Germany advanced to the semi-finals by avenging their Euro 2012 defeat via penalty shootout against Italy.
Joachim Low completely altered his formation and made one change to his starting XI. Bendikt Howedes slotted into a three-man defence, which ultimately forced Julian Draxler to the bench.
Antonio Conte, however, was also forced to replace the injured Daniele De Rossi in midfield. The Italian manager therefore turned to Stefano Sturaro to join Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini in midfield.
Joachim Low was at fault for altering his system when Germany exited the competition four years ago against the Italians, but his decision to also instill a three-man back-line proved successful in a tight affair between two elite national teams.
Low makes bold change
The announcement of Germany’s XI was the main facet of the match considering Low’s bold move four years ago, and the repercussions that followed. Nevertheless, Low decided to stray away from the patented 4-2-3-1 to field a three-man defence.
Ideally, this made sense considering Italy’s success against Spain, who also pride themselves in dominating possession. But more importantly, while the decision to play an identical system risked a dire encounter where both teams cancelled each other out, it ensured Germany wouldn’t be overloaded or left vulnerable in isolation situations against the Italian forwards.
Now, the wing-backs pressed the wing backs, the midfielders combatted in central zones, whereas both sides, on paper at least, would have a numerical advantage at the back.
Low deploying a three-man defence equally helped the Germans cope with Italy’s pressing from the front. Graziano Pelle and Eder took turns pressing Toni Kroos, and occasionally alternated roles in this respect – when one pressed the German, the other cut off passing lanes into the midfielder – but the Italians’ attempt to suffocate the Germans within their third proved unsuccessful unless Giaccherini or Sturaro stepped forward.
Although pressing Kroos negated his ability to dictate the tempo of the match, Germany still possess excellent ball-playing defenders in Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, and while the former was often forced to play the ball towards both flanks, the exterior centre-backs were often spare outlets that received time to play passes into midfield.
Hummels was Germany’s main threat in this respect by clipping passes into Gomez that just missed the striker and a delivery to the far post that substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger nodded past Gigi Buffon only to be penalized for a foul on Mattia De Sciglio. Germany’s possession was patient and over-elaborate, and while Italy’s pressing was partially responsible for the world champions’ pedestrian attack, they didn’t successfully thwart the opposition’s creativity.
Germany without the ball
The Germans, however, adopted a slightly contrasting approach out of possession. Low was wary of Leonardo Bonucci’s passing, and Giorgio Chiellini charging forward so frontmen Mario Gomez, and Thomas Muller quickly closed the defenders down. Gomez, in particular, was pivotal with his positioning as he prevented Bonucci from playing long balls over the defence, whilst negating passing lanes into Marco Parolo.
Italy’s difficulty playing out the back hampered their entire approach. Conte’s men found it difficult to instantly play passes into the strikers, and even spare man Andrea Barzagli was unable to play forward passes with Mesut Ozil occasionally cutting off passing lanes into Sturaro, while Muller’s pressing equally deprived Giaccherini of service in midfield zones.Where Conte would have preferred Hummels didn’t receive ample time and space on the ball, Low didn’t mind Barzagli carrying the ball forward.
Considering Italy’s midfield is based around brawn opposed to creativity, Germany’s intent to prevent the centre-backs from spreading play to the attackers was quite significant. Where Italy allowed Howedes and Hummels to push forward with the ball, Low encouraged his attackers to limit proactive passing lanes.
The one issue that often arises when two opponents utilize identical systems is the possibility of a dull game. Therefore, one of the few ways to create openings ultimately comes down to which team can win their battles in certain areas of the pitch.
In truth, neither side was convincing in the opening half when they attempted to bypass the opposition: The Germans dominated possession whereas the Italians retreated into a 5-3-2, with the intent of breaking forward on the counter. Although Conte’s men deserve credit for their defensive discipline, Germany’s patient buildup lacked a link between midfield and attack.
Ozil and Jonas Hector rarely combined, whereas the former struggled to outfox Sturaro in central areas. On the opposite side of the pitch, Schweinsteiger was unable to offer the vertical running and dynamism Khedira showcased in the opening 15 minutes, which appeared to be a plausible route to goal. Apart from Hummel’s lofted passes beyond the Italian defence, Low’s men were underwhelming in the final third.
Meanwhile, the Italian’s decision to sit deeper and break on the counter also proved unsuccessful. When Conte’s men regained possession in deep areas, their sloppy passing was responsible for their inability to bypass Germany’s counter-pressing in midfield. Similar to the Germans, Italy’s best chance of the half was created by their ball-playing centre-back: Giaccherini stormed past Schweinsteiger to latch onto Bonucci’s pass in left half-space, but his pull back pass saw Sturaro’s deflected shot earn a vital corner.
Oddly, the least effective attacking player in the first half played a crucial role when moved to the right. Initially, the move witnessed De Sciglio receive space and freedom to run at Kimmich, with Ozil unsure of his defensive duties on the right – Schweinsteiger was positioned slightly deeper in various scenarios in the opening half, whereas Ozil roamed around pockets of space in advanced positions before he was caught out.
However, Ozil improved as the half continued by varying his movement from the right, and completing nifty passing moves with Muller and Kimmich. When Ozil dropped deeper he was free to play the initial pass to ignite lengthy spells of possession, and his disguised reverse ball to Gomez illustrated his threat in those positions.
Ozil didn’t produce the best performance of his career, but the freedom he received following his move to the right was pivotal. He was more involved in passing triangles, identified space between the lines to receive the ball, and both his passing and movement were crucial to Germany’s best attacking moves.
Germany’s opener briefly shifted the complexion of the match, but there were so many elements to the buildup that went against Low’s approach. Italy’s attempt to press up the pitch saw the Germans pull Conte’s frontmen out of position before Manuel Neuer cleared his lines. Yet, on one of the few occasions where Gomez drifted laterally to the left flank, Florenzi slipped due to the striker’s attempted challenge.
More so, it was Gomez’s stellar reverse ball into half space for the advanced Hector that saw Ozil direct the left-back’s low cross like a legitimate poacher. It was one of the few times Germany offered a third man running into the box, but Gomez drifting away from pressure to produce a moment of brilliance surprised an Italian defence that appeared comfortable coping with the striker’s threat.
Gomez’s squandered chance subsequent to Ozil’s opener enabled Conte to adjust his initial approach. Italy suddenly transitioned to a 3-4-3 with Giaccherini pushing forward to press Howedes, whilst the defence maintained an extremely high line.
Julian Draxler’s inclusion for the departed Gomez suggested Germany now offered a threat behind the defence, but Italy’s pressure pegged Low’s men deeper into their box, as their ball playing midfielders were unable to supply the attackers. Perhaps the buildup to Boateng’s mistake didn’t correlate with Italy’s sudden improvement, but the minor alteration resulted in one goal opportunity – De Sciglio’s pull back that Pelle snatched wide – and a brief spell of dominance from Conte’s men.
Conte, though, was aware of the risk his side took by attempting to regain possession in Germany’s third, and quickly instructed his side to revert back to a 3-5-2 following Bonucci’s equalizer. With that being said, the remaining 40 minutes of the match was drab – Germany continued to dominate possession without finding many openings, and though Italy received more opportunities to break as legs tired, it was an over hit Draxler pass in a 3v2 counter-attack that served as the closest chance either side came to winning the match.
The recurring theme of uneventful extra-time periods at this tournament continued, here, and though Germany finally defeated Italy at a major tournament, the overall match offered very little tactical talking points.
The decisive factor throughout 120 minutes was Low’s decision to move to a back three. Germany stifled Italy’s creativity with their pressing, and Conte’s men failed to consistently filter the ball to their attackers and break as a unit. A few last-ditch tackles aside, Germany’s defence were hardly tested which justifies Low’s bold move.
It’s difficult to criticize Conte’s Italy considering they were a few penalty kicks away from defeating the World champions. Italy’s defensive solidity was unprecedented, and their attention to detail and ability to carry out Conte’s instructions with devastating efficiency provided two memorable results against the tournament’s highest ranked team in Belgium, and holders Spain.
More so, Conte utilized this stage to display his tactical prowess. A move to a 3-4-3 steered the Italian’s back into the game, and frankly a lack of genuine creativity – due to injuries – halted what may have been a memorable title run. Germany, however, set their sights on France, and with several key players unavailable to suspensions and injuries, Low be called upon to outwit the hosts.