The quarter-final of the Euro 2016 in Bordeaux took place between the most consistent nations since the start of the competition. A meeting of two great footballing nations making a number of fixtures that were not worthy thereafter. With eight World Cups and four European titles won between them, this was a match worth waiting for.
After a strong start in the Euro 2016, Germany met their greatest footballing rivals, Italy. Managed by the former Juventus boss, Antonio Conte. Italy came from a victory over Spain 2-1. Joachim Low, in order to tackle Conte’s defensive 3-5-2, decided to change his possession orientated 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2. It was the first time, Low changed his shape to adjust his team to an opponent. After this match, the media unanimously stated that the game was the best in the tournament, even if the tournament was not at its end yet.
Germany took the lead through Mesut Ozil and Italy equalized through Leonardo Bonucci’s penalty. In the penalty shootout after the extra-time, seven shots failed to end up in the back of the net. Finally, it was Germany that managed to sneak through to the semi-final of Euro 2016 just like Jonas Hector’s shot slipped under Gianluigi Buffon in the ultimate and decisive kick of the match.
Germany (3-5-2): Nueur- Joshua Kimmich, Benedikt Howedes, Jrome Boateng, Matts Hummels, Jonas Hector, Sami Khedira (Bastian Schweinsteiger) Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon- Leonardo Bonucci- Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Alessandro Florenzi, Mattia De Sciglio, Marco Paolo, Stefano Sturaro, Emanuele Giaccherini, Eder, Graziano Pelle
This duel will not have the same drama as the one of 1970 (4-3) or the semi-final in 2006 (0-2)
The chess party
The chess party started an hour before the game when the official formations dropped. The German coach ejected the winger Julian Draxler who was brilliant versus Slovakia (3-0) and came with Benedikt Howedes to form a back three with Jerome Boateng and Matts Hummels. It was a voluntary risk. He adapted his team to the opponent, such things that he had never done before. But after ten years as head coach and two as Jürgen Klinsman’s first assistant, he knew what he was doing with this shape. He studied the Conte’s 3-5-2 who thrashed Belgium and Spain in the previous stages. A high press along with a low-block defensive line was the key for Italy.
With the ball, Kroos was positioned as the deep-lying playmaker, changed the shape in a 3-1-4-2. The Mannschaft had just 59% of possession whereas they used to have on average 64%. However, these statistics mean more the balance between the teams was the Italian’s efficiency. The Squadra Azura applied the bus method which allowed them to eliminate Spain. Eder had a mission to block the deep-lying playmaker (Toni Kroos after Sergio Busquets) sometimes Stefano Sturaro came to help.
A 1v1 man marking system was launched each time Manuel Neuer had to ball at his feet. At each interception they countered fast, with Graziano Pelle has a target, they could cross easily into the penalty box. But Boateng and Hummels were imperious at denied penetrations from Giaccherini or Eder.
Italy defended narrowly and denied central access for Germany to play through. This was the reason why the German’s preferred to play in the wide areas and attack through crosses and diagonal balls aimed inwards towards the players positioned centrally. We’ve seen many diagonals to Kimmich or Hector but they didn’t find solutions in the final third because Italy used a compact shape. It allowed them to maintain the numerical advantages over the Germans in the central areas regions while defending.
Being blocked, the Germany midfielders couldn’t control the game, the centre-backs either go wide and progress the attack through the wings and be more oriented in terms of creating the chances fortunately Low had as Boateng, who is very good with the ball.
The second-half changes
Germany scored after changing their shape. Howedes moved as left-back, allowing more freedom to Jonas Hector while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Muller tried to offer solutions in the half space. Kimmich was less offensive but was always available when the ball carrier proceeded with a diagonal to his flank. To equalise, Antonio Conte changed is shape into a 3-4-3 with Giaccherini and Eder as support to Pelle. Marco Parolo and Sturaro stayed narrow in the central region.
For the first time, I saw a zonal approach while marking during corners from Germans. They positioned themselves in two lines. A five-man line at the edge of the six yards box and another line of three players just a few yards in front of the first line. These two lines were quite capable of shielding the shots coming from outside the box and clearing the ball safety. Then a player was close to the corner to prevent a short corner and another in the 18-yard box trying to clear the second ball. Since this game, Low has maintained this marking system, we saw it in the 2018 World Cup.
As Germany failed more often to find depth behind the Italian defensive line, the first half finished without real occasions despite a crazy final five minutes. It was usual (in the match) to see a centre-back with the ball and find zero solution to pass. That means that the trap was enormous and no one wanted to commit the wrong pass. In these kinds of situations, you need errors from the opponent and that happened when Alessandro Florenzi was too late on a Jonas Hector header. That action led to the Mesut Ozil goal (1-0, 65’) or the Boateng’s mistake when he rose his hands unnecessary and caused a penalty, converted by Leonardo Bonucci (1-1, 78’). I supposed Antonio Conte presumed the German staff had recorded every shooter he has and Neuer jumped on the wrong side.
At the peak of their art, Germany and Italy recited a tight tactical partition in the quarter final. The scenario was epic with a huge dosage of emotions to make this a match that lives long in the memory. Nothing could separate them but a penalty shootout, so beautiful for the winners and so cruel for the losers.
When everything has been prepared in such a meticulousness way that there is no more place to chance, it must intervene as a last resort to decide a winner and a loser. So goes the sport. That can be unfair when it wants. Neither team deserved to stop at this stage. And yet, there was only Germany in the next game to play a play in the final.