||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: June 5, 10:59 PM UK
Group B Tactics Board
Nick Bidwell and Kevin Palmer
Germany | Austria | Poland | Croatia Republic
Group A |
Group B |
Group C |
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Tournament favourites Germany will be relying on exactly the same adventurous 4-4-2 formula which served them so well in the last World Cup when they finished a creditable third.
Tactical continuity was always going to be the watchword for the Nationalmannschaft. Current coach Joachim Löw might have been Jurgen Klinsmann's number two in 2006, but most observers believe it was Löw who was calling most, if not all, of the strategic shots.
Löw's footballing credo can be boiled down to three basic tenets: a quick passing game, a high tempo in every aspect of the game and a large dose of aggression. This is not a team to pack its defence, soak up punishment and then hope to hit on the counter. The German modus operandi is to grasp the initiative from the kick-off to make sure it stays that way.
Without the ball, they press effectively all over the pitch and once they have won it back, there is no time for self-congratulation. Although they are certainly not long ball merchants, they do not go in for weaving pretty patterns in midfield either. The aim is to get the ball into the strikers as quickly and accurately as possible.
Wing-play is vital to their scheme of things. Wide midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger (left) and Clemens Fritz (right) - who should replace injured veteran Bernd Schneider - are expected to supply both creativity and a crosses galore and will be ably supported by attack-conscious Bayern Munich full-backs Philipp Lahm and Marcell Jansen.
The other two midfield men, Torsten Frings and skipper Michael Ballack play much deeper. The former has a more destructive role, his all-action style usually setting the tone for the team as a whole, while Ballack takes on a hybrid persona, 50 per-cent holder, 50 per-cent playmaker. A constant criticism is that this system shackles Ballack, rationing his perfectly-timed runs into the box and ability to hit scorching drives from distance. Löw responds that he needs a six-man block behind the ball when not in possession.
At the last World Cup, the German front-line featured two effervescent, mobile front-runners in Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, both adept at working the channels and lurking with menace in the danger zone. However, with Podolski not seeing much playing time at Bayern this season, Löw may decide to pair Klose with a more physical striker such as Mario Gomez or Kevin Kuranyi.
The German side is extremely compact. No more than 30 metres separates the rearguard from the front-line and the back-four keeps a very high line, with keeper Jens Lehmann forever on red alert to rush from his goal.
Probable line-up - 4-4-2 formation: Lehmann; Jansen, Lahm, Mertesacker, Metzelder; Fritz, Frings, Ballack, Schweinsteiger; Klose, Kuranyi
Not exactly the host with the most, Austria's record in warm-up games - just one win in the last 14 friendlies - is hardly one to incite dancing in the street.
So coach Josef Hickersberger is almost certain to adopt a cautious, safety-first 4-3-2-1 in their two toughest fixtures, the curtain-raiser with Croata and the duel with mighty neighbours Germany.
The need to avoid a national humiliation is likely to result in a steadfastly conservative style, keeping it tight at the back and playing for set-pieces, a sphere in which the Austrians are particularly strong. However, they do fancy their chances against Poland and probably will go for it more with a 4-4-2 line-up for that game.
In the recent 4-3 loss at home to Holland in Vienna, Roland Linz of Portuguese side Braga was the lone frontrunner, but the truth is that there is no outstanding candidate for the role. Sanel Kuljic, Martin Harnik, Erwin Hofer or Marc Janko could just as easily find themselves at the point of the attack.
Much will depend on how efficiently the two attacking midfielders push forward. Young skipper Andreas Ivanschitz is a technically-gifted playmaker with an abundance of vision and imagination, while Christoph Leitgeb combines energy and no little finesse.
Another option for Hickersberger in this area is to play Werder Bremen striker Harnik in a deeper position, where he can exploit his great pace. The vastly-experienced Rene Aufhauser is the main midfield enforcer, while Christian Fuchs and Joachim Standfest will shuttle back and forth on left and right flank respectively.
Defensively, there are reasons for optimism. Rookie centre-back Sebastian Prodl is one of the brightest prospects in Europe and the Hungarian-born right-back Gyorgy Garics is solid in the tackle and good on the overlap. Their Achilles heel is the lack of speed of central defender Martin Stranzl and the hair-trigger temperament of Middlesbrough left-back Emanuel Pogatetz, whose 'mad dog' reputation owes nothing to accident.
