Richard Jolly on how Spain used their flanks to get the better of ten-man Italy with ease
SPAIN 4-0 ITALY
Less proved to be more for Spain. The pass masters saw less of the ball than in any game this tournament and did more with it; scoring more goals than any other side in a European Championship final and earning more accolades as they won a third successive major international tournament.
The key lay not so much in the formation – the anticipated 4-2-4-0 – as the approach. Spain played at a higher tempo, committing more men into forward positions and playing a more open game. There was only one shot on their goal in the 210 minutes of the quarter-final and semi-final. Italy had four – an indication that Cesare Prandelli’s side were intent on attacking themselves but also a sign Spain were prepared to risk losing the game in order to try and win it.
They also looked to exploit the weaknesses in Italy’s 4-diamond-2 system. Every system has its potential flaws and, in Prandelli’s preferred shape, it is the lack of width. Coupled with Spain’s focus on the middle, it meant each of the four full-backs was available as an outlet. Only one, however, showed a willingness to run with the ball or to run behind the defence. He was Jordi Alba and his goal was the apotheosis of their striker-less philosophy; proof that Spain could compensate for the absence of out-and-out forwards by springing runners from deeper positions. Without an immediate opponent, it was easier for Alba to run free. However, it was also a sign of Spain’s more positive approach that, in open play, both central defenders made runs into the Italy penalty area – and in Sergio Ramos’ case, into the six-yard box.
The first goal was also significant for the involvement of a left-back. Cesc Fabregas got outside and behind full-back Giorgio Chiellini to cross for David Silva to head in. In effect, it was a role reversal – Silva arriving as the false nine, while Fabregas provided the right-wing cross. It also highlighted the positional difficulties of a defence facing fluid attackers.
Spain put more emphasis on manoeuvring Italy out of position. By spreading passes quickly to either flank, there were times they stretched Italy out so that the diamond midfield had to become a second bank of four, more straight line than rhombus. That moved Claudio Marchisio and Daniele de Rossi, the men on either side of the diamond, away from their comfort zone, and opened up room behind the lines. By looking forward earlier, Spain made it harder for Italy to regain their shape.
They like to overload an area where Italy outnumber most opponents. It is no secret that many of their chances result from quick inter-passing around the edge of the penalty area and each of the first three goals followed a ball from that zone between the lines – one from Andres Iniesta, two from Xavi. If that highlighted that Andrea Pirlo is a deep-lying midfielder, rather than a defensive one, Spain shifted his bodyguards, De Rossi and Marchisio, around. Pirlo, arguably, was not close enough to Iniesta for the opener, Xavi escaped De Rossi for the second and then supplied the third after Pirlo was caught upfield when an attempted one-two broke down.
The other factor was the angle of the pass. All four goals resulted from a ball, angled from a central area, to a runner in a slightly wider position. It suggested that, broadly, Spain had targeted the areas between the centre-backs and the full-backs on either flank. Those are the zones that, logically, would have been occupied had Italy played 3-5-2, as they did in the Gdansk group game between the two sides, which finished in a 1-1 draw.
Where Spain were helped, of course, was that Thiago Motta’s injury reduced Italy to ten men. Then they were playing 4-3-2, neither protecting the flanks nor having strength in numbers in the centre. Yet it was also significant that Spain often bypassed Sergio Busquets, their holding player but one of the least penetrative passers. Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Alba and, until he went off, Iniesta, all had the ball at least 50% more.
The result renders it rather academic but when they had 11 players, there were several elements to Italy’s attacks. They aimed diagonal balls between the Spanish centre-backs or, in the case of Pirlo, a straight pass for Mario Balotelli to run on to. They also aimed for Balotelli and Antonio di Natale with crosses. But by playing with two strikers, they opened up space. Spain created more by defending deep, making the midfield bigger and it harder for the Italian quartet to subdue their sextet. And they, criticised for passing it sideways beforehand, were more adventurous by looking forward and reaped their rewards in the shape of four goals.
Richard Jolly assesses the tactical considerations ahead of Spain's Euro 2012 final against Italy
From Italy’s back three to Spain’s front none, the Euro 2012 final features the tournament’s two most distinct teams tactically. It could be 3-5-2 against 4-6-0, systems no other sides have used. It is almost certain to be congested in the centre of the pitch. These might be the areas where the final is decided:
THREE AND EASY?
Italy made an unexpected switch to 3-5-2 for the opening game against Spain; as it worked, there must be a temptation to reprise those tactics. It created passing angles for Daniele de Rossi, an ersatz centre back, and Andrea Pirlo, the deepest of his midfield, in areas where Spain found it harder to press.
However, it is worth remembering that Andrea Barzagli was out injured then and, since his return, Italy have played a back four, while they would not have the element of surprise if they reverted to three central defenders. Were Cesare Prandelli to do that, he would have a decision to make: should he put De Rossi in the back three – and, if so, which specialist centre-back does he drop – or keep him in midfield and omit Riccardo Montolivo?
