As a part of my work for Sabotage Times, I was able to interview Jonathan Wilson, one of my favourite football writers, and also author of books such as Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain. The interview was posted in two parts on Sabotage Times, and you can read parts 1 & 2 via the links provided. Here’s the full version though; enjoy. He’s an absolutely fascinating man, with a lot to say about a number of topics.
Jonathan, firstly, thanks for doing this interview.
You wrote Inverting the Pyramid, an extensive history of football tactics, a few years ago – was there something you were particularly hoping to achieve with that book? And if so, to what extent would you say you have?
I really wasn’t if I’m being honest, I’d written Behind The Curtain and that had done pretty well, hadn’t done fantastically but done well enough that Orion, who were my publishers, wanted to do something else with us; my editor Ian Preece, he was very keen to work with me. So we were thrashing around ideas, and I’d just done an extended piece for FourFourTwo, actually ran over two issues, so probably around 10,000 words or so, maybe 8,000, something around that region, and I suggested that maybe there was a bit more in the history of tactics.
I was aware when writing that piece that maybe there were other things that I wanted to go into more detail, things where I felt I was just scratching the surface, and by chance Ian had just commissioned a book a few years earlier from a bloke called Peter Ball, don’t know if you remember him, probably way before your time, but he was a football writer on The Times, and he must have died around 2004 I guess, give or take a couple of years? He died while writing the book, so never got written, never got finished, so Ian was already sold on the idea of doing a tactical book. So basically I wanted to do it, he was quite keen on the idea, so we went from there.
I guess looking back I’d always looked at football in a tactical way, without necessarily really thinking about that. I was a very, very bad player, but I played for my second and third teams at college. Third team was alright, I was kind of good enough to play third team football, second team I was basically a bloke who turned up who was quite fit. So I’d regularly take myself off playing with about twenty minutes/half an hour to go, because I knew I was better standing on the touchline, organising people than I was actually being on the pitch. So I guess, without really realising what I was doing, and that was back in the mid-nineties, I was applying tactical theory then.
Then obviously the book did very well and I think it came at exactly the right time, I think there was a tactical wave coming. I think English football or British football sort of recognised that was an aspect of the game it had neglected, and I think there was an increasing amount of coverage of tactics, and my book caught the wave and benefitted from that.
In recent seasons zonal marking, after use by Rafa Benitez, has been criticised, and more recently the ‘false nine’ system has been as much as ridiculed by some. What would you say is the most common misconception surrounding tactics?
I guess there’s two; zonal marking you’re right, people just don’t have a clue what it is, people don’t know the differences between zonal marking at set pieces and zonal marking in open play. Next to nobody does anything other than zonal marking in open play now, and for the last 40 years, so this idea that zonal marking is a funny foreign idea and it confuses people is just nonsense. Zonal marking at set plays, when it goes wrong it’s very easily to highlight, but teams who man-mark also concede goals at corners and free kicks, and very rarely is that picked out in the same way.
And again the idea that zonal marking is a strange foreign idea, Brian Clough used it; one of the great anti-intellectualists in English football used zonal marking at set plays. He wouldn’t have called it zonal marking but he just said to his players: “Basically, one on each post, scatter around the six-yard box, attack the ball if it comes near you,” and it’s that easy, that’s all zonal marking is. It’s a little bit more specific than that, but that’s what it is in essence. Rather than trying to pick up a player and possibly running into traffic, you take command of the area around you, that’s it theoretically. It is an easy thing to pick out, but it’s one of things were people only notice when it goes wrong.
For instance, when Benitez left Liverpool, if you look at that season following, Reina got crowded an awful lot, the reason for that was because they stopped zonal marking at set pieces. One of the dangers of man marking at set pieces is you get bodies packed around your goalkeeper. Defenders follow the forward into that area, and the goalkeeper suddenly finds that rather than three or four men around him, seven or eight men around him. So I’m not saying man marking is better or worse than zonal marking, they’re both systems with their own merits, but people just have a thing against zonal marking.
