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.
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 a tactical switch for Italy that paid dividends over Ireland and how subs made the difference for Spain
ITALY 2-0 IRELAND
Giovanni Trapattoni against Cesare Prandelli, who spent six years in his Juventus squads, was presented as master against apprentice. Tactically, however, they are very different: Trapattoni, who never changes formation and rarely alters personnel, has been the most predictable manager in the tournament; Prandelli the most unpredictable.
Italy had been the only team to play with a back three (apart from Netherlands, in a reckless gamble at the end of the Portugal game) but that was jettisoned, Daniele de Rossi pushed forward and a midfield diamond adopted in a 4-3-1-2 formation.
One consequence was that, while persisting with 4-4-2 themselves, Ireland, who had faced five central midfielders (of sorts) against Spain, now came up against four more. Once again, the Irish pair of Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan, were hugely outnumbered and, while the wingers tuck in, their system leaves Trapattoni’s team unable to pick up the opposition’s deepest midfielder. In Italy’s case that is their finest passer, Andrea Pirlo, so although Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane picked his pocket by dispossessing him a couple of times, the Juventus playmaker had a free rein for spells.
A lack of central midfielders is one explanation why, once again, the possession statistics – 33% to Italy’s 67% look a little embarrassing for Ireland, even if they saw more of the ball then they had against Spain. But a difference between Spain and Italy, perhaps, is that Prandelli’s team do not have such penetrative passers in the advanced areas – Thiago Motta, at the tip of the midfield diamond, is more a box-to-box runner than a typical trequartista – and it took two corners to bring the goals.
With their four central midfielders, a constant between Italy’s two systems has been a reliance on others to provide width. That meant striker Antonio Cassano, who again adopted a roving brief while his partner, Antonio di Natale in this instance, played as more of a focal point in attack, plus the full-backs (or, in previous games, wing-backs).
Both made their first start of the tournament and left-back Federico Balzaretti, more than his right-sided counterpart Ignazio Abate, shouldered a huge workload. Starting deeper, the Palermo player ran past the midfield to the goal-line on occasions. Balzaretti was aided by the need for Ireland’s right winger, Aiden McGeady, to tuck in but, as a one-man left flank, when he slipped and was caught out 90 yards from his own goal, he responded by rugby-tackling McGeady. Cynical as it seemed, it was also an indication that, as neither full-back benefited from much cover, Italy could have faced a major problem had McGeady escaped him.
Ireland’s late onslaught forced the Italy full-backs to stay deeper, as their wing-backs had when Croatia attacked. It shows the benefits of penning the Italians back. Then it became more important that Prandelli’s substitute strikers held the ball up and, while Mario Balotelli’s contribution is likelier to be remembered for his spectacular goal, he did, showing an ability to commit two or three defenders when he was starved of support.
Ireland’s period of pressure can be attributed to Italy sitting deep, an age-old accusation levelled against Italian sides, but also to replacements Jon Walters and Shane Long winning headers and holding the ball up and, with team-mates joining them, finally managing to press opponents high up the pitch. Yet while their threat came from the aerial ball and while they scored their only goal with a set-piece – Sean St Ledger against Croatia – they conceded to two corners against Italy.
CROATIA 0-1 SPAIN
The best-laid plans don’t always bring the reward they deserve. Croatia devised an excellent gameplan to stop Spain – as indeed Italy had eight days earlier – but, after Ivan Rakitic missed a chance to put them ahead and the Azzurri took the lead against Ireland, manager Slaven Bilic made attacking changes in a bid to secure a quarter-final place. When Spain struck, it was after Bilic has dismantled his defensive structure. The unanswerable question is if, without the need to get a goal, Croatia would have prevented the World Cup winners from scoring.