Spain’s use of a false nine has been one of the most contentious tactics of the tournament. Several factors suggest they will start the final without a specialist striker. Vicente del Bosque seems to prefer Fernando Torres as an impact substitute, while Alvaro Negredo was anonymous when starting against Portugal. Plus, with Italy probably fielding four central midfielders themselves, the probability is that Spain, who prefer to outnumber opponents in the centre, will opt for an extra passer. But if Italy play a back four, and if they want, that should allow them to defend higher up the pitch. It is not their normal tactic, but it worked for Portugal in the semi-final.
Because they have the ball for the majority of the time and their opponents tend to be focused on preventing goals rather than scoring them, Spain have had comparatively little defending to do. In particular, the centre-backs, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, have had little of a certain type of defending to do. Portugal’s sole striker, Hugo Almeida, did not try to break beyond them and nor did France’s Karim Benzema, who tended to drop off to get the ball. But Italy’s Mario Balotelli will be on the shoulder of the last defender, trying to spring the offside trap. It is worth remembering that that is how Antonio di Natale scored Italy’s goal in the June 10 group game against Spain.
THE PIRLO PROBLEM
It is the question to trouble every team that has encountered Italy: how to stop Andrea Pirlo exerting such a big influence? Germany devoted a man, Toni Kroos, to him, England didn’t – and indeed abandoned all pretence of trying to prevent Pirlo having the ball as the game wore on – and only Croatia, in the second half, came close to nullifying him. In the opening game, it was Pirlo, on a rare foray forward, who set up Di Natale’s goal. Spain’s answer is likely to involve pressing Pirlo, a duty that may be shared between Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.
It is an understatement to say that space could be at a premium in the centre of the pitch. Italy’s diamond is comprised of four central midfielders; Spain are likely to field six midfielders, assuming Cesc Fabregas starts as the false nine and considering that David Silva is a winger in name only. Both he and Andres Iniesta tend to drift infield into what promises to be the most congested part of the pitch. If so, Spain will have a numerical advantage there but it should be sufficiently crowded to present a challenge even to a side so accustomed to playing a short passing game. It may be worth considering that they had two-thirds of the possession in the group game between the two sides.
With the concentration of players in the middle, there is likely to be room on the flanks. As an out-and-out winger is unlikely to start, however, if anyone is to exploit it, they will have to come from deeper positions.
For each side, the spare men when they have possession are likely to be the full-backs or, perhaps, wing-backs, in Italy’s case. Spain’s select themselves, but it has been a theme of their progress that they are reluctant to trust right-back Alvaro Arbeloa in possession. Left-back Jordi Alba is a more natural and more dangerous attacker. It is important for Italy that Claudio Marchisio, the furthest right of the central midfielders, offers his right-back support. Quite who that right-back is remains to be seen: Federico Balzaretti played there in the semi-final win but, with Christian Maggio available again and Ignazio Abate fit, Prandelli can pick from three. If he opts for wing-backs, Balzaretti is certain to switch to the left; if not, Giorgio Chiellini could continue there. Balzaretti is much more willing to raid forward than Chiellini, a defender first and foremost. Striker Antonio Cassano also offers some width for Italy, making runs to either flank.
With the potential of a close game, substitutes could be match-winners. Spain seem to have more who could fit that bill than Italy, who may only have Di Natale. Thus far, the Udinese striker has never been on the pitch at the same time as Balotelli – one has replaced the other, or vice versa. Del Bosque has the option of recalibrating his front three – and indeed of fielding a more conventional front three – with Jesus Navas, Fernando Torres and Pedro. Torres offers a more direct approach as a striker who goes in behind defences, while Navas, only used as a substitute so far, is the only right winger to take the field for Spain. After two influential cameos, Pedro may be the likeliest to start, perhaps because he is the closest thing to the injured David Villa in the squad, capable of playing on the left but of breaking infield to shoot, but selecting him would involve moving Iniesta. Against Portugal, Del Bosque did so effectively by removing Xavi and putting Iniesta in a deeper role.
Germany's desire to nullify the threat of Andrea Pirlo left them fatally imbalanced, writes Richard Jolly
GERMANY 1-2 ITALY
Normally when a side switches tactics for one game, it is an underdog trying to stop a favourite, rather than vice versa. This was a rare exception, Germany looking to find a way to combat Italy’s unusual shape and nullify their playmaker Andrea Pirlo. Both the result and the manner of it shows that it failed.
Even with Germany altering their approach because of him, Pirlo was still Italy’s most prolific passer and helped provide the breakthrough. From Toni Kroos’ failure to mark him out of the game to Germany leaving themselves short-staffed on the right flank, the pivotal first goal could be traced back to Joachim Low’s decisions. Defeat as a whole was attributable to the changes.
But it is partly Pirlo’s presence and partly Italy’s formation - calling it 4-4-2 is deceptive as 4-diamond-2 is a more accurate description - that presents opponents with a dilemma. Low responded by fielding an imbalanced side with a striker, Mario Gomez, a left winger, Lukas Podolski, and four central midfielders to match the Italian quartet.
The intention was for Kroos to shadow Pirlo and, when Germany had the ball, for Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira to rotate and share the right-sided role. As each was more inside-right than outside-right, however, it was left to right-back Jerome Boateng to supply the genuine width and they often lacked an outlet on the right. Although two of Boateng’s crosses almost led to goals, he is not a natural attacking full-back.
