Preview – EURO 2012 – Germany vs. Portugal

On June 19th, 2008, Joachim Löw lined up with the 4-2-3-1 for the very first time.  It took a Michael Ballack winner against Austria in their last match to get them out of the group after struggling to find their best form in their first three games.  Rumors of discontent within the training camp, both among the players and with the way the team was playing, was rampant and many wanted to see Löw deviate from Jürgen Klinsmann’s original 4-4-2 much earlier. It was clear that something needed to change if Germany were going to beat one of the tournament favorites, Portugal, in the quarter finals.

Sure enough, after an intense team meeting the day before the game, Löw adjusted his tactics and surprised everyone with his new formation.  Frings was dropped and Rolfes and Hitzlsperger came in to play in the center instead.  Gomez was also dropped and Ballack pushed up to play behind lone striker Klose. Germany went on to play their best match of the tournament, outplaying and beating Portugal 3-2.  They went on to beat Turkey in the semi finals before losing to Spain in the final but the formation stuck from then on and paved the way for Germany’s fluid quick attacking game.

Almost four years to the day, Germany will once again line up against Portugal in their 2012 EURO opener and while Löw’s men are favorites going in the open nature of both sides’ style of play could make this a quite unpredictable football match.

Germany’s strengths and weaknesses

By now it isn’t a secret that Germany thrives when playing their dynamic attacking game.  With so many offensive outlets and a great chemistry between players like Özil, Müller and Klose along with having multiple goal scoring outlets Germany’s biggest strength will again be their creativity, pace and firepower up front.  They went unbeaten in their qualifying campaign and scored an impressive 34 goals along the way.  The quality in depth has improved significantly since the World Cup as have Löw’s tactical options, experimenting with several different lineups and formations in the last eighteen months without a significant drop in performance, at least offensively speaking.

Despite all of their attacking capabilities though, Germany’s defense remains a big question mark going into the tournament.  In their last sixteen matches, Löw has used thirteen different backlines including six different center back pairings. The lineup likely to be fielded on Saturday has only played together twice in the last eighteen months and fitness concerns still surround Per Mertesacker who missed half of the season due to an ankle ligament injury. In addition, Germany still have yet to find a right sided equivalent to Philipp Lahm, leaving the right back spot fairly uncertain.  Löw used four different players in that position leading up to the tournament and has even hinted at using Lars Bender, a natural central midfielder, there if necessary.

Added to the personnel inconsistency is an apparent weakness on set pieces.  Admittedly, it is a part of Löw’s game that he doesn’t stress as much as others but with the nature of tournaments like the EUROs it could be the difference between going all the way or going home early.  Even assistant coach Hansi Flick noted this particular weakness, “We are not really effective at set pieces, that is a weak point. I don’t always agree with Jogi when it comes to set pieces. I think we should practice them more.  Jogi has other priorities.  We are obviously pressed for time but set pieces can be effective as we painfully saw against Spain at the last World Cup.”

Germany can score goals, as they did at the World Cup and throughout qualifying, that won’t be much of a worry.  The question more or less becomes, can they balance their efficient and free flowing attack with a consistent and disciplined defense?  

What to expect from Portugal?

Only three players from Portugal’s line up in 2008 are likely to start against Germany this Saturday and like their opponents, they have undergone their own transition in the last couple of years.  Out went coach Carlos Queiroz’s more defensive approach and in came a more attacking oriented philosophy from Paulo Bento.  The compact defensively stable 4-2-3-1 has morphed into a more dynamic 4-3-3 with the emphasis on their wide play, by far Portugal’s biggest strengths.  Portugal’s solid defense is more or less still present but not to the degree it was under Queiroz, focusing instead on quicker transitions and getting the ball out wide to players like Ronaldo and Nani.

As outlined in Zonal Marking’s great tactical preview of Portugal, the pairing of Ronaldo and Coentrao on the left will be key to both Portugal’s success and Germany’s ability to hamper it.  As has been the case for many years now, Portugal still lack a proper centre forward, neither of Postiga or Almeida possess the quality of the players surrounding them, and that means that Ronaldo will have more license on the field.

Like Germany, Portugal will have a quite flexible midfield with all three of Veloso, Moutinho and Meireles able to play from box to box.  It will be curious to see which of Moutinho and Meireles then plays a more advanced role.  In any case, as assistant coach Hansi Flick said, Germany will keep a close eye on Moutinho who will most likely be Portugal’s central playmaker.

Germany’s strategy

There was no shortage of preparation from Germany ahead of this game with Flick and German National Team scout, Urs Siegenthaler, spending a lot of time preparing for the game, traveling to multiple club matches since the draws were announced to observe Portugal’s key players including Chelsea and Real Madrid’s Champions League games.

Flick noted the importance of giving Portugal the least amount of space possible. Löw also stressed possession against a team that counters and transitions as fast as anyone, “Against Portugal we have to keep the ball in their own half as much as possible.  Portugal are especially strong because they quickly switch from defense to attack.  When we lose the ball it will be dangerous.  It is also important that we block the passing lanes which Ronaldo and Nani use.”

Germany need to do two things well in order to take three points from this game.  First, both fullbacks will have to stay concentrated and close to Ronaldo and Nani and not let them use their pace to get behind them or beat them one on one.  Second, as Löw outlined, Schweinsteiger and Khedira will have to be especially aware of through balls from Portugal’s midfielders and the runs of the attackers.  Germany have been vulnerable on counter attacks and Portugal’s speedy players and excellent passers in midfield excel at that.

Predicted line-ups:

Germany (4-2-3-1)

Neuer – Lahm, Badstuber, Mertesacker, Boateng – Khedira, Schweinsteiger – Podolski, Özil, Müller – Klose

Portugal (4-3-3)

Patricio – Coentrao, Pepe, Alves, Pereira – Veloso, Moutinho, Meireles – Ronaldo, Postiga, Nani

Facts and Figures vs. Portugal

Played: 16 matches, Won: 8, Drawn: 5, Losses: 3 Goals For: 24, Goals Against 16

– Germany and Portugal have played each other 8 times in official competitions, their most recent being the 2008 EURO quarter final which Germany won 3-2 and the third place match at the 2006 World Cup which Germany won 3-1.

– Germany’s record against Portugal in official competitions is 3 wins, 3 draws, 2 losses.

– Germany’s biggest win over Portugal came in a friendly in 1954 (3-0).

– Portugal’s biggest win against Germany too was 3-0 in the 2000 EURO group stage.

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Cristian Nyari

Cristian is a football writer and analyst living in New York City, fascinated with the history and study of the beautiful game and all it entails. Follow Cristian on twitter @Cnyari

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