For Croatia, there was a necessity in defending deep: neither centre-back is particularly quick and Fernando Torres had displayed his ability to get behind the Irish back four in Spain’s previous game. Instead, they limited space where it mattered: the midfield, Rakitic and Ognjen Vukojevic in particular, were sufficiently close to the back four that there was little room between the lines while the full-backs, as they must against Spain, tucked in.
There was one significant change from Bilic, who brought in an extra specialist defender in Domagoj Vida and shifted Darijo Srna, the Croatian Dani Alves, into midfield. Whereas Srna stayed near the right touchline; the left-sided duo, Ivan Strinic and Danijel Pranjic, both headed inside. It meant that the player allowed greatest freedom was Alvaro Arbeloa, often left – by team-mates and opponents alone – in splendid isolation on the Spanish right. That Croatia were content to permit him room suggested they did not deem the full-back a threat and provided a reason for introducing an out-and-out winger, Jesus Navas, who could not be so ignored.
One attempt by Spain to add another dimension was for the centre-backs to stride forward. Both Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique advanced to shoot from long range and, with Croatia’s three central midfielders already occupied, it created a dilemma: who should mark them?
In a different way, drawing Ramos out of position was pivotal in Croatia’s best chance – Luka Modric skipping past the centre-back before Iker Casillas saved Rakitic’s header. Then Bilic removed first his right-back, Vida, and then his anchorman, Vukojevic, in his bid for a breakthrough. Mario Mandzukic, who had been the lone striker, moved into a wider role and illustrated how to play against Spain, picking up the ball on either flank and making driving runs at the Spanish full-backs.
The Spanish changes involved the removal of the sole striker Torres – using first David Silva and then Cesc Fabregas as false No. 9 – and the arrival of Navas, who seems to be seen as an impact player. While Fabregas’ pass for Navas’ goal – a deft chip – showed that, rather than trying to pick a hole in the defence, there is the option of going over the top and indicated that midfield runners can be a valid alternative to a regular centre-forward, it was rendered easier by the departure of key components in Croatia’s midfield shield. It was, therefore, a game won and lost with the substitutions – even if Bilic was blameless.
Richard Jolly on how Denmark stifled their own creativity in trying to defend against Germany
DENMARK 1-2 GERMANY
Tactically, this was a pyrrhic victory for Denmark. Even in defeat, they kept Germany quieter than either Portugal or Netherlands had – admittedly perhaps because the group winners only needed a point – but revealed their own lack of ambition and paid the price as they were eliminated.
An unwanted by-product of success is that opponents are likelier to formulate plans designed to thwart winning teams. After Germany expertly outmanoeuvred Netherlands’ two defensive midfielders in their previous game, Denmark’s solution was to select three, Jakob Poulsen joining William Kvist and Niki Zimling in the team. While Sami Khedira, the least attack-minded of Germany’s central trio against Holland, threatened intermittently with swift breaks, Mesut Ozil had his least influential game so far and Bastian Schweinsteiger generally sat deeper.
But the consequence for Denmark was a loss of creativity. Their playmaker Christian Eriksen was shifted to the right, replacing the injured Dennis Rommedahl. Without the speed of the specialist winger, however, Denmark did not have the option of playing diagonal passes over the top of the German defence, a tactic they had used in earlier matches.
Their other problem is that halting Germany is not as simple as restricting the space available in the middle because it is a tactic of Joachim Low’s to make the pitch big. Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski start off in wide positions, stretching the defence. Yet both have spent much of their career in central positions – Muller often plays just behind Mario Gomez for Bayern Munich while Podolski partnered Miroslav Klose in attack when Germany played 4-4-2 – and that is apparent in their movement. For his goal, Podolski began outside and behind Lars Jacobsen, the Denmark right-back, and ended up inside him to finish. It was indicative of his striking instinct.