In trying to strengthen one department, however, another was weakened, perhaps fatally. By aiming to stiffen their spine, Germany left the right flank undermanned. In one respect, it was an understandable gamble - Italy’s left-back Giorgio Chiellini is a mirror of Boateng, a taller defender more accustomed to playing in the middle of defence for his club and thus less likely to get forward - but it backfired for the opening goal.
It highlighted several elements of Italy’s attacking play. First Pirlo, operating as quarterback in the centre circle, played a diagonal pass to the left flank. There Chiellini had advanced unchecked. What followed illustrated the division of responsibilities between the strikers: Antonio Cassano is charged with offering width, Mario Balotelli with being the target man in the middle. The Milan man crossed, the Manchester City man finished.
The second goal illustrated Balotelli’s other duty. While Cassano moves horizontally across the pitch, Balotelli has to run vertically. Italy have been trying to get him to breach offside traps throughout Euro 2012 but, when he had burst behind defences, he had not scored. On this occasion, he did. A second significant element was that the long pass came from Riccardo Montolivo on the left where, again, there was more space. The other factor, though, was that it came on the counter-attack from a German corner when Italy were rewarded for leaving both strikers on the half-way line.
Cassano also benefits from the presence of four central midfielders. When he dropped off, the German centre-backs were reluctant to follow him, but it was harder for the holding midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger to pick him because of whichever of Montolivo and Daniele de Rossi was at the tip of the Italian diamond at any given point.
It was unsurprising that, two goals down at half-time and with his initial plan having failed, Low reverted to Germany’s usual system, playing 4-2-3-1. If that was designed to exploit Italy’s narrowness, then it was negated when Cesare Prandelli went like for like, with Alessandro Diamanti becoming the fifth midfielder after replacing Cassano.
Low’s final gamble was to dispense with his anchorman by moving Schweinsteiger to the right and removing Boateng. It is worth remembering that, until the last three seasons, Schweinsteiger was largely used as a right-sided midfielder; here, he was almost one. In effect, it meant Germany had two highly attacking full-backs – Philipp Lahm and Schweinsteiger – looking to aim crosses at Miroslav Klose.
Italy, while playing deeper, looked to counter-attack either side of the two centre backs, the only outfield German players who remain focused on defence. In particular, they looked at the gap left behind Lahm and outside the left-sided centre back, Holger Badstuber and, through breaks in that channel, Claudio Marchisio, Diamanti and Antonio di Natale all had chances to complete the victory.
Meanwhile, it was a sign that Low’s plans ended up in ruins that Kroos, brought in for a specific job, ended up playing three positions.
Spain flee to the flanks as the striker and striker-less experiment draw a blank, writes Richard Jolly
PORTUGAL 0-0 SPAIN
After 27 games of goals, this was Euro 2012’s second successive stalemate. If penalties are often deemed unfair to the loser, this was the only appropriate scoreline. It was a meeting of two definitions of defence and, as a statistic of two shots on target in 90 minutes shows, both succeeded. Spain defend with the ball, Portugal without it but they prospered by preventing their neighbours from being comfortable. Each of Spain’s previous opponents had changed their team to counter the World Cup winners. Portugal did not, but amended their approach.
Having sat deep against Germany, this was different. Initially Paulo Bento’s side tried to cramp Spain. The first 10 minutes amounted to a statement of intent, with pressing in the Spanish half. However, there were also a couple of occasions when Andres Iniesta and David Silva found space between the lines and Portugal tweaked their tactics. Miguel Veloso, in particular, retreated to reduce the distance between midfield and the back four. Spain rarely threatened there again.
Thereafter, Portugal pressed selectively but intelligently. They closed down quickly at dead-ball situations, so Spain weren’t allowed to play their way out of defence easily, and pressed higher up the pitch on their left flank, through Raul Meireles and Fabio Coentrao. Perhaps it was because they felt Alvaro Arbeloa is the least comfortable Spanish player in possession – and, if that was their theory, it was justified as the right-back had the lowest pass completion rate on his side, apart from goalkeeper Iker Casillas and centre-forward Alvaro Negredo.
While it wasn’t the case that Spain were always penned in, their rhythm was disrupted and, with a genuine target man in Negredo, they played more long balls than usual. Yet, in between pushing up, Portugal were not caught out at the back. While the threat of pressing disrupted Spain in one half, in the other, the trio of Meireles, Veloso and Joao Moutinho made a concerted effort to crowd them out. It was telling that Xavi was substituted before extra time, a sign he was not able to exert his normal influence.
It was also notable Spain’s first chance fell to one full-back, Alvaro Arbeloa, after a move involving the other, Jordi Alba. As Portugal’s wingers rarely track back, both could be the free men when their side advanced: equally, it ran the risk of leaving Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani in space to counter-attack if Spain lost the ball. Yet if that suggested a route to outflank Portugal, it was not. They rely on the full-backs to provide the width but the eventual introduction of two wingers indicated that their original policy had not succeeded.