The other misconception is that playing with more strikers makes you more attacking. Formations are neutral; it’s how you apply them that gives them positive or negative qualities. If you play 4-6-0, your ‘6’ could be extremely attacking, or you could play 4-6-0 like Scotland did against the Czech Republic and be extremely defensive, it depends what players you put in those positions. So this idea that “Oh I’d like to see two up front, because that’s more attacking than one up front”, well it depends who your midfield four is. If you played 4-4-2 with lots of very hard working, non-technical midfielders, that 4-4-2 can be very defensive. If you play 4-2-3-1 where your ‘3’ are really skilful players, who are comfortable on the ball, and one of your ‘2’ maybe can pass it over long distances, that’s way more attacking than the 4-4-2 with the quite defensive ‘4’. So the idea that you can tell whether a team’s more attacking or defensive looking at the formation and the formation alone is nonsense.
Do you agree the re-popularisation of a sweeper/libero role could be an effective tactic against a false 9?
Yeah I think it is, absolutely, it seems to me to make sense, before the United – Barça final, which… was that last year? Yeah, 2011. I wrote a piece saying to deal with Messi you’ve got to put a midfielder on him, and let the midfielder follow him, and lie deep in the midfield, it’s very difficult to do in a one-off game, and I’m not particularly surprised that United didn’t do that, but what was interesting was that Alex Ferguson admitted afterwards: “In an ideal world we’d have had a midfielder tracking him but we couldn’t do that, there simply wasn’t enough time to adapt our way of playing to accommodate that,” so I think generally we’re seeing a move back towards a libero.
I think the way that people like Mascherano or Busquets play, as a defender stepping out into midfield, so that one of your defenders becomes the fulcrum of play to start attacks, I think that’s becoming more and more accepted; more and more common. You see at the minute with people like Pirlo, or Xabi Alonso as the creative fulcrums of their teams, playing deep in midfield, and at times we see them stepping so far back they almost become a third centre back, particularly at Barca.
If you look at the last Clasico, last November/December time at the Bernabeu, when Real Madrid went ahead, in the first minute, the way Barca got back into the game, the way they turned the momentum of the game, was Busquets stopped marking Mesut Ozil, dropped into the back four to make it a back three; Dani Alves pushed up, and Busquets, suddenly, was able to start controlling the game again, by stepping back, getting away from opposing players, and having time on the ball.
So I don’t think it’s going to happen in the middle of the Premier League, it’s certainly not going to happen with the majority of Premier League teams, but at the very highest level, I think defenders comfortable on the ball will increasingly become the player who initiates attacks, in the way Beckenbauer was for West Germany in the seventies, or the way that Brandenburg was for Ajax in the seventies.
How do you see tactics developing in the future? Will certain roles & positions fade away and others come back?
Yeah, that’s the way of things, some of these things are cyclical, some things disappear and come back in different forms, other things just disappear. The fact that centre forwards are to an extent being refined out of existence, with Fabregas playing there, with Messi playing there, that’s an option of how to play; I think there’s equally a role for the target man.
I think a player whose position that’s interesting at the minute is the winger, we’ve gone through a phase of inverted wingers, and now we seem to have gone back to traditional wingers, I think they can both co-exist. But I guess if you play a false nine you have to have inverted wingers; it makes no sense to play traditional wingers with nobody in the box to hit.
So it’s becoming harder and harder to see how tactics will go, because I think there’s much more a mix, there’s much more a melange of tactical approaches. You don’t have a Spanish approach, an English approach, an Italian approach, as you had twenty or thirty years ago, where you could see the general ethos and see where things were going. Now these paths cross all over the place as coaches move, as ideas move, and people see things in other leagues and other tournaments. All those strands have become mixed together, which I think will increasingly see some interesting results, as different cultures clash and produce something new.
But there’s always been this process of: you have an idea; it works; somebody comes up with a way of stopping that idea; and then you have to change that idea. So I think that will go on. I just think it’ll go on in a much more refined way, in much finer threads, than in the past.
Do you expect the back 3 to become even more widespread over the coming seasons?
Possibly. I think it’s interesting seeing Wigan doing it, but they’re the only English team who do it. I don’t think it suits an English mentality or English style of play. I can see why it’s popular in Italy, it’s a way of getting width high up the pitch, with wing backs rather than full backs, without sacrificing men in the middle. And Italians are obsessed by getting men in the middle and closing the game down, which is why the Italian game is much more based on tactics and strategy than our game.