After Denmark equalised, however, a passage of stalemate ensured. The Danes’ three defensive midfielders erected a barrier in front of their goal but, apart from when Jakob Poulsen almost scored, did little to help them break through. Even when their need for a goal became more pressing, their gameplan remained the same. Manager Morten Olsen brought on one defensive midfielder, Christian Poulsen, for another, in Zimling. It wasn’t until Lars Bender had struck Germany’s second that Olsen belatedly sent for a more progressive player, in Tobias Mikkelsen. Even then, Nicklas Bendtner remained the only out-and-out forward.
If Germany’s winner, scored by Lars Bender, owed much to a slip from one full-back, Denmark’s Simon Poulsen, that allowed another to break unchallenged, it also showed a couple of things: that the Danes, having guarded the centre of the pitch so assiduously, were slacker on the flanks; and that Low, with Jerome Boateng suspended, selected a midfielder at right-back, and one who was confident when a chance presented itself. A mishap led to his goal, but the fact remains that no Danish midfielder or defender recorded a shot on target in open play. In trying to nullify Germany, they stopped themselves.
PORTUGAL 2-1 NETHERLANDS
There have been plenty of suggestions the Dutch are a divided team. Tactically, it is true: even if the system was officially 4-2-3-1, by selecting Rafael van der Vaart instead of Mark van Bommel the reality was a retro, risky approach with a predictable ending. This was a side where five players defended and five attacked.
That was commonplace in football until the late 1950s – Brazil were pioneers in the 1958 World Cup by withdrawing a forward and playing 4-2-4 – but rare now. It also showed that, as Bert van Marwijk was reluctant to select Kevin Strootman, the choice came down to two extremes: Van der Vaart, who doesn’t tackle, and Van Bommel, who does little else.
The Dutch lack midfielders with a combination of attacking and defensive attributes, such as Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho or, especially, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira. Van der Vaart’s merits were apparent in his lovely goal and when he hit the post, but both an open game and the eventual statistics – Portugal had 24 attempts at goal – showed that, apart from the overworked Nigel de Jong, the midfield did little to aid their defence. Whether or not they wanted to, Netherlands were unable to press Portugal.
Cristiano Ronaldo had half of those 24 efforts, scoring twice and hitting the woodwork twice more. Whereas Germany doubled up effectively against him, Netherlands had only the unfortunate Gregory van der Wiel. A theme of the Dutch campaign has been the struggles of full-backs left to fend for themselves against excellent wingers. Arjen Robben never tracks back – although, after a second-half reshuffle, Robin van Persie was the man on the right flank anyway – but a major difference between the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 has been the absence of Dirk Kuyt, who was used on the left then. With him on the bench now, the inexperienced Jetro Willems was exposed for a third successive game and eventually replaced.
With Kuyt, Van Bommel and De Jong, Netherlands had seven players who could defend two years ago. Portugal, who freed Ronaldo and Nani from defensive duties, can bring seven back, allowing them to sit in relative comfort and then using their speed to break quickly on the counter-attack, especially as Netherlands, initially adventurous, ended up a shapeless shambles.
Portugal had still more space in the final half hour when Willems was replaced by Ibrahim Afellay. Netherlands then had three at the back, De Jong just in front and six attacking players. Playing a back three – in any formation – is rendered harder when opponents contain wingers. Against a quick Portuguese pair who started high up the field and who can be augmented by attacking full-backs, and with Netherlands having no midfielders to follow them back, it was suicidal. Their predicament meant they needed to be positive but it was a kamikaze tactic in the Group of Death.
Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly
UKRAINE 0-2 FRANCE
The longest game – thanks to the 55-minute interruption caused by lightning and heavy rain – was also the widest.
The Ukrainian weather caused the former; Ukrainian tactics the latter. Oleg Blokhin is a former winger, as his bold approach shows. As they displayed against Sweden, Ukraine’s modern-day wingers, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, are willing to hug the touchlines. There were times, when the ball was on the opposite flank and a French full-back tucked in to cover his centre-back, that a lonely Ukrainian winger 15 yards from anyone. It also enabled Ukraine to use quick, diagonal balls to target their wingers, but that ploy brought more success against Sweden.
Even when Yarmolenko left his station on the wing, it allowed the overlapping right-back Oleg Gusev to advance, ensuring Ukraine were always stretching the game. While Konoplyanka was not remotely influential, there was a fringe benefit to his role on the margins. It created a wider gap between Mathieu Debuchy and Adil Rami, the men on the right of France’s defence, where Andriy Shevchenko roamed. Both his shots came from the inside-left channel.
The problem with making a game as wide as possible, however, is that it suits sides with better players. They are given more room in central areas. With the more talented team, France’s victory owed something to switches Laurent Blanc made in personnel and shape – bringing in goalscorer Jeremy Menez for Florent Malouda and going from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 – but also to their decision to emulate Ukraine.
The two wingers, Menez and Franck Ribery, adopted wider starting positions than Ribery and Samir Nasri had against England. That served a dual purpose. Firstly, it opened up space in the middle for others – most notably, when he scored and then hit the post, Yohan Cabaye. And secondly, because the Ukraine full-backs also began nearer the touchline, it meant Ribery and Menez stood a greater chance of getting inside their respective opponents when they made diagonal runs infield. This was particularly apparent when an offside Menez had a goal disallowed, the two wingers almost providing a mirror to each other by cutting in, both at 45 degrees.
Indeed, the majority of France’s best moves, the opening goal included, came from the combination of the two wingers. Ribery’s prominence was attributable to Ukrainian choices as well as his own ability. Gusev, normally a right-sided midfielder, continued at right-back. Sweden had highlighted his defensive deficiencies, but Ribery really exploited them.
The final element of Oleg Blokhin’s system was that Anatoliy Tymoschuk, the defensive midfielder in a 4-1-3-2 formation, was overworked. Especially if his side start with three midfielders in the middle, many a holding player has a comparatively small zone to patrol. Tymoschuk began with a large one – and with the added complication of Nasri playing there for France – which became a huge area when Sergei Nazarenko, the only other central midfielder, was removed so Ukraine could chase the game with three strikers and two wingers. It was little wonder that France – whether with Nasri, Ribery, Cabaye, Karim Benzema – could surround Tymoschuk and create.
After the rain, the shame for Ukraine was that, in trying to win, they left themselves wide open. France duly picked them off.
SWEDEN 2-3 ENGLAND
In tournament football, a team can have a problem when its shortcomings are advertised in the opening game. When Sweden conceded two headers to two crosses against Ukraine, it gave England a way to play. In a game where 4-4-1-1 played 4-4-2, formations were not as significant as one particular tactic: aiming at Andy Carroll.
Sweden are proof that height is not the same as aerial ability. Andreas Granqvist, Jonas Olsson and Olof Mellberg – the right-back and the two central defenders – were Carroll’s immediate opponents in the air. They have an average height of 6ft 3in. Yet Granqvist lost the England striker for the goal, just as Mellberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic lost Andriy Shevchenko for his brace on Monday.
And yet the same conclusion could be drawn about England. Despite the ever-present emphasis on set-pieces in the Premier League, Mellberg was left unmarked to head in Sweden’s second goal. It was part of a wider trend – a high proportion of goals this tournament have been headers – and showed that the Swedes are far from the only side who are fallible to the crossed ball.
Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly
CROATIA 1-1 ITALY
A game of two halves was a match of three systems. Croatia played 4-4-2 - arguably 4-1-3-2 - before the break, and 4-2-3-1 afterwards. Italy stuck with 3-5-2 throughout in a match that highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the formation.
The first half illustrated its advantages as well as the disadvantages of 4-4-2. Croatia only had two central midfielders to Italy's three. The Azzurri had both the tactical expertise and the players to exploit that. As Thiago Motta and Claudio Marchisio were the two more advanced members of the central trio, they tended to occupy Ognjen Vukojevic and Luka Modric. It left Andrea Pirlo free, especially when Mario Mandzukic, the deeper of the Croatia strikers, neglected to track him. It was unsurprising that, besides scoring from a free kick, Pirlo saw more of the ball than any other player on the pitch. Given his passing ability, it was also dangerous.