Both teams were lopsided, attacking more on the left flank than the right. In Portugal’s case, that was partly because of Ronaldo but also because Meireles, the left of the three central midfielders, and Coentrao, the left-back, were more advanced than their right-sided counterparts, Joao Moutinho and Joao Pereira. Spain used their right-sided centre-back, Gerard Pique, to help Arbeloa double up on Ronaldo before, as in earlier games, the Portugal captain started to wander infield. But, as his side only had 36% of possession, his opportunities were limited in open play.
That Spain prioritised their left flank was unsurprising. As has been apparent earlier in the tournament, Alba is trusted more than Arbeloa as an attacking weapon by their team-mates while, though neither exactly hug the touchline, Iniesta spent more time near the flank than Silva. It was perhaps one of the reasons why the Manchester City player was replaced, before Pedro then came on as the left winger, as Spain tried to stretch the game horizontally.
They failed to do so vertically. Each manager made one change, and each introduced a striker – the selection of Hugo Almeida in place of the injured Helder Postiga was the first change to the Portuguese starting line-up all tournament – but neither centre forward played much of a part.
The experiment with Negredo was abandoned after 53 minutes with Vicente del Bosque reverting to his striker-less system by introducing Cesc Fabregas as a false nine. Yet, without a striker, the Portuguese defence could push up, thus enabling the midfield to compress the Spain midfield further up the pitch. With the Spanish changes making little impact and Portugal content to frustrate their neighbours, the second half was gridlock.
Spain were superior in extra time, partly because Portugal tired and partly because moving Iniesta into a deeper role, when Pedro came on, made him more involved. He started to play more incisive passes and, with Pedro making angled runs infield, Alba advancing, Pereira unable to deal with both at the same time and first Veloso and then Meireles replaced as Portugal’s pressing game took its toll, Spain finally fashioned chances. But, once again, they get a clean sheet in the knockout game of a major tournament.
Richard Jolly examines the top tactical trends seen so far at Euro 2012 and the ramifications of teams' different approaches.
O SOLE TRIO
The dominance of the back four has been reinforced. Only one team began a game with a back three, and even then for only two matches after a rethink. After losing Andrea Barzagli to injury and having been beaten 3-0 by Russia in their final warm-up game, Italy played 3-5-2 against Spain and Croatia with midfielder Daniele de Rossi as an ersatz central defender. Nevertheless, they illustrated why the tactic should not be defunct, not least because of the influence De Rossi exerted. A less successful reversion to a back three came from Netherlands in the closing minutes against Denmark although, by removing a left-back for another forward, they simply overloaded in attack.
THE FLAW OF FOUR
The death knell really should be sounding for 4-4-2. The need for five players in the midfield area, and three in the centre, is ever more apparent, whether by playing 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 3-5-2 or 4-6-0. Teams with a midfield quartet have found themselves outnumbered and out-passed except when playing sides with a similar shape. Croatia and Ukraine at least played 4-4-2 with an anchorman and a more adventurous central midfielder: otherwise it leaves room either between the lines or ahead of the midfield. Sweden, whose shape was more 4-4-1-1but with a striker in Zlatan Ibrahimovic who doesn’t defend, England and the Republic of Ireland all used the purest 4-4-2 and each struggled to retain the ball. In the British Isles’ variants, it has now become a defensive system, two banks of four retreating and ceding the midfield to a side with an extra player there. The one exception to the rule, because they don’t play 4-4-2 in the British sense, is Italy, who, after their experiment with 3-5-2, prospered with a midfield diamond. However, they effectively had four central midfielders, meaning they could congest the centre of the pitch and control the game.
The only win by a side playing anything like the conventional 4-4-2 - two wide midfielders and two strikers, even if one was behind the other - against a side with a different formation all tournament was Sweden's victory against France. It suggests 4-4-2 can only work against 4-4-2.
THE SPAIN GAME
Spain’s four opponents have something in common. All have amended – and in some cases, radically altered - their tactics to face the world champions. Broadly, two succeeded - Italy earned a draw playing 3-5-2 while Croatia’s 4-2-3-1 probably would have earned a point but for their attacking changes, due to a need to win - and two failed, Ireland stranding Simon Cox in no-man’s land between midfield and attack and France, after seeing Croatia use a right-back on the right of midfield, copying them rather less impressively, as Mathieu Debuchy struggled. The most recent three have all attempted to bolster the midfield, without coming close to matching Spain for possession. Vicente del Bosque’s team, meanwhile, have been pioneers with their controversial ‘false nine’, or striker-less, system, meaning they always outnumber opponents in midfield.
Think of the players of the tournament and the majority are central midfielders. Most, indeed, are midfielders of a certain type, known either exclusively or primarily for their passing - and for others, like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Steven Gerrard, distribution has been a factor in the excellence. The playmakers have reigned supreme, perhaps because football has become enough of a non-contact sport that it is harder to halt them or because opponents have not devised plans to counter them.
