Preview – EURO 2012 – Germany vs. Italy

Germany have yet to beat Italy at a major tournament so not only will they have to set a new historic precedent to reach the final but they will have to do it against a team that has been improving as the tournament progressed. Like they say though, records are meant to be broken and momentum is certainly on Germany’s side following their record setting run of form. Whether or not Germany overcome their bogey team will depend on a few key factors, namely on Löw getting his selections right to exploit Italy’s weaknesses and especially how he deals with Italy’s master playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

History and Form

As mentioned above, historically Germany have their backs against the walls here having beaten Italy just seven times and never in a competitive match. Although current circumstances favor the Germans, form usually always goes out the window when these two teams meet. Germany set a world record of fifteen consecutive competitive wins with their victory against Greece and look as likely as ever to win a major tournament.

Germany’s goalkeeping coach Andreas Köpke just said that despite their negative record against the Italians, what happened years ago matters little going into this game, “We won’t let the past affect us and want to write our own history. Statistics don’t interest us.” In a way he is right. Some might look at this record as a bad omen for Germany but confidence is high in the training camp and most of the players on the squad have played and beaten Italy on various youth levels throughout the years. For what it’s worth, Germany also outplayed Italy in their last friendly a little over a year ago.

Italy meanwhile remain cautious despite having history on their side. Buffon urged his team not to get carried away after the England game, “We cannot forget that we have only overcome the quarterfinal stage. I cannot start jumping for joy after taking a spot in the semifinals. I will only do that when we win something as a team.” Indeed, it is Germany who go into this game as favorites this time around especially considering they have had two additional days to recover after their quarterfinal match.

Cesare Prandelli is urging preparation and is looking for his team to be bolder to overcome Germany. “Germany are the favorites. We must prepare well in terms of the little details. We also know that we can play our own game. We must read Germany’s game well and take risks. I prefer to concede on the break rather than sit back, wait and suffer for twenty minutes.”

Suffice to say, this is not the Italian stereotype of the past and much like the new Germany, Italy under Prandelli, have moved away from the defensive football that has characterized their national team throughout the years and adopted a more creative and offensive approach. “A side that can have thirty-five shots on goal in a match will win nine out of ten matches. We also had 68% possession against England so our style of play is certainly not a defensive one” he said after their quarterfinal win.

There are many parallels to be drawn between Löw and Prandelli, amongst them their unwavering conviction in their own philosophy. Both reject the widespread reactive approach favored by most international coaches nowadays and remain defiant in the face of criticism and popular opinion. Both have also been very flexible tactically and even bold in some of their selections which can only bode well for the quality of the match.

Selection dilemma for Löw

Germany’s squad depth is certainly a blessing and it paid off handsomely when Löw was able to make four changes after the group stage and still win convincingly against Greece. It does have its downsides though and Löw now has to decide whether he wants to keep the players that performed so well against Greece or revert back to his first choice eleven. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

For one, Germany simply clicked better with Klose and Reus playing alongside Özil, Khedira and the rest. The chemistry and understanding was more fluid and Germany were simply more effective offensively. They created a goal scoring chance every 3.4 minutes against Greece, something they struggled to do with Löw’s initial line up so there is incentive in maintaining the same eleven or at least Reus and Klose who were two of the standout performers in that game.

On the other hand, Greece’s defensive approach gave Germany’s attackers the freedom they needed to get forward and attack the box which won’t happen against the tactically disciplined Italians. Schürrle and Reus for example won’t have the room or time to cut inside as readily and will be marked very tightly. The more patient Müller and Podolski then might be preferred to the erratic direct play of their potential replacements.

The other issue is the choice of strikers. Mario Gomez started the tournament so well but the difference between him and Klose was very apparent in the Greece game. Klose is simply better suited for the team’s style of play and gets the best out of all its creative players. That said, Gomez might be the more practical choice against Italy for reasons listed below. Sitting Gomez for a second time in a row could have debilitating effects on a player who very much relies on the confidence of his coach and he has always been better starting rather than coming off the bench.

