Germany 1-1 Italy: Low matches Conte’s back three, and playmaking starts from defence

July 4, 2016

Germany squeezed past Italy on penalties, after Jogi Low changed his formation to match Italy’s three-man defence.

That change involved dropping Julian Draxler and bringing Benedikt Howedes back into the side. Sami Khedira started alongside Toni Kroos, but lasted just 15 minutes because of injury, and was replaced by Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Antonio Conte was without the injured Daniele De Rossi and the suspended Thiago Motta, with Marco Parolo playing that deep midfield role and Stefano Sturaro coming into the side on his right.

The tactical interest here was mainly about Low’s formation decision – and while this created an interesting pattern, neither manager did much to change the situation.

Germany switch to a back three

Clearly, Low had observed how Belgium and Spain had struggled against Italy’s back three, both in an attacking sense and because they found it difficult to press – unsure of how to shut down the wing-backs because their full-backs were reluctant to move so high up the pitch. Low’s switch made it simpler: wing-backs would be pressed by wing-backs.

The fact he changed system was, in itself, fascinating. It’s generally the underdog that is reactive in terms of system, trying to compensate for technical deficiencies by being superior strategically, but Germany started this match as favourites. It’s also worth remembering that Low changed his system for the Euro 2012 meeting with Italy, which backfired spectacularly as Italy won 2-1, a scoreline which doesn’t reflect their dominance. It’s probably significant that Germany played a back three in a 4-1 win over Italy earlier this year.

On paper the decision made sense, although Germany were unlikely to be as organised as an Italian side accustomed to playing in this manner.


As the game started, the most notable feature was the fact both teams pressed high up at goal-kicks. This tournament has largely been about defences dropping off and remaining in a deep, compact block, so it was refreshing to see two teams playing in a more aggressive manner.

Italy had defeated Spain, in part, because their centre-forwards played extremely disciplined roles without possession, completely nullifying the influence of Sergio Busquets. Here, they did something almost identical agaisnt Toni Kroos, even though he was playing in a slightly more advanced role to Busquets. At times, Italy put either Eder or Graziano Pelle goalside of Kroos, while the other stayed in front, blocking off passes from Germany’s three centre-backs into him. Both sides were pressing in a similar shape, and neither team could play through midfield.

Centre-backs freedom

The players with most freedom in possession were Germany’s wide centre-backs. Pelle and Eder were in central zones, Stefano Sturaro and Emanuele Giaccherini were holding their midfield positions, and the wing-backs were facing the wing-backs. So Howedes and Mats Hummels were the only players able to bring the ball forward. Hummels, in particular, became the game’s key playmaker. He attempted a couple of angles passes into attack before spraying the most telling Germany pass of the first half, a diagonal ball to substitute Schweinsteiger, who headed the ball home but found the ‘goal’ ruled out for his foul on Mattia De Sciglio.

Low might have considered switching his other two defenders in order to get Boateng in space, too. Howedes is not very composed in possession (which is why he’s lost his place at full-back to Joshua Kimmich) and offered nothing going forward here, whereas Boateng is superb on the all, capable of hitting diagonal passes and bringing the ball out from the back. It’s unusual to see defenders switch positions in this manner, but Pep Guardiola did it with Boateng and Javi Martinez last season against Dortmund (albeit the other way around – the wide centre-backs were being pressed, so he put Boateng central to get him in space) when Boateng’s long passes created two goals. It would have meant the slower Howedes sweeping up, rather than Boateng, however.

Italy also struggled to build play. They had a slightly different problem: Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller blocked passes into the midfield, although they didn’t need to concentrate specifically on one particular opponent, as Marco Parolo isn’t exactly Andrea Pirlo. Mario Gomez pressed to the right at times, with Germany seemingly happy for Andrea Barzagli to have the ball. The key, though, was to deny Leonardo Bonucci opportunities to play long-range passes.

The first time Bonucci was allowed time on the ball he hit a brilliant long-range pass for Giaccherini, an almost identical move to Italy’s opening goal against Belgium. This type of move – a midfielder running beyond the strikers – is exactly what Conte wants from this system. Giaccherini couldn’t bring the ball down comfortably and his pass didn’t reach Alessandro Florenzi, although Sturaro picked up the ball at the far post and launched a shot which was deflected narrowly wide.

This summarised the first half: with two similarly formatted teams cancelling one another out in midfield, the defenders were the only players able to create. Bonucci and Hummels, despite being centre-backs, were the most dangerous players.

Second half

After half-time, the deadlock was broken in unexpected circumstances. A good German move down the left featured a disguised through-ball from Gomez, Jonas Hector getting to the line and sending in a deflected cross, and Ozil playing poacher to convert. Gomez and Ozil had performed a role reversal, while Hector hadn’t shown attacking intent until then. It went against the general pattern.

Ozil and Gomez nearly played their ‘proper’ roles to make it 2-0, with Giorgio Chiellini making a last-ditch challenge which prompted a wonderful save from Gianluigi Buffon.

Midway through the second half, both formations changed. Germany switched to more of a simple 3-5-2, with Ozil brought back into midfield alongside Schweinsteiger, both ahead of Kroos. Gomez departed through injury, and was replaced by Draxler, who played just ahead of Muller.

Conte, meanwhile, moved away from the 3-5-2, pushing Giaccherini into the forward line with Eder moving right, and Italy played 3-4-3. They now needed to press Germany higher up the pitch, and closed down their defence 3 v 3, with the wing-backs pushing higher. They risked being exposed in midfield, with 2 v 3 in that zone, but it was a risk they needed to take. They forced a good spell of pressure, and while the equaliser came from the penalty spot after a completely unnecessary Boateng handball, they had played their way back into the game. After equalising, Italy moved back to 3-5-2, showing the formation switch was an attacking move designed to win the ball higher.

The disappointing aspect of the game was the absence of genuine attacking quality. For example, there were just nine successful dribbles past an opponent in 120 minutes of play.

As with so many games in this tournament, very little happened in extra-time with no decisive changes from either coach. The penalty shoot-out, though, was full of drama…


Low’s change of system made sense on paper, and Germany played the better football here. They largely negated Italy’s attacking threat, and aside from Boateng’s completely unnecessary penalty concession rarely looked like conceding.

Italy’s gameplan can’t really be faulted. They continued with the system they’ve played with tremendous disciplined throughout this competition, and Conte’s late switch in formation to press higher was a brilliant example of how substitutions aren’t always required to chase a game. Ultimately, their lack of individual quality upfront, and the lack of creativity in midfield, was their downfall.

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