It is a generalisation, but there tend to be more attacking left-backs than right-backs in football, perhaps because the scarcity of left-footed players means many cannot move infield. Not in Euro 2012, however, where right-sided players like Debuchy, Darijo Srna, Joao Pereira, Alvaro Arbeloa, Theodor Gebre Selassie, Lukasz Piszczek, Christian Maggio and Ignazio Abate have spent much of their time on the front foot. England’s right-back, Glen Johnson, might have been a greater attacking weapon that the right winger, James Milner. Even an unadventurous right-back like Lars Jacobsen has created a goal, hinting at the reasons for their prowess: many a left winger has not tracked back, while some countries have not even had a winger, leaving the full-backs with space. Two right-backs, Debuchy and Srna, advanced so much they ended up playing in midfield, with mixed results.
They are increasingly common, but there are times when the conventional winger feels a dying breed, such is the proliferation of players operating on their ‘wrong’ flank – left-footers on the right and vice versa. Netherlands set the tone with Arjen Robben and Ibrahim Afellay; Spain, whose wingers Andres Iniesta and David Silva are more midfielders anyway, are other trendsetters, but plenty of others emulate them. Even Ireland, who otherwise played a conventional 4-4-2, did so with Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady on the opposite wings. Even players on their natural sides - the Czech Republic’s Petr Jiracek and Germany’s Thomas Muller and Marco Reus, for instance - tend to look infield.
Either players have been unusually well behaved or referees have been strangely restrained. Whichever, there has been only one red card since the opening game - with Keith Andrews' dismissal against Italy coming too late to force any changes to Ireland's tactics. It is a shame – in the sense that it is intriguing how managers rearrange their players when they only have 10. Greece’s Fernando Santos excelled when a man short against Poland, playing 4-4-1 without the ball and 4-2-3 with it, with Dimitris Salpingidis’ speed helping him double up as midfielder and forward.
The best side tactically? This vote would go to Croatia. Slaven Bilic amended his team according to the opponents and made a mark with his side’s shape in all three games. Against Ireland, he played with two strikers, who scored three goals between them. Against Italy, when that was not working, he performed a half-time overhaul by moving to 4-2-3-1; Mario Mandzukic, moved to the right wing in the reshuffle, scored the equaliser. Against Spain, he kept the system the same but altered the personnel with Srna taking over on the right wing, in a display that merited a point.
Rather than identify the single poorest team tactically - Ireland have suffered enough - the poorest tactical displays, for this observer came from the Irish, when they permitted Spain record amounts of possession; Netherlands, with a kamikaze team selection and a disregard for defending against Portugal; Greece, who contrived to get plenty of players behind the ball against Germany while still being scythed apart at will; and England, who played a system that allowed Italy’s best passer, Andrea Pirlo, a free rein.
Two versions of 4-4-2 collided as England used the flanks and Italy the centre, writes Richard Jolly.
ENGLAND (2) 0-0 (4) ITALY
As two versions of 4-4-2 collided, England tried to use the flanks to make the breakthrough and Italy the centre of the pitch. The flaw in both formations was shown but, primarily, the problems of the antiquated English system with a flat four in the middle.
Initially, however, it seemed a strength as England first attempted to win the game before desperately trying not to lose it. In their group games, England and Italy had been perhaps the two narrowest teams in the tournament, especially in midfield. The downside of the diamond Cesare Prandelli deployed is that when it features a quartet who are essentially central midfielders, the full-backs are afforded too little protection.
England aimed to exploit that, particularly on their right. It was telling the first chance came from James Milner and was directed at Glen Johnson who, with this Italian system, had no immediate opponent and thus greater freedom. Milner, seen largely as a defensive winger earlier in the tournament, delivered more crosses than anyone else in the first half; briefly, he was an attacking force.
In England's bid to be more adventurous, Scott Parker, purely a holding player beforehand, made a couple of forays forward. But, undermanned in midfield, it necessitated everyone shifting up the pitch. England had defended deep in their group games. Their more ambitious approach had to involve a higher line, enabling Mario Balotelli to twice spring the offside trap – once when, on a rare occasion, John Terry and Joleon Lescott were near the half-way line. The dangers of this English defence pushing up having been illustrated, they duly retreated.
And, from the second half onwards, England aimed to defend in two banks of four, as they had against France and Ukraine. It was a policy that was enforced by the loss of control. Italy dominated possession in a predictable way. Because, as has been apparent throughout the tournament, fielding two central midfielders leaves a side at an inherent disadvantage in the game's key sphere of influence.
The downside of England's central midfield pair, against their four Italian counterparts, was that a striker had to be handed the task of shadowing Andrea Pirlo. Danny Welbeck was the chosen man, meaning the forwards sometimes swapped, with Wayne Rooney the most advanced man, but he struggled to restrict the playmaker's influence.
Pirlo's laser-accurate passes created two first-half chances for Balotelli alone; he was the game's dominant figure, something which England's tactics always rendered likely, and which indicates the benefit of using a technically gifted, inventive player as the deepest midfielder; it is an area on the pitch where he can find space. Indeed, after Welbeck's substitution, all pretence at putting anyone on Pirlo was abandoned.
