Chasing History

Spain advanced to the final of Euro 2012 in less than convincing fashion, but, in the end, it only showcased another weapon in their impressive arsenal.With Iker Casillas in goal, and Barca and Madrid players used to high-pressure scenarios taking the penalty kicks, Spain will be the favorite in most penalty shoot-outs for a long time to come. How do you beat them?

The main goal of Spain’s tiki-taka is increasingly becoming a negative one— if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score; if you can’t score, you can’t beat us— eliminating upsets like Switzerland’s at the 2010 World Cup, but the possibility of keeping a clean sheet against Germany is a slim one.

Spain have been down this road before. It took a shoot-out, and a Fabregas winner, to advance to the semifinals of Euro 2008— and with Buffon in the opposite goal, no less—while their 2010 World Cup win was notable for a string of 1-0 wins.

The frustrating thing about yesterday’s game is that, had Portugal scored in the first eighty minutes, Spain would almost certainly have gotten a goal. Instead, both teams were happy with a penalty shoot-out.

Portugal’ s effort has to be commended, as they were able to limit Spain to 64% possession and “only” 84% completion percentage, while making the midfield zone very competitive. They failed to put even one shot on target, but if they did it would probably have been a goal, due to their tactics in this match. Portugal’s counter-attacks were unusually sloppy, and Spain had to make several professional fouls.

It should be noted that Portugal had two extra days of rest. Had the situations been reversed, Spain would probably have won in normal time.

Spain is accustomed to playing extremely tired opponents in the last twenty minutes; indeed, their strategy almost depends on it.

Remarkably, Portugal did look the more tired team in extra-time, but only because Del Bosque had ¬†cunningly instructed his team not to press at the beginning of the game, which would probably account for Portugal’s good play. Paulo Bento, meanwhile, decided to employ very open tactics, surprising considering his negative ones against Germany, and Portugal pressed heavily, forcing the Spanish defense into several mistakes. By extra-time, though, the roles had been completely reversed.

Spain’s vaunted midfield was not able to handle the press particularly well. It is hard to remember a game in which Barcelona and/or Spain were given so little space, and, with only Negredo up top, Xavi and Iniesta were not nearly as good as usual.

Incidentally, Spain also won Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 despite getting considerably less rest than their knockout opponents.

0-0 after 120 minutes was fair, and with Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, and Iker Casillas on their team, Spain were clearly the favorites for the penalty shoot-out, even with Xavi substituted off.

Del Bosque’s decisions have at times seemed baffling, but, whatever the personnel, all of Spain’s games have been similar— out-played for large portions of the first half, but relatively eventless until Spain inevitably finds the breakthrough. In Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012 combined, Spain have scored 9 first-half goals, 18 second-half goals, and 1 extra-time goal. The point is, though, that, assuming the same midfield base, Spain’s games will likely end the same way whether Jesus Navas or David Silva plays, whether Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres plays. Either player will pass the ball around for 70 minutes, then get out of the way of the midfield.

The quest for the treble continues. Never before has a side won three major international tournaments in a row.


Meanwhile, we are only ninety minutes away from a truly amazing spectacle, possibly the greatest international ever, the Euro 2008 final 2.0, only with both teams much improved. In the mean-time, Germany-Italy should be a very good game as well, with more goals in the works than yesterday’s affair had.

In the end, Germany should dispose of Italy rather more easily than Spain did of Portugal, but the game offers a very interesting tactical clash.

Both teams play through one player— here Spain are unique again— and stopping this player will be key to the teams tactical game-plans. For Germany, that player is Mesut Ozil.

The problem for Italy is, the way the formations are set up, Pirlo will be on Ozil. That’s fine when Italy attacks, but it isn’t going to scare the German midfielder when he has the ball. If De Rossi, a natural defensive midfielder, moves into the center, Ozil will have a much tougher time getting space, but Italy’s main play-maker will be forced wide.

Because Ozil naturally drifts right, expect De Rossi to start very narrow on the left, but tracking Ozil whenever Germany has the ball.

Unlike Ozil, Pirlo is a deep-lying play-maker, and, if Germany spend most of the game attacking (Italy’s coach suggested they wouldn’t), could have a much more effective performance than he did against England, where he dominated statistically, but could not penetrate the Three Lions’ deep defense. Pirlo is a master at picking out weaknesses in a defense, which in this case means that Holger Badstuber will have a long night. The player Badstuber is marking is Balotelli, who is also Italy’s better forward in terms of creating space.

Prandelli could completely change the story by unexpectedly switching back to the 3-5-2.

Elsewhere, there are the usual questions: Italy’s lack of width could finally be exploited, while Low has three momentous selection decisions. Reus and Podolski have been better than Muller and Schurlle, respectively, and should be the starting wide men, while the Klose-Gomez decision will likely come down to whether the manager prefers an intelligent (Klose) or physical (Gomez) forward. Look for Klose to start, with Gomez coming on if the offense is not clicking.

Both teams are strongest in midfield, and the formation choices make this a particularly interesting battle, as a central-midfield heavy formation (Italy; 4-1-2-1-2) takes on a team that likes to spread the ball wide.

Because of how (not) clinical their forwards have been, the Italians may have to dominate the rest of the field to win— entirely possible, given they way they have played so far.


2 responses to “Chasing History

  1. Good post. But Italy will give Germany a hard time all over the pitch. Should be a tight match, though hopefully not as closed and risk-averse as SPA-POR.

    • Thanks for the read and comment. While I agree that Italy can give Germany a hard time, and both teams get chances, Germany’s forwards have been far more clinical than Italy’s. And Italy’s lack of width might finally be punished. We’ll see.