People love stereotypes, especially in football. The Germans are a well drilled machine, the English are terrible at penalties and the Italians play horrible, anti-football. Nothing could be further from the truth with this Italian squad though. Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy have looked to cast aside the aspersions of their famed Catenaccio of the past in favour of a more steady, possession based approach.
The tactical changes that Prandelli has made during the course of the tournament shows how versatile his team are and if anything, is an explanation of why this team is adapting to their opponents so well.
In the opening group stage match against Spain we saw Italy line up with a very unorthodox looking 3-5-2 formation that utilised Daniele De Rossi to the fullest. The Roma man’s free role within the team over the course of this tournament has been the deciding factor in most of these matches as he’s able to cover the defence as he sees fit.
Against a team like Spain, it was vital. Their game revolves around looking for the extra man but with De Rossi shoring up the gaps in defence they just weren’t able to pick the Italians apart as they would do against many other teams. The same could be said of the match against Croatia and Ireland, although they had switched to a more conventional formation for the latter.
Things looked positive coming into the quarter finals against England. People understandably expected a fairly boring game, not because of Italy’s involvement for once but ironically due to Roy Hodgson’s own brand of defensive football. Be that as it may, it was an entertaining affair and Italy predictably got off to the better start.
This was all down to Wayne Rooney’s blatant refusal to close down Andrea Pirlo, meaning that he was creating chances left, right and center. England’s line was far too deep, relying a lot on the players sticking to their positions on the pitch. Wary about stepping out of line and creating open spaces for Italy, they chose to stand off Pirlo instead.
Even so, “Hodgball” seemed to be going according to plan after a flurry of Italian chances brought nothing. The Italians’ main problem throughout the course of the tournament has been their finishing. Mario Balotelli, explosive as he is, simply wasn’t able to put in the same performances that we’re used to in the Premier League. Fortunately, Prandelli’s tactical prowess made a huge difference later on in the match.
The Azzuri had followed a pattern in the group stage matches, putting on a strong showing in the first half only to forget to bring the same level of performance out of the dressing room for the second. This definitely seemed to be in the back of Prandelli’s mind as his squad came out more motivated than ever and after weathering an early storm they were quick to get on the front foot.
Clearly struggling to penetrate the wall of English defenders and taking frustrated shots from distance though, Prandelli decided on a different approach. Going through the middle just wasn’t working so why not break England down from out wide?
Antonio Nocerino and Alessandro Diamanti were introduced into the match. The impact may not have been immediate as Italy struggled for a small spell without the presence of De Rossi in their midfield but the new substitutes didn’t take too long to get into the game.
The eventual penalty hero, Diamanti was the only player the entire match actually running at defenders rather than trying to pass through them. While Nocerino on the opposite flank was able to finally allow Frederico Balzaretti to sit back to nullify the threat of Theo Walcott instead of bombing forward like he had been doing for the entire match.
England were lucky to get away without conceding any goals given the shocking amount of chances that Italy had created. Unfortunately for them, one of those great stereotypes did come true with Italy turning over a deficit in the penalty shootout, sending them through the quarter final stage for the first time since Euro 2000. They now face Germany, putting the chances of them repeating their run to the finals from twelve years ago in some doubt.
Still, Italy are infamously known as Germany’s bogey team although now may be the time for Germany to finally put an end to that. The two teams’ last meeting was in 2006 on the way to Italy’s 4th World Cup trophy. Of course, at the time Italy played a different game and that was the kind of football that Germany had really struggled against.
Whether Prandelli’s decision to attack England down the middle in the first hour of the match was a conscious one or not, it would have been a perfect drill for the semi final clash. Germany’s fullbacks are far too strong, meaning their main weakness is down the middle. But Germany are also a team that actively close down the man in possession and every possible passing option, becoming possibly the first team in the tournament to really cause Andrea Pirlo some problems.
This major feature of their style is mainly because they have spent the last few years in Spain’s shadow. Löw and his men have obviously worked very hard to shape their football in a way that could counter the World champions’ possession game, hoping to finally end years of frustration. So the two teams could completely cancel each other out.
German fans are more optimistic than ever in this tournament, seeing Italy as just another speed bump on their run to the final. Nevertheless, Spain’s predecessors stand in their way and they will stand strong.
On one hand, it’s refreshing to see Spain stick to their principles. When faced with stubborn defences, rather than reverting to an entirely different Plan B by, for example, using Fernando Llorente as a target man, they continue to bombard the opposition with their tiki-taka patterns. They up the intensity. They might bring on Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez or Jesus Navas for something a little more direct. More often than not, they find a way through, confounding those who demand that they ‘get it in the mixer’.