Yet, even if Roy Hodgson's plan of Welbeck marking Pirlo had worked, Italy would still have had one free man: for instance, it was Daniele de Rossi when he hit the post and again when Joe Hart parried a long-range shot and, while Claudio Marchisio made little headway against Parker, it tended to be either De Rossi or Riccardo Montolivo.
It all illustrated that, when teams field two strikers, the Italian policy of leaving space on the flanks is not failsafe, but it is far more prudent. While Italy lacked width and rarely reached the byline, instead they played diagonal passes or crosses from infield positions to the far post – as, for instance, in Antonio Nocerino's disallowed goal. The other point is that their troubles were limited to one side – right-back Ignazio Abate took Ashley Young back with him on his raids forward – and to the first half.
After Plan A, of being more attacking, had failed to produce a breakthrough, Plan B was to play for penalties. It worked, but with Italy having 36 shots, eight on target, that required fortune, and England's luck ran out in the shootout.
France copy Croatia's failed tactics with the same result against Spain, writes Richard Jolly
SPAIN 2-0 FRANCE
A game of four right-backs and one striker saw France reprise Croatia's tactics against Spain and the defending champions revisit their own approach against Italy from the opening game.
Both abnormal elements of the team selection influenced the tactics. Spain, with Fernando Torres demoted to the bench, went for a striker-less selection with Cesc Fabregas the designated false nine in a 4-2-4-0 system. France, having seen Croatia push Darijo Srna from right-back to the right wing, did likewise with Mathieu Debuchy, with Anthony Reveillere introduced in defence.
It suggests both Slaven Bilic and Laurent Blanc believe the Spanish left, where Jordi Alba and Andres Iniesta start, is their stronger flank. That theory may have been reinforced as, despite France trying to bolster their defence there, the opening goal came courtesy of an attack on the Spanish left. Debuchy, in his new role as a winger, was charged with halting Alba, a different role to his usual duties. The advantage of a full-back running into the final third is that, whereas a winger may be static with a more advanced starting position, he is already accelerating. Alba illustrated that by running past a tumbling Debuchy to cross.
Xabi Alonso headed in, an indication of his influence – for once, he even out-passed Xavi – as well as of a slight tweak to the Spanish blueprint. Whereas Alonso and Sergio Busquets had been twin defensive midfielders, the Real Madrid man showed more willingness to get forward. In the absence of an out-and-out striker, the responsibility for getting in the box was shared between five midfielders.
That they alternate is well known. Here it was notable that Fabregas and Iniesta spent more time on the right – indeed David Silva was often actually the false nine – perhaps because France, like others before them, were slanted towards their right when facing Spain. It was apparent in three ways: firstly, that Franck Ribery, unlike Debuchy on the other flank, does not attempt to cover his full-back; secondly, Florent Malouda, the left of the central-midfield trio, is the weakest defensively and lost Alonso for his first goal; and finally in the willingness of France, like Croatia before them, to let Alvaro Arbeloa to have the ball.
However, that was not shared by Spain – the right-back attempted fewer passes than their other outfield players, a sign they were reluctant to give him the ball. (By the by, the game's fourth right-back, Sergio Ramos, has been needed in the middle of defence with Carles Puyol injured, but it would be intriguing if opponents would have been willing to permit Ramos such space had he remained in the wider role.)
But if Arbeloa was deemed less of a danger, that in itself created the opportunity of a one-on-one against left-back Gael Clichy for any team-mate willing to join him on the Spanish right. While ignored by team-mates and opponents alike, Arbeloa had licence to advance, despite being up against Ribery. Because of France's limited ambition, he was safe in the knowledge that, with Karim Benzema alone in attack for France, Busquets and the two centre-backs could cope with Ribery.
France's plan always had greater validity when scores were level but, lacking Croatia's defensive resolve and counter-attacking threat, they struggled to replicate the obduracy of Bilic's team. By altering the side after defeat to Sweden, Les Bleus had in effect gone from four attackers to two; it was not until the last 25 minutes that the balance was redressed when Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez were introduced and Ribery briefly became a greater influence. With more progressive players, France pressed Spain higher up the pitch whereas, before the break, the Spanish had closed down quickly.
When Olivier Giroud came on in their third change, France had veered from defensive to offensive, while Spain, too, removed midfielders. The introduction of Fernando Torres suggests Vicente del Bosque preferred to have him on when the game was stretched and preferred his passers for the tight confines of the start. The other forward brought on, Pedro, won the injury-time penalty conceded by Reveillere – the second France right-back at fault for a goal – and converted by Alonso. It was just the fourth shot on target of the game – perhaps no surprise given the lack of strikers, who had none of them, and the surfeit of right-backs.
Richard Jolly on the attacking thrust of Germany as they swept aside an impotent Greece
GERMANY 4-2 GREECE
A defensive team who didn’t defend well, Greece had few redeeming qualities in a game that was far more one-sided than the scoreline suggested. It was less a match than an attack-versus-defence exercise where a negative side’s return of two goals was deceptive. Neither result nor tactics provided a shock but the German selections did.
The demanding nature of Euro 2012 has meant there has been little scope for squad rotation - no team had qualified before their final group game, for instance - while no winning team has made such wholesale changes. Equally, while at a more advanced stage of the competition, Greece were the weakest team Germany have faced, whereas normally the minnows are weeded out before the quarter-final stage.