I think in Spain where ball possession is such a key… I think Bielsa has shown that the back three is a logical way to play, if your way of defending is by effectively not to lose the ball, rather than win the ball back, I think that makes sense. You’ve got the Spanish way of holding the ball, and the Italian way of getting bodies in the middle – they’re two impetuses to go to a back three, but I’m not sure that impetus really exists in England.
Wigan have done it successfully, I guess they are a possession-based team, in the last couple of seasons we’ve seen certainly Liverpool under Dalglish and Sunderland at various points use a back three, particularly against long ball teams as a way of getting men around the target man, so you’ve got more men around to pick up the knock-downs. Whether that’d ever become more widespread or whether they’re specific tactics for those games, I doubt.
So I think possibly in Spain, Italy’s already well down the road of going to a back three, and I think 17 of the 20 sides in Serie A last season tried it at some point; I think in England, probably not. Germany I guess is an interesting case because it sort of combines the English and Italian mentalities, speaking very crudely, and I guess it could start becoming more effective in the Champions League, and maybe other teams at a high level will start to copy it.
But at the moment the only team that plays a back three in the Champions League, at any great level, is Barcelona. I guess Juve will do that next season, we’ll see how that works. Barcelona is just a freakish side, their way of playing is so different to how everybody else plays, I don’t think anybody looks at them in a tactical essence, I think you just look at them in awe; I don’t think we see anything that we could apply to our own players, most of the time you’d just say our players don’t play like that.
English players have recently come under criticism for their general lack of tactical awareness. Where do you think that stems from?
It’s everything in the game, it’s not just recently, it’s a hundred-year-old problem – well more than that; the very first international in 1872, England played Scotland, Scotland started passing the ball, and England were totally dumb-founded by that. So right from the start England’s been a very backwards nation tactically, I think we’ve always been distrustful of theory. There’s a basic distrust in England of intellectualism, so I think we distrust learning, we distrust diagrams, so the basis of our coaching is still just out on the pitch; it’s still kind of your Sergeant-Major type screaming in the face of players.
Looking at the one truly great work in English tactics, which is Allen Wade’s coaching course from 1967, which is where Roy Hodgson, Don Howe, Bobby Hope, Dave Sexton, people that, where they learned the game. And even now, magnificent document that it is, it’s all based on teaching the game through game situations. It’s a brilliant book, in that it takes theory and it breaks it down into a series of exercises that you can play, so that players, in theory, learn by repetition, by playing on the pitch, not by looking at a blackboard, thinking about it. That’s fine up to a point, but I think you need players to make decisions for themselves; I think that’s where Dutch football has always been very, very strong.
So I guess most of the flaws in English football come down to a lack of coaching, and hopefully that’s something that St George’s Park in Burton will start to address. England has somewhere around 2,500 qualified coaches; in Spain it’s somewhere around 25,000. So while we have a lot of very well-intentioned school teachers, parents, who coach football up to a point in England, it’s great that they put the time in and it’s great that they have the enthusiasm, but they’re not actually trained to do it, to a high level, and I think that’s where the big shortfall is, technically and tactically in English football players aren’t coached well enough at an early age, and there aren’t enough coaches.
Simply from following you on Twitter it’s easy to tell that you have a keen interest South American football. But with the juggernaut of the Champions League, do you think leagues outside of Europe will be able to hold onto their stars, or will they continue to be seen as feeder leagues and development grounds for European teams?
What’s interesting at the moment is how much money there suddenly is in Brazilian football, there’s a lot of money in Middle Eastern football in certain teams and certain leagues, and also Chinese football, but I guess the problem with the Middle East and China is that they don’t have particularly big crowds, particularly strong traditions. There’s a sense of selling out when you go to the Middle East, when you go to China; with Asamoah Gyan going there in his mid-twenties it just seems like an awful waste of talent. At 35 it’s cashing out at the end of your career, getting some money to retire with, I don’t think anyone blames players for that.
