Efficiency looked like the order of the night for both sides as Italy went up against Germany in semi-final 2 of Euro 2012 on Thursday. Die Maanschaft cruised to the semi-finals with a 100% record in their four games instilling confidence in not just a nation, but an entire continent. Joachim Loew has been praised for his approach to tactics and personnel so far this summer, but would he be able to make it count in their biggest test yet?
Italy have not let their domestic uncertainty have an effect on their national team, as they too reached the semi-final stage without losing a match. They have been typically Italian in their results, but un-Azzurri in their performances with coach, Cesare Prandelli, insisting they are more than just a team reliant on a stern defence.
With a place against Spain in the final at stake, it looked like Germany’s to lose, but it would take more than reputation to kill off this Italian team. The match promised plenty of effort, skill and drama which would all come from a fascinating tactical battle between two teams remarkably similar in approach.
How they lined up:
Much was made of Joachim Loew’s decision to rest Lukasz Podolski, Thomas Muller and Mario Gomez for Germany’s quarter-final with Greece last Saturday. It paid off as Germany got the win they wanted, but it also gave Loew a headache which he didn’t need. Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose showed enough to warrant selection against Italy, but with both Podolski and Gomez popular choices of the manager, there was no doubt they would return. Alongside Toni Kroos, both strikers were named in an otherwise unchanged Germany team rich on central creativity, but lacking in natural width.
Cesare Prandelli had no such problems. Blessed with a fully-fit and in-form squad, the former Fiorentina coach named the same starting XI that dominated England before going through on penalties in the quarters. Inspired by Andrea Pirlo, ‘the strongest central midfield player in the world’ according to former Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, Italy play with a new-found ingenuity on the ball and ability to attack as well as they defend. A tight diamond in midfield was Prandelli’s choice after experimenting with 3-5-2 in the group stages, and he would be looking to make the most of Pirlo’s deep accurate passing to allow the high full-backs and midfield players to influence the match.
How it went: Wrong v Right
It was a fairly even game despite the score line. Germany enjoyed 54% of the possession without consistently troubling Gianluigi Buffon; it was the diversity of their attack in the final third which ultimately let them down. Some can point to the solidity of the Italian back 5, or the lack of work-rate from Mario Gomez, but it all came down to Germany’s width in attack. Lukasz Podolski doesn’t offer much in terms of assisting other players in the German side. He is simply a striker who isn’t good enough to play up-front so is pushed outside. On the other flank, Mesut Ozil moves from outside to in regularly, but didn’t have any convincing support from Jerome Boateng on the overlap rendering Germany useless out wide.
In contrast to Germany, Prandelli’s men spent much of the game using the high and wide philosophy. Centre backs Barzagli and Bonucci would play close together with both full-backs pushed on as far as the halfway line at times. Pirlo would drop to take the ball and De Rossi would provide defensive cover if his team-mate was robbed of possession at the point of origin in Italy’s half. Marchisio and Montolivo dovetailed Cassano brilliantly and in the two stages of play Italy created for themselves they found success.
Starting at Pirlo, Chiellini was fed high on the left before slipping the ball in to Cassano’s feet. The striker turned an over-eager Mats Hummels to deliver a precise cross for the controversial, but talented figure of Mario Balotelli to head them in to the lead. A well-worked goal born from fluid, incisive passing that had a devastating end product. Something which looked so hard for Germany appeared simple for an Italian side that knew what it was doing.
We won’t even mention Philipp Lahm trying to play the off-side trap for Balotelli’s second goal. That was just terrible defending.
How it changed:
It’s difficult to pinpoint an area which changed to influence the game. Italy started so well that their lead came out of the blue and was testament to their approach. A significant move from the coach was to restrain De Rossi a little, forcing the Roma captain to operate closely to Pirlo at all times and avoid any German counter-attacks. Pirlo enjoyed so much of the ball (he made the third highest amount of passes on the night) that Germany began to pinpoint him as the area to start counter-attacks, but Prandelli altered the formation slightly to give his team more cover when in possession.
As for Joachim Loew, his changes would be the important ones and he was bold in switching Mario Gomez and Lukasz Podolski for Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus at half-time. It should have allowed Germany to gain more pace and movement in the final third, but it was the presence of Toni Kroos and the lack of width that needed addressing. Loew persisted until the 71st minute before introducing Thomas Mueller. This gave his side some necessary width, but it proved too little, too late.
Who got it right?
It’s difficult to criticise Loew for his team selection. Gomez, Podolski and Kroos have all shown they are more than capable of competing at international level, but it was the formation in which he set them out that can be criticised. Playing without any natural wide men is always going to be a problem for a team focussed on direct attacking play. With a potent striker like Mario Gomez, he needs service out wide, but with only Podolski as a ‘wide man’ and Philip Lahm the only real presence on the overlap, Germany became too one-dimensional. Toni Kroos may have been added to go man for man in midfield, but he never really got a hold of Andrea Pirlo, who looked majestic once again. In noticing his problems, Loew failed to deal with them properly and that is part of the reason why Germany performed so poorly.
On the other hand, Cesare Prandelli should be praised for his tactical approach. He stuck to his guns and failed to be scared by the attacking prowess of the Germans. Concentrating on playing through Andrea Pirlo, Italy used their width to stretch a Germany midfield reluctant to venture outside the width of the 18 yard box. From there, they had the invention of Cassano and Montolivo to thank for both of Balotelli’s magnificent strikes.
Italy looked like a team which knew their game plan, whereas Germany didn’t and for that, Cesare Prandelli quite rightly led his side to their first major tournament final since the World Cup win in 2006.
Jonny is the creator of Talking Baws and regular contributor to the Huffington Post blogs and IBWM among others.