Joachim Low served two purposes by altering his front three - sparing the usual striker and wingers while selecting understudies whose attributes made them suited for this game. Two of them, Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus, scored.
The former was a straight swap for Mario Gomez in attack, the latter included on the right in place of Thomas Muller. In one respect, it was a like-for-like change - neither Muller nor Reus is a conventional winger as both show excellent movement and spend much of the game infield - but in another, the Borussia Monchengladbach man’s different style of play earned him his place. A more natural one-touch passer, he was picked to pierce the packed Greek defence, something he did frequently.
It meant Reus was often on the same wavelength as Mesut Ozil, but also ensured he created space for the trequartista. Unlike many who play in the hole, Ozil is willing to drift from one wing to another to elude would-be markers and he devoted particular time to the right flank. He was the game’s most prolific crosser. With Andre Schurrle, who had replaced Lukas Podolski on the left, also materialising in the middle, Greece struggled to get to grips with the rotating trio behind Klose.
They - Ozil and Reus in particular - provided a series of penetrative through balls. One, played by Ozil to Miroslav Klose, indirectly led to Reus’ goal. It came after the other newcomer struck. The case for Klose, in part, lay in his aerial ability. One way to defeat a side who are so deep they defend in their own box is to put crosses in - as had worked for Portugal 24 hours earlier when Cristiano Ronaldo headed them into the semi-finals. Klose’s goal came from a set-piece but, to some extent, the same purpose applies. It also illustrated the bankruptcy of the Greek philosophy - if all you are going to do is defend, at least do it well. Instead Kyriakos Papadopoulos barely jumped and goalkeeper Michalis Sefakis came for, and missed, a free kick.
Indeed, Greece got their just desserts for their defensiveness. Their system, officially 4-3-3, was as close to nine at the back as 4-5-1 gets and the first two goals were the consequence of their negativity. They had dropped off to such an extent that they permitted Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira to have the ball inside their half.
But a problem for a side that backs off too deep is that it invites opponents forward and allows opponents to shoot from distance, as Philipp Lahm did when opening the scoring. The left-back had virtually no defending to do, so had fewer reasons to stay back. Yet his goal also reflected poorly on the Greek midfield: Lahm struck from the territory a holding player ought to patrol and Greece have three of them. Grigorios Makos was caught out of possession.
Germany’s second goal, meanwhile, featured the other full-back. Jerome Boateng, who spends much of his club career in the middle of the defence, is one of the few right-backs in the tournament who is not naturally attacking, but he, like Lahm, had the opportunity to venture forward. He crossed and Khedira, nominally one of the holding players, volleyed in from eight years. But there was less need to hold: whereas Giorgos Karagounis had made several attacking breaks from midfield against Russia, none of his team-mates copied their suspended captain.
But they did not apply pressure on Germany either, as the victors’ 92% pass completion rate indicates, while Schweinsteiger and even the more advanced Ozil managed personal centuries. In comparison, Greece completed only 46% in the first half, a reason why they could not relieve the pressure; in 72 minutes on the pitch, midfielder Makos only mustered seven successful passes. Their sole tactic seemed to be to slow the game down - partly by exaggerating injuries.
The only danger to Germany came in committing too many men forward. Normally Greece’s lack of adventure rendered it safe, but there were occasional risks. Once Holger Badstuber was left alone with Giorgos Samaras as Greece broke; once they had a two-on-two situation. On both occasions they were too ponderous to benefit from that but when two Greeks, Dimitris Salpingidis and Samaras, broke against three Germans, one crossed and the other scored. It was an equaliser but, had first-half chances been taken, their fate could have been sealed before they ventured into the German half.
Richard Jolly on how Ronaldo was at the centre of everything for Portugal
CZECH REPUBLIC 0-1 PORTUGAL
Stop Ronaldo and you stop Portugal? It is a theory and one which the Czech Republic explored. The eventual scoreline suggests they failed; although they managed to subdue him for spells, he hit the woodwork twice and delivered the winner. But it was a game of five different phases tactically. The first four revolved around Ronaldo and the fifth was caused by him.
The first came when the Czech Republic attempted to man-mark Ronaldo and Nani with their two full-backs – and when the Portugal captain got the ball, for others to surround him as quickly as possible so that he had two or three immediate opponents. The initial success of the plan prompted Ronaldo to roam, making it harder for the right-back, Theodor Gebre Selassie, to follow him across the pitch.
It created a problem for the Czech Republic. It is easier to man-mark a player in a fixed position than one who could appear everywhere (arguably the best way to do that is to take one man out of the formation altogether and, say, play 4-4-1 with the other player a specialist marker) and for the final 15 minutes of the first half, Ronaldo was rampant, running free in the inside-right channel. This was the second phase but, as long as Portugal committed few men forward, it was possible for the nearest two or three Czechs to head for Ronaldo even if – as he showed when he hit the post – that was not quite the same as stopping him.