No one goalkeeper stands out. Helge Payer, Alex Manninger and Jurgen Macho all have their strong points - notably shot-stopping - but are notoriously weak on crosses.
Probable line-up: 4-5-1 formation: Payer; Prodl, Garics, Stranzl, Pogatetz; Aughauser Leitgeb, Ivanschitz, Fuchs, Samuel; Kuljic
Poland boss Leo Beenhakker made his reputation in the early 1980s in charge of an Ajax team which featured a pair of flying wingers, but the 65-year-old will not be nearly as expansive at Euro 2008.
With a dearth of extraordinary individual talent at his disposal, he has taken the only available route open to him, constructing a well-organised and hard-working 4-5-1 unit worth far more than the sum of its parts.
They will not win any votes for artistry but they are tactically very disciplined, know how to scrap for a result, are dangerous counter- attackers and during the qualifiers had a happy knack of grabbing their goal scoring chances when they came along.
Beenhakker will live and die according to the effectiveness of his midfield quintet. Twin holders, Mariusz Lewandowski and Dariusz Dudka are two very different types of player; the former relying on his toughness, athleticism and intense competitiveness, the latter a crafty pick-pocket of the ball and excellent in his distribution, especially his long-range passing. In front of them are a trio full of punch and purpose.
The drive of Jakub Blaszczykowski on the right; the dribbling ability and power-packed shooting of Jacek Krzynowek on the left and the vitality and goal threat of Ebi Smolarek, who can literally turn up anywhere: deep, left, right or hunting chances in the box. Smolarek has experience in playing the lone ranger up front and in this scenario, the Brazilian-born Roger Guerreiro would come in to offer a nice line in midfield invention.
If Smolarek lines up in the middle of the park, the forward position should be led by the ex-Celtic striker Maciej 'Magic' Zurawski, though Radoslaw Matusiak has not said his last word.
Another Celtic favourite Artur Boruc is an outstanding last-line of defence, but there must be questions marks about the central defensive pairing of Jacek Bak and Mariusz Jop, a duo known for their aerial ability and take no prisoners style but not their mobility.
Right-back Marcin Waslleski would not be the guy you would like to meet in a back alley, while the veteran Michal Zewlakow and Grzegorz Bronowicki should contest the left-back berth.
Probable line-up - 4-5-1 formation: Boruc; Zewlakow, Wasilweski, Bak, Jop; Dudka, Lewandowski, Blaszcykowski, Zurawski, Krzynowek; Smolarek
Aggressive, cunning and patient are the three adjectives which best tell the story of the fluid 4-4-2 system put in place by Croatia coach Slaven Bilic, whose wild boy exterior hides a very deep football thinker.
He has built a team equally at ease dictating the course of events as playing a waiting game prior to a killer breakaway and they have few peers when it comes to the art of players interchanging positions in the attacking-third.
New £16.5m Tottenham playmaker Luka Modric is undeniably the man who makes Croatia tick. Unrivalled in his ability to twist and turn with the ball, so precise in his distribution and never far from a moment of technical magic, but he is far from alone in the creative department.
In a central-left position, Niko Krancjar is a brilliant lieutenant, a schemer of poise, vision and technical flourish; young Ivan Rakitic is full of flair and sheer fearlessness and from wide areas, the Croats are particularly well endowed: the exceptional right-sided combo of full-back Vedran Corluka and wing-back and dead-ball specialist Darijo Srna and fast-raiding left-back Danijel Pranjic.
Bilic suffered a major blow to his plans when key striker Eduardo broke his leg while playing for Arsenal earlier this year, but they still have more than enough firepower in the shape of the in-form Dortmund goal-getter Mladen Petric and the much-underrated Ivica Olic, whose devastating speed makes him a redoubtable counter-attacker.
If the Croats are vulnerable, it's at the back. Skipper and defensive midfielder Niko Kovac is arguably past his prime, as is his brother and centre-back Robert and partner at the heart of the back four Josip Simunic. It will be no use playing the most attractive football at these finals if they fail to keep the back door bolted.
Croatia are not viewed as Euro 2008 dark horses for nothing and if their flaws in the defensive third are compensated by the brilliant attacking talent they have at their disposal, the side who did for England in the qualifiers will be a threat this summer.
Probable line-up - 4-4-2 formation: Pletikosa; Pranjic, Corluka, R Kovac, Simunic; N Kovac, Srna, Modric, Kranjcar; Olic, Petric