It is tough to judge the overall playing style of Euro 2012. The tournament has been entertaining, certainly, and extremely exciting at times. It has produced some open, end-to-end matches and some tighter, tenser contests. The consensus is that it has been a very good tournament.
Conversely, the games haven’t been particularly open. The goals-per-game average is 2.44 – slightly below what you’d expect but within the margin of error given the relatively small sample size of 25 matches so far. More interesting is the type of goals – an incredibly high proportion have been from set pieces or following crosses into the box. We’ve witnessed only a couple of long-range strikes and even fewer successful passing moves through the center of the pitch. Euro 2012’s style of football is unexpected considering the nature of modern club football, which is based around short passing and cohesion in central positions.
There is a logical cause. Almost every side has focused upon remaining tight in the center of midfield, so it’s been impossible for opponents to create from that zone. Teams have been forced wide, to go around sides rather than cut through them.
There were three major contenders for this tournament. Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk’s biggest decision regarded the format of his midfield duo. Opting for two holding midfielders in Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, he created a boxy, joyless side. Spain, meanwhile, has stayed true to Vicente del Bosque’s enthusiasm for three central midfielders – Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez. They never lose the ball, but the lack of forward runs from midfield is frustrating while there isn’t the rotation of Barcelona’s midfield trio. The Netherlands crashed out with zero points, while Spain remains on course to defend its title in the final – but both sides have been relatively unexciting and uninteresting.
Then there is Germany. It is completely different. Germany is flexible with its roles, brave with its positioning, unpredictable with its attacks. It’s based around trust and mutual understanding rather than strict positioning. At its best, the German system is the most efficient and the most exciting at Euro 2012.
They often say you need a solid spine to create a successful side. The Germans’ spine isn’t what you’d describe as solid. It’s composed of three outstanding individuals, but it's a trio that offers mobility and variation rather solidity.
The two deep-lying players, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, shouldn’t work together on paper. Thrown together unexpectedly before the 2010 World Cup because of Michael Ballack’s injury, the combination could have gone dreadfully wrong. Schweinsteiger hadn’t been playing as a central midfielder for long, having made his name at Bayern Munich as an inconsistent, flashy winger. He’d been moved inside alongside van Bommel at club level, and it seemed he needed that no-nonsense, reliable destroyer just behind him.
Khedira was a different type of player. He was more naturally combative than Schweinsteiger, with more energy and raw stamina. Khedira covers a large amount of ground, and if he isn’t allowed to showcase that ability and is instead given a strict positional job, he loses a great deal of his game. Together, they could have left gaps in front of the German defense, but their intelligence meant they worked as a duo, moving forward in turn, covering for each other.
That was two years ago. So what’s different now? In terms of personnel, nothing. Schweinsteiger and Khedira are still Germany’s first-choice midfield pairing, despite Toni Kroos’ impressive form at Bayern and manager Jogi Low’s experiments with different systems in the past year.
But as Germany’s style of play has changed, the pairing has impressed in a different way. At the World Cup, Germany excelled on the counterattack, breaking forward quickly from its two banks of four. There, the midfield system was simple: After long periods of defending, one of the two central midfielders charged forward. When the ball was lost, he’d return to his position and start the process again. It worked fine, but it wasn’t particularly complex.
Now, Germany looks to dominate the game. It plays higher up the pitch; it holds on to the ball for longer periods. “We are no longer focused on the fast transition from defense to attack,” said Philipp Lahm before the tournament. “We are playing less on the counter. We now have players who are so good that we can dominate the game against any opposition.”
The midfield is even more exciting. Now there’s variety and flexibility within individual attacking moves. Sometimes Germany builds an attack with Schweinsteiger moving toward the penalty area. Then, while the ball is circulating and the opposition is distracted, Schweinsteiger drops deep and Khedira suddenly charges toward goal. This wasn’t unheard of two years ago, but it’s much more obvious now. Germany attacks from so many different angles, with so many different players.
A key part of the flexibility comes from Mesut Ozil, a remarkably intelligent playmaker who spends his time drifting from flank to flank. His ‘average position’ makes it looks as if he plays centrally, but he spends the majority of his time in much wider positions. He’s an expert at making off-the-ball runs, at drawing opposition central midfielders out of position. Ozil creates plenty of chances himself, but he also creates the gaps for Germany’s midfielders to dash into.
The 2-1 win over the Netherlands demonstrated it perfectly. Ozil occupied Nigel de Jong, who was playing as the Netherlands’ deepest central midfielder. With Wesley Sneijder staying high up the pitch, van Bommel didn’t know whether to track Khedira or Schweinsteiger. When he moved toward one, that player would stop his forward momentum and the other would take over and be free in front of the Dutch defense. The goals were so similar – de Jong drawn to Ozil, van Bommel to Khedira. Schweinsteiger was left free and assisted on both Mario Gomez goals.
Germany appears to be the most complete attacking force at Euro 2012. It has pace, aerial strength and finishing ability in the box, plus dribbling quality, creativity and mobility from the flanks. But it is the fluidity of the midfield that makes this side tick, and regardless of whether Low’s team wins the competition, he deserves admiration for building a truly fascinating side.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.