Hence phase three, when Portugal started to play on the front foot as a team. They had the least possession of any of the quarter-finalists in the group stages; a sign they were happy to play on the counter-attack. In the second half, however, they played in the Czech half, pressing higher up the pitch, penning their opponents in, helped by the physical power of their full-backs, Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira, and the two midfield runners, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho.
It seemed a Catch-22 situation for the Czechs – they needed more of the ball and an attacking threat to force Portugal back but they required nine outfield players in their half to stem the attacks of Paulo Bento’s side and prevent them from breaking through.
It brought phase four when Michal Bilek responded by removing the most offensive of his central midfielders, Vladimir Darida, and bringing Petr Jiracek infield to form a more solid trio in the middle. Having started playing 4-2-3-1, they were basically playing a deep 4-5-1. By doing so, however, they reduced the space between the lines and, temporarily, reduced Ronaldo’s influence.
Yet it also invited the Portuguese midfield still further forward and that, together with an illustration of Ronaldo’s aerial prowess, brought the goal. Meireles and Moutinho have generally been unadventurous in the tournament but, in one of the few examples of either going past the forwards, the latter reached the byline to cross for Ronaldo to head in. He had escaped Gebre Selassie and, with his header, to add to his pace and skill, showed the difficulty of finding a player who can man-mark him.
His goal came sufficiently late that phase five was brief. The Czech Republic threw on a target man, Tomas Pekhart, to join Milan Baros in attack. Worn down by their earlier exertions, they posed little threat.
Their attacking efforts, such as they were, occurred largely in the first half hour. It was instructive that they advanced more on their left flank, even if perhaps the key player was the right winger. Jiracek made angled runs to the left, linking up with Vaclav Pilar, in what seemed a plan to isolate and outnumber Portugal’s right-back Pereira – perhaps thinking that he is the potential weak link in the back four. They were helped by Darida, preferred to Daniel Kolar as the player to deputise for Tomas Rosicky. His horizontal movement meant that, rather than operating just in the hole, he went from touchline to touchline.
Attacking on the flanks is a logical step against Portugal because, while the three central midfielders are diligent in shielding the defence, neither winger tracks back. Ronaldo’s unwillingness to help Coentrao has cost them in previous games. Here it was notable that holding midfielder Miguel Veloso came across from the base of midfield to support the left-back: while poor in possession, he served a defensive function. In the second half, however, Portugal’s full-backs, both former wingers, had little defending to do and, at times, they only really needed the two central defenders to stay back.
Richard Jolly found England's win to be built from the back
ENGLAND 1-0 UKRAINE
This was a meeting of two teams with similar systems. The co-hosts started at speed, while the eventual group winners, after barely attacking in the first half-hour, absorbed the pressure and then pilfered victory on the counter-attack: this was Poland against the Czech Republic reprised.
That was 4-2-3-1 against 4-2-3-1. This was two variants of 4-4-2, one focused on defence and the other on attack. England’s is compact and narrow; Ukraine’s wide and expansive. It meant that the hosts invariably had a player in space, usually on the touchline. There was a concerted policy of switching play from left to right with cross-field passes for Andriy Yarmolenko who, in turn, would draw Ashley Cole away from the central belt. The Dynamo Kiev man’s height advantage meant Ukraine could also aim aerial balls at him while, when the left-footed Yarmolenko came infield, overlapping right-back Oleg Gusev ensured a constant presence on the wing. That a permanent outlet did not result in more chances perhaps suggests that Cole, when he came across, did well.
Manager Oleg Blokhin had changed both his striking and central-defensive partnerships and both influenced the way Ukraine attacked. Artem Milevskiy often drops into the No. 10 position, enabling him to slide diagonal passes into Yarmolenko’s path when the latter headed for goal. Not that there tends to be too much room there as Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker sit deep in a bid to limit space between the lines. England prefer to permit opponents room further from their goal.
It was something Yaroslav Rakitskiy attempted to exploit. He added another aspect to Ukraine’s defence, attempting raking passes, not all of them accurate and striding forward, striking long-range shots. Denis Garmash was another to shoot from distance: if a side backs off as much as England did, it allows opponents to let fly.
The major occasion they were caught out – when Milevskiy’s shot was deemed (incorrectly) to have been cleared off the line by John Terry – came on a rare occasion when the centre-backs advanced to the halfway line and were then caught on the counter-attack.
If England were a little more adventurous after the opening half-hour – indeed, even with a 1-0 lead, Cole was in the Ukraine box to shoot – their defensive structure remained based around the two banks of four. The difference with the France game, where their tactics were very similar, was that Wayne Rooney was a bridge between midfield and Danny Welbeck, whereas Ashley Young had not been. Rooney’s eventual statistics - 24 passes completed – compared favourably with the 12 that Young completed when he occupied that role against the French.
Ukraine ended having made a radical switch to their original line-up. Both starting strikers went off and, if bringing on a defender for an attacker when a goal is required seems a counter-intuitive move, there was a logic: Gusev moved forward to the right wing while Yarmolenko went to play off Andriy Shevchenko, scorer of Ukraine's only goals in the tournament, but England kept their first clean sheet. The victory came courtesy of a goalkeeping error but, as with England’s point against France, it was built on defence.
Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly