GERMANY 1-0 PORTUGAL
This was a study in containment strategies. Germany came to stop one man, Portugal an entire team. One succeeded and, for 71 minutes, the other looked like flourishing.
That Germany were worried by Cristiano Ronaldo was apparent long before kick-off. Manager Joachim Low had signalled his decision to switch captain Philipp Lahm from right-back to left-back to pit perhaps the world’s best full-back against its second most feared player. That tactic was negated by Ronaldo being deployed on Portugal’s left, putting him in a duel with Jerome Boateng, a centre-back for Bayern Munich but an ersatz right-back for the Nationalmannschaft.
But, more often than not, Germany had a numerical advantage against the £80 million man. They doubled up on Ronaldo, with Boateng offered assistance by Thomas Muller (the right winger), Mats Hummel (the right-sided centre-back) and, in particular, Sami Khedira (the right-sided central midfielder). It is a time-honoured technique but one that largely worked for Germany. If looking fallible when left one on one with Ronaldo, Boateng nonetheless executed a magnificent saving challenge when Joao Moutinho had sent him clear on goal. However, he was aided by Portugal’s defensiveness, meaning Ronaldo was comparatively isolated.
Portugal’s negativity was justified until Mario Gomez struck. Paulo Bento’s back four defended along the edge, and the width, of the penalty box, shielded by three defensive midfielders. While both side had a trio central midfielders, they illustrated the difference between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Germany, who preferred the latter formation, had Mesut Ozil ahead of Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Portugal have never really replaced Rui Costa and have no such creator, no one in the trequartista position Ozil occupies. That enabled them to protect the defence more rigorously with a tight three, but allowed Schweinsteiger to collect possession by dropping deeper, drawing Meireles out to close him down. Despite the congestion around the Portuguese box, Ozil was elusive, going to either touchline in a bid to free himself of Miguel Veloso.
While Ronaldo and Nani have never been renowned for their defensive qualities both, albeit indirectly, aided the defence. While Germany did find space on the flanks, partly because Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao were tucked in alongside the centre-backs, neither German full-back advanced frequently, presumably aware of the speed and counter-attacking threat of the former Manchester United team-mates.
Yet as Portugal showed in the final 10 minutes, they had the option of a more progressive approach. After conceding, Bento removed Meireles for Silvestre Varela, creating a fast, fluid front four with Ronaldo, Nani and another substitute, Nelson Oliveira. It looks like being Bento’s Plan B.
DENMARK 1-0 HOLLAND
If it appeared defence versus attack, it was also 4-2-3-1 against 4-2-3-1, the first game of the tournament where both sides selected the same formation. That said, they were deployed differently. Denmark sat deep and their clean sheet can be attributed to the excellent positioning of centre-backs Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer and the discipline of holding midfielders William Kvist and Niki Zimling.
Yet as Holland’s 32 attempts on goal – and only five on target – indicate, the eventual scoreline owed more to wasteful finishing than tactics. Within that, however, there were relevant points. While Holland created chances, their inability to score poses the question if they need two defensive midfielders screening the back four, especially as they may have to win their final two games. By the end, Nigel de Jong had been replaced by the rather more attack-minded Rafael van der Vaart.
It was significant, too, that the Dutch front four pressed in the Danish half – and led to Arjen Robben hitting the post – but rarely tracked back in their own half. Robben’s immediate opponent was the indefatigable left-back Simon Poulsen. It was no coincidence he broke forward for the move that resulted in Michael Krohn-Dehli’s goal or, with Robben letting Poulsen run past him, that the full-back proved one of Denmark’s major attacking weapons.
It was interesting, too, that Robben began, as expected on the right and Ibrahim Afellay on the left, Holland operating with inverted wingers, before they promptly switched flanks. Yet that policy was soon abandoned, perhaps because manager Bert van Marwijk preferred to have Robben and Afellay cutting infield to shoot on their favoured foot, rather than going outside their respective full-backs to cross, something they did all too rarely. Yet of their 11 attempts at goal, only one was on target.
Also, after Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Van der Vaart came on, Van Marwijk kept the formation but reorganised the personnel with Van Persie dropping into the No. 10 position and Wesley Sneijder, who had been dropping deeper, moving to the left, where he excelled in Euro 2008, and freed him from the attentions of Denmark’s defensive midfielders. It could be an option for the rest of the tournament.
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