But going there in your mid-twenties I think is just not testing yourself, you’re not going to get the best out of your abilities. So unless a Middle Eastern team can suddenly sign 11 players of Asamoah Gyan’s quality, and another two or three teams also do that so there’s suddenly competitiveness in the league, I think the money there’s almost irrelevant.
What’s interesting is Brazil, there is tradition, there are the huge crowds… at the moment it tends to be persuading Brazilians to come back; people like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Deco… even somebody Jadson, who’s had a perfectly good career at Shakhtar Donetsk, in previous years might have moved to a mid-ranked Italian club, mid-ranked Spanish club – he’s gone back to Sao Paolo. So that I think shows the growing strength of Brazilian football.
The fact that they’ve been able to take Seedorf, as Botafogo have, saying it’s worth spending two years there; maybe the pace won’t be quite like it is in Europe but the quality’s there. So I think that’s interesting, that Brazil suddenly has money, and I don’t think that will diminish in the immediate future; the Brazilian economy is very strong, Brazilian football is very strong. The fact that they’ve got such a big population means they can actually support a league where 6 or 7 teams are competitive, which hardly any other country in the world has, so that makes it more attractive to viewers.
Even the fact that ESPN have picked up the rights for the Brazilian league from Premier Sport, that shows that Brazilian football is starting to catch on. I think anybody watching Brazilian football can see it’s a very good technical standard, maybe the pace is a bit slower than here but that allows for a different type of game, it allows individual skills which in some ways makes it perhaps more watchable than European football.
If their rights start to go up then they’ll obviously get more money, they’ll be able to attract better players, keep hold of their young players for longer; the fact that Neymar and Ganso are both committed to staying at Santos until at least the World Cup, well my understanding is that Neymar has already signed a deal with Barcelona and he will move there after the World Cup, but the fact that they’ve been able to hold onto them until they’re 23/24, rather than losing them when they were 18/19, I think Brazilian football is up-and-coming.
Whether the Arab leagues, whether the Chinese leagues, can ever catch up I don’t know… they’re starting from a much lower base, but I think places like Argentina for instance, I think the economy of football there certainly is all over the place. Every club owes a massive amount of debt, the government’s pretty much nationalised football by buying back all the contracts, all the TV rights. So basically football in Argentina has been subsidised by the state, and even then they can’t hold onto players.
What that does mean is that the Argentinian league is very competitive, because you have what’s effectively a reverse draft, where rather than the worst team getting the pick of the best players, the best team immediately loses their best players, because whenever a club wins the league in Argentina, predators from Brazil or even Middle East, China, Europe, pick up their best players, and reduce their level, so everybody’s effectively on the same level. So that makes it very watchable in some ways, but the quality in Argentina is very low. So in answer to your question I think Brazil could become very competitive very quickly… everywhere else probably not.
Given your work on Eastern European football, how successful do you consider Ukraine and Poland’s co-hosting of the tournament? After the sensationalist build-up, did anything surprise you?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I definitely wanted them to do well, I definitely wanted them to succeed; and in a certain way I guess they did. All the sensationalist build-up to do with hooliganism and racism; none of that came to pass. There was some isolated trouble at the Russia vs Poland game, which had very specific causes, and particularly bad luck that the game happened to be being played in Warsaw on Russian National Day.
So that was always a flash-point and it was unfortunate; I don’t think in any sense it over-shadowed the tournament, there were a couple of other instances but that’s true of any tournament…The impression that I got from most other journalists was that they had a pretty good time, they found people in Poland and Ukraine very welcoming, but there were severe logistical problems which I think undermined everything. Partly the distances involved, that if you have to travel six hours between each venue, as Platini said, you might as well have it in London and Paris and Amsterdam because it’s actually easier than getting from Warsaw to Gdansk.
I think it was a flawed tournament from the outset, there were problems basically caused by the lack of infrastructure; the stadiums were excellent, I don’t think anyone had any problems with them, they were all absolutely first-rate. But for instance in Donetsk there were pretty much 5 hotels, so that meant the hotels could just whack up the prices to ludicrous levels…
I’ll tell you a story of one journalist who on the morning of the semi-final had to check out of his hotel, didn’t have anywhere to stay that night, he went in reception and said: “I know how hotels work, you’re never 100% full, have you really got nothing?” They said: “Hang around a bit, we’ll see,” and every ten minutes he went up and asked: “Have you got anything?”; eventually after two hours they said “Yep, it’ll be £500,” he hands over the credit card, it’s all agreed… and he checks back into the room he’d just checked out of!