Andrea Pirlo

Since his move to Juventus last year the playmaker has experienced somewhat of a career revival and is playing some of the best football of his career. Prandelli figured out that centering Italy around Pirlo, like Conte did at Juventus, would get the best out of his team and so far no side has been able to effectively neutralize him. Of course, that is easier said than done. Pirlo’s reading and understanding of the game is almost second to none. His anticipation and awareness of where to be on the field to either receive or deliver passes is up there with the greats of the past. And it only takes a split second for Pirlo to spot a yard of space and deliver a pinpoint perfect pass.

With the necessary support from his teammates Pirlo can dictate games with ease but the downside is that if the opponents finds a way around that it can disrupt the entire system altogether. That is how well Italy have done so far but that is how dependent they are on him. Therefore, how Löw approaches Pirlo could effectively decide the game.

Now, Löw is not usually one to employ man marking against an opponent’s playmaker. He didn’t use one against Messi at the World Cup or against Sneijder in the group stage and in all likelihood won’t against Italy either. Doing so would just interrupt Germany’s own way of playing and the roles his players are already so accustomed to. As mentioned earlier, neither of these coaches are reactive and prefer to get on with their natural game.

What Löw might do instead is to instruct one of his central midfielders, either Schweinsteiger or Khedira, to stay back and try to anticipate Pirlo’s passes. Because Pirlo moves freely across the pitch and makes his plays from deeper positions it is senseless to chase him around the field so blocking the channels might be the most effective tactic. Like everything else, that has its consequence as well because Italy will in all likelihood line up with four central midfielders leaving Germany outnumbered in the most important area of the pitch but Italy are vulnerable in other areas, bringing us to the next point.

Italy’s weaknesses

First and foremost, Italy have limited or lack genuine width. In either of Prandelli’s 3-5-2 or the 4-3-1-2 used against England, he relied on his fullbacks, Balzaretti and Abate to be their primary wide players. In both systems the midfield is very narrow, leaving a lot of space on the flanks. So far this tournament Germany have not really had the opportunity to use the flanks as effectively as they can but we might see a lot of their attacks coming on the flanks this game.

As well as Abate and Balzaretti have done, they would be outnumbered against Germany’s wingers and the support of their fullbacks. Marchisio and De Rossi will no doubt be pulled out to cover their fullbacks which could be the great equalizer in the much anticipated midfield battle. Prandelli will most likely maintain the 4-3-1-2 because it is the less risky of the two and allows for quicker adjustments.

Another issue is Italy’s lack of a true ‘number 9’ or finisher and this is where Mario Gomez could come in handy. Although clearly talented, Balotelli’s positional discipline leaves much to be desired while Cassano loves to play off strikers. As a result, neither offer the kind of focus a typical striker would. Prandelli has an option like that in Di Natale but hesitates to drop either of his first choice strikers.

Italy also struggled when England brought on Andy Carroll so there is a bit of a susceptibility in the air. This is where Mario Gomez comes in. Carroll won most balls in the air and muscled out the Italian defenders in every challenge. He did not have an outlet once he won the ball but with Gomez on the pitch and Germany’s quick minded attackers there lies an opportune route to goal.

Prediction

Prandelli’s recent statement probably sums this encounter up best, “The new generation want to see this kind of football [attacking] and not have teams thinking about the final result from the very first minute. At the moment the teams that make the difference are those who raise the defensive line and have the courage to play.” While both teams are no doubt going to prepare and study each others weaknesses they will also primarily stick to their own game which could make for one of the most open encounters yet between these sides.

Projected lineups

Germany

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

Italy

Buffon – Abate, Barzagli, Chiellini, Balzaretti – De Rossi, Pirlo, Marchisio – Montolivo – Balotelli, Cassano

Facts and Figures 

Germany’s record against Italy

Played: 30 Won: 7 Draws: 9 Losses: 14

-Germany’s biggest win: 5-2 (1939)

-Italy’s biggest win: 4-1 (2006)

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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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