With Italy in control of midfield, they were in the ascendant. The other factor, besides Pirlo, was Antonio Cassano, who created four chances. The clearest came with a through pass for Claudio Marchisio and came from the No.10 position, where it was harder for Croatia, outnumbered in the middle of midfield, to halt him. But it was also notable that while one striker, Mario Balotelli, played as the furthest man forward and within the width of the penalty area, the other, Cassano, would veer out to both flanks. As a 3-5-2 system leaves a team without wingers, this was Italy's way to create from either wing.
The downside of 3-5-2 was hinted at in the first half when Croatia used their attacking right-back Darijo Srna to create a two-on-one situation against Italy's sole left-sided player, Emanuele Giaccherini. They used the wings more effectively after the break, forcing Giaccherini and the other wing-back, Cristian Maggio, to retreat as Italy ended up with a back five.
Their equaliser also showed how a wing-back can be outnumbered. Left-back Ivan Strinic crossed, but space was created for him when Vukojevic made a decoy run outside him. Italy, with only one right-sided player, were exposed.
The key, though, was the switch to 4-2-3-1. It meant Italy no longer had numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch, with Ivan Rakitic going infield to join Vukojevic, while Croatia's most creative player, Modric, was pushed into a more attacking role. The other crucial component of the reshuffle was Mandzukic's move to the right. The merits of having a sizeable striker operating as a winger were apparent when he arrived at the far post to meet Strinic's left-wing cross. And, as they also showed against the Republic of Ireland, many Croatian attacks, and three of their four goals so far, have come from crosses.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 0-4 SPAIN
A meeting of polar opposites, in terms of ethos as much as tactics, produced the most one-sided game so far. Spain invariably play with the ball, Ireland often without it. They were configured not to concede - a formula that had worked well in the 14 games before Euro 2012, though not in Poland - and Spain primed to pass.
They duly did. Indeed Xavi completed more passes than Sean St Ledger, Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Simon Cox, Robbie Keane, Paul Green, Jonathan Walters and James McClean did between them, and the result can be interpreted as a triumph of purism over pragmatism.
Both managers tinkered with their gameplan but one needed a more radical shift. Giovanni Trapattoni only made a slight tweak to his preferred 4-4-2, with Cox operating behind Keane in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Yet Cox is still more forward than midfielder, did not pick up Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso and was replaced by Walters at half-time.
With inferior players, Trapattoni's task may have been impossible but it was a basic failing to leave an outclassed team so outnumbered in the centre of the pitch against Spain. As Vicente del Bosque played 4-2-3-1, they had five midfielders who can operate in central or advanced central areas to Ireland's two, Andrews and Whelan.
Spain's change was more significant. While he came off the bench, a sixth midfielder, Cesc Fabregas, was left out for Fernando Torres - false nine making way for actual No. 9 - and a specialist striker added another element to their play. Both of Torres' goals came from running in behind in the Irish defence, meaning that, while they tried to push up and compress the space available to Spain, David Silva, Xavi and co had the option of finding a forward who often looks to spring offside traps.
The other Irish tactic to crowd the World Cup winners out was to be as narrow as possible, knowing that the nominal wingers, Andres Iniesta and Silva, head infield. That, too, backfired. Left-back Stephen Ward was so close to Sean St Ledger, the left-sided central defender, that Torres went outside him - though only to the corner of the six-yard box - to score the opener.
Ward's positional play was exploited more by Alvaro Arbeloa. Spain used the full-backs, Arbeloa in particular, to provide the width. Unlike against Italy, they stretched the game in two directions, laterally and vertically. If they were called one-dimensional against Italy, that charge no longer applies.
Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter @RichJolly