If that money was even going back into the Ukrainian economy it wouldn’t be so bad. But that money was going straight into an American firm. And so you kinda think, “Who does that benefit? Who benefits from the tournament being in Donetsk?” It wasn’t the local people of Donetsk because they couldn’t even afford tickets. I guess local businesses had rising profits over the short-term but it would be very short-term… there was even one taxi driver, I said to him, “There’s a real culture of taxi drivers and hotels ripping people off, doesn’t that bother you? Don’t you see you’re harming repeat business?” He said: “There is no repeat business, nobody’s going to come back to Donetsk, it’s not somewhere you go for your holidays.”
And I guess he’s right, but that’s a shame – Donetsk is actually very nice; it’s an industrial city, it’s a working city… but there are plenty of nice churches; plenty of nice restaurants; plenty of nice parks… it’s not a bad city in any sense. But I guess a lot of people who went came back with a bad impression, purely because prices were so high and things were so difficult. And that’s why you saw so many empty seats.
So it worked in some ways, it didn’t work in others. I think these tournaments in big countries – it was true in South Africa, it’ll be true in Brazil, probably Russia as well – it just defeats the purpose of having the tournament in one country. It’s supposed to be this festival where fans and journalists and scouts come together to watch a lot of football, exchange ideas, exchange knowledge, everybody has a good time together, everybody learns together… if you’re then 6 hours apart it just doesn’t happen.
Onto The Blizzard; have you found its pricing structure worthwhile so far? With pay-what-you-like options for digital and print issues, has it given you a clear idea of your readership?
It definitely works, we made enough money to keep pretty much everybody happy in the first year, writers are paid a percentage of the profit. Nobody complained about the money they got, I think quite a few were pleasantly surprised by the amount of money that they got, so I think people have respected the pricing model. It was a gamble on all sides when we started, we said to writers: “You might get nothing, you might get a lot, we don’t know, but this is the plan, we’ll be open, we’ll be absolutely transparent,” and writers bought into that.
Then we said to readers: “This is the project, this is what we’re doing, you pretty much have to make it work by paying us realistically,” and that means paying in accordance with what they think it’s worth and what they can basically afford. We didn’t want to price out students; people on low incomes – we wanted to be as global as possible, so we didn’t want to price out people in countries with lower income. I think by and large people have respected that and have paid sensibly enough that at the moment everybody seems happy and at the moment everything continues to grow. Whether that’s the case in a year’s time, I’ll tell you that in a year’s time. Things are going pretty well thanks yeah.
I suppose the motivation is that you can write about exactly what you want as a writer, rather than being restricted by the mainstream media.
Exactly yeah, and I think that probably means people are prepared to work for a little bit less. But actually the way we’ve been able to pay has been pretty competitive so far and hopefully will become even more competitive as we go forward.
You’ve written books about specific clubs, countries, areas of the game and specific people. Has there been one subject you enjoyed writing about the most?
I don’t know, different things give you different satisfactions. I think writing about tactics and finding a semi-coherent structure that fits everything together, I think there’s something quite exciting about that; condensing 140 years of football history into one narrative, and the structural challenge of doing that. I think it is relatively coherent, that was great, very interesting. Writing about Sunderland was great because it was something very dear to me, both in terms of the club and the city.
As for writing about the former Yugoslavia that’s a place I have a lot of affection for, I think the stories that come out of there are fantastic, and it fascinates me as a concept in that it held together for so long, despite such clear flaws; and then the way things cleared up remarkably quickly from the war. And I think looking back over history there’s sort of a recurring theme that there’s 50 years of peace then 2 years of war, and that fascinates me, that historical cycle. So they all have different things that make them interesting and make them intriguing. I’ve been very lucky that pretty much the last 10 years I haven’t had to write about anything that hasn’t interested me. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.
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.
Many were bewildered by Spain’s starting eleven against Italy due to the exclusion of a natural striker; it appeared that Cesc Fabregas would be deployed as a false 9 in between David Silva and Andres Iniesta, although some inaccurately compared it to the 4-6-0 played by Scotland under Craig Levein. In truth, it wasn’t all that different to how Barcelona line up – of course Cesc Fabregas isn’t a traditional striker, but neither is Lionel Messi, and you usually see Messi roaming free with other Barca players acting as the focal point as he wanders about looking for the ball.
This was exactly what we saw Spain do, with Iniesta and Silva taking turns to move into a central position when Fabregas went looking for space – although admittedly he’s not at Messi’s level so doesn’t quite command the freedom his club-mate does. However, this switching of positions utterly confounds a man-marking system, as players trying to follow their opposite numbers around the pitch would be dragged all over the place, and this fluidity and flexibility is what makes Spain, and Barcelona, so good.
It’s not just senseless roaming though – the idea behind Spain’s game is that when one player moves into another ‘zone’ of the pitch, the player currently in that zone switches positions with his team-mate. This is the basic idea behind Total Football, which was brought to Barcelona by Rinus Michels.
However, Italy defended resolutely and in numbers to deny Spain, who seemed to be lacking a plan B – it was suggested by some that they use the wide areas a little more, but when Italy sat deep, they had a five-man defence, with the two wing-backs dropping back into more reserved roles to deny Spain any space in behind, and also at times came inside to suffocate Spain and send them out wide where the starting eleven were less comfortable.
Spain, however, believe the best form of defence is attack; they try to restrict the opposition by monopolising the possession – the motto is that if the other team don’t have the ball, they can’t score. On top of their metronomic passing, another way Spain try to limit the other team’s possession is by pressing intensely and harassing the players on the ball, trying to cut off any options and win the ball back as soon as possible.
However, while this works against a lot of teams in La Liga for Barcelona, Italy were less susceptible to this intense pressing – Andrea Pirlo in particular never panicked, and consistently managed to out-manoeuvre his Spanish adversaries. On top of that, the Italians were sure to pass quickly so that Spain didn’t have time to hound them on the ball and cut off their options.
Italy eventually went ahead, having missed a few good opportunities previously in the game – thanks in part to Iker Casillas being on fine form – when Pirlo danced past Sergio Busquets and sent a magnificent ball past the Spanish defence to meet the well-timed run of Antonio di Natale, who finished expertly.
Rather than reverting to a plan B immediately, Spain were more patient, and instead of throwing on Fernando Llorente – or Pedro for more direct penetration, as we’ve come to expect from Spain and Barcelona – they simply upped the ante, and kept doing what they had been doing, only at a more frantic pace. This paid off; David Silva managed to thread the ball through delightfully for Fabregas to knock past Buffon first time.
This goal showed the value of the false 9 role – Silva had gone into the space vacated by Fabregas, and as Silva dropped slightly deeper to receive the ball, Fabregas made a superb run from deep which surprised the Italy back line, and he was able to steal in to grab an equaliser.
So Spain had eventually barged the door down having politely rung the doorbell for 60 minutes, and you could argue that it was Italy’s goal that jolted the Spaniards into life. Until then, the likes of Xavi and Iniesta had been more than happy to play tiki-taka around Marchisio, Motta and co, patiently waiting for an opening to appear. Indeed, it was Fabregas and Silva, the two players who have played in England, who took a more direct approach, and that summed up the variety that they bring having played in the more intense, direct Premier League for a combined 8 years.
Del Bosque then opted to bring on Jesus Navas – oddly for David Silva, the provider of the assist, and later Fernando Torres for the scorer Fabregas. The game was far more suited to Torres late on, as Italy came searching for a winner, which saw the game open up more – this game him opportunities on the counter attack to race clear on goal, although he didn’t manage to convert any of the half-chances afforded to him.
Neither team could find a winner though, and it finished 1-1 after an interesting game – as well as Spain’s false 9 and various other strategies, Italy played a classically Italian three man defence with a libero and wing backs, while Andrea Pirlo showed Europe once again that he’s no slouch; up against Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and more no less.