World champions Germany faced Italy in the quarter-finals of the European Championships on Saturday. Germany were victorious the last time the two sides met, in a pre-tournament friendly shortly before the championships. But having been knocked out in the semi-finals four years ago and never having beaten the Italians in a competitive match, the Germans were undoubtedly desperate to put that statistic to rest and book their place in the semi-finals. The Italians, on the other hand, were enjoying a fantastic tournament despite low expectations. Their utter dominance against reigning champions Spain in the round of 16 left Antonio Conte’s men in a buoyant mood.
Joachim Löw paid Italy and Conte the ultimate sign of respect by replacing Julian Draxler with his former Schalke 04 teammate Benedikt Höwedes, changing Germany’s starting lineup and preferred formation in favor of a three-man defence. It would prove to be a very astute decision, showing that the German manager had learnt from the mistakes of four years ago when he was outclassed by Cesare Prandelli’s coaching.
Conte stuck to his standard 3-5-2 but had to make some changes with Thiago Motta suspended and Daniele De Rossi injured. Furthermore, the impressive Antonio Candreva also missed the game through injury, meaning that Alessandro Florenzi kept his place; in fairness, the Roma utility man did put in a fantastic performance against Spain in the previous round.
Löw’s Change in Formation Stops Italy from Imposing Themselves
Antonio Conte’s aggressive 3-5-2 meant that Italy often had the better of the teams in terms of playing out from the back. The two strikers could face each of the two centre-backs, and when the opponent’s number 6 would dissect the centre-backs and drop deep, one of the midfielders, most commonly Emmanuelle Giaccherini, would join the forwards and make it a 3v3. Furthermore, the high positioning of the wing-backs meant that the opposition full-backs were immediately under pressure upon receiving the ball.
Joachim Löw’s decision to switch to a back three seems in part to have been influenced by this, and it would prove to be a very astute choice as the Italians did not have much success in upsetting Germany’s attempts to start play from the back. This phenomenon occurred because Germany now had a 3v2 advantage at the back (excluding Neuer). If Giaccherini attempted to support the high press, then Kroos would be free to dictate the play. Thus, Conte gave up trying to pressure the German centre-backs and instructed Éder to man-mark Kroos, with Giaccherini on Khedira.
This did not necessarily work out as planned, however. Despite Kroos’s influence being limited, Khedira’s penetrating runs meant Giaccherini had to track him; this left Kimmich free due to the wide orientation of Müller, meaning De Sciglio could not follow Kimmich. As such, Italy were forced to fall back and limit their pressing.
Germany’s Switches of Play Cause Italy Problems
Italy’s five-man midfield often becomes more like a three-man midfield when they are forced back. Occasionally, this becomes a four-man midfield - when their opponents have the ball near the touchline, one of the wing-backs break away from the five-man defence and the far-side wing-back tucks in, forming a very compact 4-4-2 shape.
Against Germany, the Italians could not quite do this. This is because of the very high positioning of the German wing-backs.
In the image above we can see Kimmich very high up the pitch hugging the touchline as Höwedes brings the balls forward. Incidentally, the Schalke 04 player was able to do this because Pellè was outnumbered as Éder stuck to Kroos. His burst forward means he is creating a 2v1 with Kimmich against De Sciglio, so naturally Giaccherini must come across to help, and does. But Parolo cannot shuffle in any more because the Italians want to keep a good coverage of the pitch. If they do, then Germany’s near passing options may be limited, but the far side will be open.
In the next image, we see what happens when Italy try to close down the short passing options in a similar situation.
Here, Höwedes is once more very high and Kimmich has chalk on his boots. Giaccherinni, Parolo and Sturaro are all in close proximity to each other. Höwedes then switches the point of attack to Mats Hummels, who brings the ball forward and plays a pass to Kimmich; Kimmich then lays it off to Özil, who puts the ball in behind the defence for Gómez. The striker, with his back to goal, forces a fantastic save from Buffon, but it highlights how Germany’s switch to the three-man defence helped their cause.
To counter this, Antonio Conte instructed Éder to fall back and become a fourth midfielder, making Italy’s formation resemble a 5-4-1. This still did not manage to fully solve the problem, however, as Pellè now had to drop onto Kroos. However, the three German centre-backs could draw out Italy, and if Pellè pressed, then one of Giacherini, Sturaro or Éder had to help him out; this would leave the same gaps in midfield, if Germany could find them.
From these images, we can see how Löw was totally vindicated in playing a three-man defence.
This analysis was heavily focused on Germany and their use of the three-man defence to overcome the Italians, but the Italians themselves also caused some problems for their opponents. Their wing-backs’ high and wide positioning in build-up were instrumental in carving out their best openings. Furthermore, the ball-carrying abilities of Giaccherini and Éder coupled with Pellè’s aerial prowess and Conte’s philosophy of quick one-touch combination plays, which were almost always vertical or diagonal, caused some concern for Germany.
A tight match surely, but a very interesting one nonetheless. Germany were the better side only slightly and deserved to win, but Boateng’s mistake and Bonucci’s fine penalty took the game to extra time, where both sides kept their cards close to their chests. The ensuing shootout was a bizarre mixture of great composure and comedic failure, personified most by Simone Zaza and Graziano Pellè. The Italians were visibly disappointed but have plenty to be proud of in their European campaign. Meanwhile, the Germans will be brimming with confidence, and it is hard to see any of the remaining teams beating the current world champions to the Henri Delaunay trophy.