It’s rarely enjoyable to watch teams set up pragmatically against Spain. Teams do so usually out of necessity, because they fear that if they come at Spain, and try to take them on at their own game, they’ll get picked off with ease. No team can match their incredible comfort on the ball, and they outpass and outmanouvre any team. With opposition sides pretty much conceding that Spain will dominate possession, it becomes something of a monopoly – Spain relentlessly trying to break down the stubborn wall like a game of attack versus defence in a training session.
But at the same time, there’s become an odd whiff of pragmatism about Spain. Lauded for their free flowing attacking football, the thing that earnt them plaudits is rarely seen anymore. It seems as if they do the absolute minimum – they exploited France with ease in the first 20 minutes in last night’s quarter final, but having gone in front, they eased off and Spanish bombardments became somewhat rare. Possession is Spain’s defence mechanism – if the other team can’t get the ball, they can’t score.
It’s understandable – preserving a lead is natural, especially in tournament format, because if you get caught out then you might be going out. But it’s not fun is it? Spain seem to prefer winning 1-0 than winning in style. Of course, they won 2-0 yesterday, but the second goal came from a rare foray into France’s box.
It seems as if Spain abandon their principles for the sake of winning. When they go in front, they immediately go into lead preservation mode, rather than looking to extend their lead. It works. But it’s not fun. It seems as if Germany and Spain have swapped roles – Spain are now the ones who are robotically efficient, while die Mannschaft are relentless in their search for goals and free-flowing football even when ahead.
Of course, it’s impossible to sustain a high level of intensity through-out a game – although Barcelona are pretty good at that – but Spain didn’t just lower their intensity, but there was practically none at all after Xabi Alonso’s goal. If when Spain are in search of a goal it’s like a game of attack versus defence in training, when they’re in front it’s basically like a game of keep-ball.
It’s disappointing seeing Spain do the bare minimum to succeed, only turning on the style when it suits them. It may be a successful tactic, but should success come at all costs? It had previously seemed as if Spain stood for everything that’s right about football, but just because they keep the ball doesn’t make that true. Keep-ball when 1-0 up is, it has to be said, an incredibly negative tactic. It may not be as brutal as ‘parking the bus’, but it’s in the same area of cynical pragmatism.
Spain are usually best to watch when they need a goal. That’s the only time when there’s intensity in their game. Look at the game against Italy. Until Antonio di Natale’s goal, they had been content to poke and prod at Italy with their intricate passing – and that passing must be admired on a technical level – but suddenly when behind they awoke from their stupor and equalised in a flash.
The question has to be asked: why couldn’t they have done that earlier? It seems as if to score against Spain is to swat at a swarm of wasps – it only infuriates them and causes them to up the ante. This may explain why teams don’t set up proactively against them – they fear that scoring against Spain will just result in the intensity being heightened.
What disappoints most is that we haven’t seen Spain at their best very often in the tournament. They have an abundance of magnificent technical players – Juan Mata is yet to take to the pitch – and yet they’ve scored just once in half of their games and if not for a late (but fair) penalty against France would have done so again. Against the Republic of Ireland they put four past them, but still didn’t break much of a sweat in doing so.
Spain give the impression that they don’t think they need to go into a higher gear against a lot of teams, which to be blunt stinks of arrogance. It would be thoroughly refreshing to see a country of equal ability go toe-to-toe with them, as Spain might come out of their shells for a full 90 minutes. It appears that a final against Germany is their destiny, but it would be foolish to write the Spanish off based on their showings in the tournament so far. They’re capable of far, far more than they’ve shown just yet.
Which is probably my main gripe with Spain. Some often preach that the Spanish are the true exhibitors of attacking football, that they play football the right way. Not really. Spain only play like that when they feel the need to.
Before and during the Euro 2012 quarter final between Portugal and the Czech Republic, much of the focus was on the captain and talisman of the former. Cristiano Ronaldo previously grabbed two goals to knock Holland out, and the question was whether he could drag his country into the semi-finals.
The question was answered emphatically. While both sides had spells of pressure – Portugal probably spending more time in the ascendancy – there was one clear protagonist, and it was he, Ronaldo, that scored the winning goal.
In the 79th minute, compatriot Joao Moutinho made a burst from midfield to reach the ball ahead of a Czech defender, and swung in an inviting cross. It evaded first half substitute Hugo Almeida, but Ronaldo came steaming in from behind, stealing in to beat Theodore Gebre-Selassie to the ball, and sent a diving header crashing past Petr Cech.
It had, in fairness, been coming. Ronaldo had been the player most likely to put Paulo Bento’s side in front, threatening from free kicks and using his quick feet, magic footwork, lightning pace and raw power to frequently leave defenders eating his metaphorical dust. His control was also impeccable at times – at one point he chested down a lofted pass in the box, and, having spun and taken the ball with him, fired against the post from a narrow-angled volley.
The Real Madrid forward had looked at his inspired best, and his performance was at times simply electric. Occasionally he had looked upset with the service provided, and threw miniature tantrums when not awarded free kicks, but when given he was given a chance, defenders struggled to live with him.
Ronaldo was clearly in the mood after his match-winning performance against Holland, and even tried a spectacular over-head when afforded space in the box. It flew wide, but it was a sign of things to come. In true “CR7” style, he was in charge of direct free kicks, and hit one delicious, swerving effort which struck the post midway through the second half.
While many agree that he suffers from a lack of players on the same wave-length and level of quality with Portugal – although few of that description exist in the world – and could do with more support, he has recently seemed to benefit from being the star man. As the undoubted key player of the side, he is responsible for a huge amount of their attacking output, and when in the right frame of mind he seems to thrive on those responsibilities.
Although, while his performance was superb and his contribution vital, he wasn’t the only Portuguese player to have a fine game. Besides the mercurial Ronaldo, his club-mate Fabio Coentrão had an excellent game, rampaging up and down the left flank to excellent effect; his speed unmatched by his opposite numbers down the wing. Joao Moutinho also had a good game, keeping things simple in midfield and applying the assist for his captain, as well as forcing Petr Cech into a smart save with a fine effort.
In the end, though, it was Ronaldo who made his mark on the quarter final, after a few moments of petulance as well as some magic ones. He often pulled miserable faces when passes weren’t delivered to his liking, and made his emotions clear when not awarded free kicks to which he felt he was entitled.
Despite these instances where he threatened to throw his toys out of the pram, though, he pulled it out of the bag when it counted. Accusations of not being a big-game player may start to fade away after Euro 2012, especially if he takes Portugal all the way – although there is still some distance to go yet, including a possible final meeting with favourites Germany.
Philipp Lahm has often gotten the better of Ronaldo in their frequent match-ups, with Germany and Bayern Munich sometimes switching the full back to whichever side the Portuguese winger is on in order to nullify the threat he poses. In modern day football, however, with attacking players roaming around the pitch and swapping positions at will, that’s not always enough.
Time will tell whether Lahm and Germany have enough in their respective lockers to stop Ronaldo in his burning tracks, although Greece will be hoping to have a say in that matter in the next quarter final. Portugal will face one of Spain and France in the semi-final, and Ronaldo may prefer to take on Spain, considering he’ll be familiar with the majority of the players.
Whoever Portugal and Ronaldo face from now on, the forward will be determined to silence the doubters and at long last making his presence truly felt on the international stage, writing his name into the history books in the process.
This post first appeared on Sabotage Times.
With Greece squeezing through their group ahead of Russia and Poland, Twitter’s @sleepy_nik agreed to write a piece for CoA on his country’s hopes. Nik can be found posting at the excellent Manchester United site Stretford End.
In response to the title, logic tells us most certainly not, but since when has the beautiful game been defined by logic? Germany remain 2/1 favourites to lift the trophy, and have a wealth of attacking talent only matched by the Spaniards (Goetze is yet to take to the pitch). Yet Greece are here on merit, and needing to find no extra motivation on Friday night, coupled with an eloquently prepared coach at the helm in Fernando Santos (and not too distant memories of the raid on Lisbon), there is always a chance to cause an upset.
Here I’ll take a look at what the Greeks will have to do in order to achieve the impossible.
Santos must continue to use his instinct
Recently voted coach of the decade in Greece for all his work with teams such as AEK Athens, PAOK Salonika and Panathinaikos, the Portuguese coach couldn’t have settled in much better since the departure of King Otto. Only two defeats in 21 games, a tactical whiz (particularly after the break) and with the added bonus of applying greater risk than Rehhagel, Santos has already achieved what he desired from the outset: quarter final qualification. He will recognise that his team starts as the big underdog, especially without his key centre half (Avraam Papadopoulos) and central midfielder and captain, Karagounis – but his self-confidence and belief in his team’s capability remains unbroken. If his players can follow his strict tactical instruction (shape and through marking), they have a chance.
Of potential importance could be the surprise inclusion of Ninis. The soon-to-be Parma youngster started the first game of the tournament here, but due to a combination of having limited time on the ball and a lack of fitness having not played too many competitive games since his long injury lay-off, has been overlooked ever since. The talented youngster (who will be aiming higher than Parma in the years to come), could and perhaps should, come in for Gekas, providing greater authority in possession than the veteran (who has had the least possession in the tournament), battling qualities when retreating into defensive positions and a creative aura when in the attacking third. Gekas’ strengths are his wily opportunism, getting in behind the centre half and goal poaching – none of which seem suitable to this game, especially when the emerging talent of Hummels has played without breaking a sweat thus far.
Santos has used Ninis, Salpigidis and Fortounis with great aplomb from the bench, and has selected the right eleven to do the job in each game – Ninis will surely be his instinct for this one (as it may have been anyway to freshen up a jaded midfield), but will he trust it?
Wide forwards must stay disciplined
The roles of Salpigidis and Samaras are very much different to those of Muller and Podolski. Both players have worked fantastically hard to keep the defensive shape of the team, despite often being the only key out-ball too in an attacking 4-3-3 template, whereas their German counterparts have stayed high up the pitch. Samaras in particular was a shining example of this versus Russia (in the ‘Charisteas role’), tracking Anyukov doubling up on Dzagoev, but also using the ball wisely when in possession. Despite finding himself deep with the ball, he was often able to bide the team time by dribbling out of the defence, awaiting the support. There will be occasion, albeit very rare, where Samaras or Salpigidis may have the chance to get in behind attack minded fullbacks Lahm and Boateng; Samaras’ opportunism versus the Russians through the left of centre was superb, but Greece will have to be precise in their direct play, and hurry to support these attacking moves.
It is in such attacking transitions that the German team is at its efficient best, and Santos will be well aware of the threat they pose, even when on the ball within their own half. The underrated, Khedira opitimises the functionality of their midfield, and with Schweinsteiger and Ozil just ahead, the combination play can often be irresistible. Khedira’s defensive energy is well known, but less understood is the benefit of his off the ball runs, creating space for the two creators to, well, create and bedazzle at will. Makos must keep his discipline in his own half, ensuring that the shuttling runs of Katsouranis and Maniatis are infrequent. The bank of four, and bank of five as we saw versus Russia in defensive transitions will be absolutely crucial given the German attacking talent.
The fullbacks must perform
Schalke 04’s Papadopoulos has been superlative thus far, especially in terms of his aerial ability, but the work of right fullback, Torrosidis (linked with Manchester United recently) should not be overlooked. It was his cross in the first game that led to Salpigidis’ goal, and he also fed the ball through to Karagounis (albeit due to a defensive error) who finished tastily against Russia. He is pacey, energetic and importantly, a good decision maker; he knows when to stick and when to twist, and coming up against record-breaker (and recent Arsenal signing) Podolski, he will have to be at his concentrated best, showing the player down the outside and watching for supporting fullback, captain Phillip Lahm – Torrosidis will pull Salpigids all the way back to the by-line at times.
Tzavellas’ left foot must be as crucial as Ozil’s (!)
Vital to the win versus the Russians, Tzavellas (who replaced the previously hapless Holebas) kept Dzagoev quiet by showing him down the outside at every opportunity, where the creative forward typically has success coming into central positions. Against Germany, Muller will offer a different type of threat, staying high and wide on the right side, causing exceptional danger when making sharp diagonals off the ball into the box. It is essential then that Tzavellas does not only marshal the German, but work in tandem with Papadopoulos (who has been sensational since his introduction when his more senior namesake had to depart due to injury) to forgo Muller, and indeed Ozil who likes to drag defenders out wide in the first instance, the space in which to cause the danger.
At the opposite end of the field, Tzavellas will pose a threat from set pieces, taking over from the suspended Karagounis. Corners and freekicks are his specialty (as Eintracht Frankfurt already know), and as we saw versus the Russians where he hit the post from 30 yards, his dazzling wand of a left foot must be utilised. Santos will be hoping he has a second chance on Friday evening.
(Greece actually have a tradition of producing splendid freekick experts, from Tsiartas to Basinas, but none more so than perhaps the greatest Europe has seen, PAOK legend, Kostas Frantzeskos.)
Will we see Ninis in the Fabregas role, or will Salpigidis or Gekas spearhead the attack? Can Samaras replicate his form shown in the game versus Russia? Will Greece have vital opportunities from set pieces? Carrying out tactical instruction is no mean feat. If Santos can enable this, he knows that taking the game into extra time, at the very least, is possible. The emphasis on the ‘if’ then, and ensuring a collective unity, communicating throughout, and the team imparting the changes Santos wants to see. Low will not underestimate the tight Greek system, but nonetheless will remain quietly confident that they can get the job done – and with ease if they are able to breach the defence early on in the game.
Referee: Damir Skomina (SLV) – fantastic tournament so far; a commanding performance here could give him the nod for the final, especially since Kassai has been sent home.
I’ve teamed up with Culann Davies – better known as CWD – to produce a collaboration on Alan Dzagoev after Euro 2012. He created the video, I wrote the article. Enjoy.
Russia may have crashed out of Euro 2012, but Alan Dzagoev will step off the plane with his reputation much enhanced. For a player with an already large list of admirers in football, it seemed surprising that he was still playing for CSKA Moscow in his native country, but that may not be the case soon.
Recently 22, he’s still very young, but he seems to have been around for a while. In 2008 he was linked with Real Madrid & Chelsea, but a move never materialised. A goal against Manchester United in the Champions League in 2009 also raised his stock, but he remained plying his trade at the Arena Khimki.
Closing Dzagoev’s Wikipedia page for a second and adding some opinion, Arsenal lack creativity in the current side. Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri both left, and the rather more direct Gervinho was brought in, among a few others. I’ve gone on about this plenty of times on the blog, so I shan’t elaborate.
Instead, I’ll look at what Dzagoev brings to Russia, and might be able to bring to Arsenal. The one thing that stood out the most was his excellent vision. He showed this through his intelligent movement and positioning, as well as well-timed passes, including several key passes (see 0:19; 0:52; 2:18). According to whoscored.com, he made 10 key passes at EURO 2012, in just 3 games.
Footballing intelligence and vision is one of the most important things for a creative player. Dzagoev demonstrated this in spades in Poland & Ukraine, and despite not anything fancy, everything he did was done effectively. No step-overs or tricks, but all of his contributions were important – he showed that he likes to play a simple game rather than over-complicating things.
In terms of his positioning and movement, he constantly showed tactical awareness by drifting inside to make way for the overlap of Aleksandr Anyukov (see 0:57 –> 1:03). Furthermore, as one of the playmakers in the Russia team, his roaming inwards put him in a better position to create for his side. He also occasionally swapped places with Andrey Arshavin and Aleksandr Kerzhakov, showing that he realises his job in the team, and also that he can act as a focal point (see 0:36).
Arsenal’s options out wide are all fairly direct – Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott and Gervinho are all players who like to either run with the ball or run onto it, rather than players who create by passing or just move the ball on effectively. A certain amount of balance is needed – if you have x amount of players wanting to run onto a ball, you’ll probably need the same amount who are able to supply the ball.
That was poorly worded, but Dzagoev would bring the playmaking abilities Arsenal have missed since Fabregas and Nasri left. Rosicky and Arteta were able to make up for the losses, but Arsenal still struggled creatively, in the first half of the season especially.
The Russian can play as a central playmaker or as a wide player, and this is the type of player positionally that Arsene Wenger has been looking for. Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Mario Goetze were all apparently on his wishlist last summer, with the former duo apparently being close to joining the Gunners.
The reason for this versatility being needed is the imminent emergence of Jack Wilshere and/or Aaron Ramsey as a central playmaker. One of the two was supposed to replace Cesc Fabregas when he left, but neither are ready yet, so Wenger will most likely be on the look-out for another stop-gap to back-up Rosicky.
Dzagoev fits the bill, as he would be able to move out wide once one of the British midfielders was ready, meaning neither of them was ‘killed’, as Wenger often puts it. The difficulty that his countryman and captain Andrey Arshavin faced in London may put the playmaker off, but their situations are different.
While Dzagoev has just enjoyed an eye-catching European Championship, like Arshavin before him, the more recent Russian starlet is younger, and has the rest of his career ahead of him. Arshavin was living off of the buzz of being brought in as Arsenal’s saviour in January, and once that wore off struggled for motivation.
I’m getting ahead of myself, but in his brief cameo role in Euro 2012 he was very impressive, despite Russia crashing out. With the injury problems of Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, Arsene Wenger must surely have Dzagoev in his thoughts.