decisions to make in his front four. Mesut Ozil will start as the playmaker, but the other three places are tough to call. On the basis of the Greece game, Andre Schurrle didn’t do enough to keep his place (he gave the ball away cheaply, and conceded possession for the Greek equaliser) but Marco Reus did, with better all-round play and a thumping goal.
While Low will be aware of the differences in style between the two players he’s choosing between on either flank, those differences probably aren’t big enough to pick upon tactical suitability rather than form. Therefore, a combination of Lukas Podolski and Reus seems appropriate for the flanks, based primarily on performances in the tournament so far.
Prandelli’s formation is not certain. Having moved away from the 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond, there’s every chance he could return to that system, especially with the return of Giorgio Chiellini. However, reports from the Italian media – which have been accurate until now (too accurate for Prandelli’s liking) suggest it’ll be the diamond.
Assuming Daniele de Rossi and Ignazio Abate are fit to start, Prandelli will probably make only one change – Chiellini will replace Federico Balzaretti at left-back. That means Riccardo Montolivo will keep his place rather than Thiago Motta, and Antonio Cassano will start over Alessandro Diamanti.
Germany are clearly a possession-based side. They average the second-highest possession in the tournament (joint with Russia, just behind Spain) and also boast the highest pass completion rate. They’re an excellent passing side, and Low is clear that he doesn’t want Italy to dominate the game.
However, it might be wise for Germany to sit slightly deeper than usual. If they press relentlessly in midfield, they risk becoming overrun in the centre of the pitch, because Italy have extra players in there, and have the passing skills to work the ball past Germany’s players. For all Low’s talk of not letting Italy dictate the tempo of the match, the simple midfield numbers game might make this unavoidable at points.
Germany might look to contain Italy before breaking quickly. Andrea Pirlo is brilliant in possession, but is not a particularly fine player defensively. Much of the tackling and mobility you’d expect from a holding midfielder is effectively outsourced to the players ahead of him in the diamond, but Germany might be able to win the ball in their own half, then break quickly down the flanks.
An interesting feature of Germany’s play against Greece was how they stood off when the opposition centre-backs had the ball, then sprung into life and pressed when the full-backs got possession. That modified press makes sense here, pushing back the Italian full-backs, making Italy narrow.
Germany may be good in possession – but they’re also the competition’s best side at transitions, and that ability might be more useful against an Italian side that hasn’t been sufficiently been tested in that respect, aside from brief moments against Ireland, when they looked vulnerable to quick wingers.
Prandelli will encourage his full-backs to get forward, but this will be significantly more difficult against a German side that is tremendously energetic down the flanks, compared to the extremely reactive Irish and English sides the midfield diamond has previously encountered. Italy could struggle for width.
They’ll try to compensate for that by bringing both Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano into the channels, which will make Germany reluctant to bring both full-backs forward at once. Pirlo will look for long diagonal balls into the path of the two strikers, and if Germany push up and play a high defensive line, Pirlo will hit straight passes over the top of the defence for Balotelli, a repeated tactic against England.
But the real question is how Prandelli will take advantage of the numerical advantage in midfield. Again, this is a completely different test to against Ireland and England, who both sat back and didn’t look to put pressure on. If Germany don’t bring Ozil into the midfield zone (and generally, they don’t), Italy could dominate the centre of the pitch. Ball retention will be the priority, rather than working the ball forward quickly through the German lines. After all, Italy have been impressive with their ball-playing skills, but have only scored one goal from open play in 390 minutes.
With different formations, there will be interesting situations all over the pitch. But the battle between Andrea Pirlo and Mesut Ozil will be particularly fascinating. Pirlo wasn’t dealt with sufficiently by England and was allowed to dictate the flow of the game, but doesn’t expect the same here. “I expect Ozil to be a great threat in and around the areas where I am playing, whereas Rooney stayed further up,” he says.
Low says that Pirlo is “the one who directs the game, so we have to stop him and get in his radius.” Ozil is the natural man to stop him, but Ozil isn’t at his best when used defensively, while the flexibility of the Italian diamond means that if Ozil picks up Pirlo, Italy can rotate and drop De Rossi or Claudio Marchisio deeper, allowing Pirlo freedom higher up.
Besides, Ozil is better at playing ahead of the midfield, preventing an easy pass from the centre-backs into the opposition holder. He’ll probably track Pirlo casually, but spend more time drifting laterally into space to initiate counter-attacks. In a strict tactical sense, Pirlo and Ozil should be tracking each other. If they fail to, and concentrate on creating, two of the competition’s most talented players will get freedom, and we could be in for a brilliantly open game.