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Italy 1-1 Germany

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Courtesy of Flickr/Itaru Chiba

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.

Italy Press

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.

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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.

Blunt attack

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.

Ozil

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.

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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.

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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.

Italy react

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.

Conclusion

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.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Spain – Italy

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Courtesy of Flickr/James FJ Rooney 

Spain and Italy may have met in the two previous European Championships, but this year’s round of 16 clash offers a rejuvenated tactical clash following poor World Cup campaigns.

The current holders and finalists feature in the tie of the round, with both sides making slight modifications since the former’s convincing 4-0 win in the 2012 final.

Spain have transitioned from the patient possession based football orchestrated by Xavi and Xabi Alonso, and now aim to transfer the ball into advanced zones at a quicker rate, while injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, combined with the lack of a top-class forward will see Italy play destroyers, here.

In the 2012 final, Spain utilized Cesc Fabregas upfront, and while many assumed the Spaniard operated as a no.10, his runs in the final third were similar to a natural centre-forward. The two teams met earlier in the tournament, where Fabregas dropped deeper into midfield to create an overload, but they were outplayed by a proactive Italian side that afternoon.

One of the main differences in Vincent Del Bosque’s current side witnessed the emergence of Alvaro Morata at the international level. With that being said, Morata offers a different dimension to Spain’s attack. Capable of equally running the channels and coming short to link play, the striker’s willingness to make quick darts beyond the defence forces the opposition deeper, and creates more space for the Spanish midfielders.

The other notable change involves the inclusion of Nolito. David Silva roams into central areas and around the final third from the right flank, whereas Nolito hugs the touchline, constantly aiming to cut onto his stronger foot to trouble the goalkeeper. This essentially makes Spain more direct from an offensive perspective, and has seen Del Bosque’s men serve as the tournament’s standout performers thus far.

This could explain Del Bosque’s decision to field the same XI for all three group games, but following a loss to eventual group-winners Croatia, a hint of caution may be implemented for the knockout stages of the competition. Spain have yet to concede a knockout round goal during Del Bosque’s tenure, and with teams aiming to break into space in wide areas on the counter, he may seek further control in midfield as the holders increase their emphasis on control.

The current midfield of Andres Iniesta and Fabregas offer a combination of direct passing and dribbling, but Del Bosque could turn to Koke’s passing and combative presence in central areas against a reactive Italian side that will aim to fluster the Spanish midfield. It’s unlikely Del Bosque will field another dribbler in Thiago from the start of the match, but he could turn to Bruno alongside Busquets if really wants to neutralize the Italians on the counter – Italy adopting a deep block wouldn’t require Bruno, however.

It’s difficult to see Antonio Conte straying away from his 3-5-2, with the only concern involving Antonio Candreva’s absence. Candreva has played a crucial role in terms of creativity as Italy transition into a 3-3-4 going forward, and his injury could see Matia De Sciglio operate as a right wing-back.

In comparison to the Spain XI, this Italian side is slightly underwhelming, but they understand their roles and will be focused on executing Conte’s game plan. Daniele De Rossi is expected to roam around the back four for protection, while Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo disrupt play in midfield and wide areas.

Both managers encourage their full-backs/wing-backs to surge into advanced areas in possession, so the battle out wide will be interesting. Likewise, Alvaro Morata will likely be instructed to close down Juventus teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, when he carries the ball forward.

But where Morata will likely be outnumbered in Italy’s third, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will be tasked with monitoring Eder and Graziano Pelle. The Italian duo have both scored key goals in Italy’s group-stage victories and attempt to combine upfront, and possibly encourage the midfielder’s to make runs into the box.

Nevertheless, while many hailed Italy’s defensive display against Belgium, Conte’s men have to be better against a side that will prefer to be patient in possession and penetration. More so, the Italians conceded several legitimate goal-scoring chances against the Belgians that night, often resorting to cynical fouls to halt potential counter-attacks.

Spain’s individual talent could be decisive, but they face possibly their biggest test of the tournament in breaking down an Italy back-line that offers experience and grit. Essentially, Conte requires need a valiant team effort throughout, but Spain’s overload in midfield and the new direct options available could prove an insurmountable task for the tenacious Italians.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Italy 2-0 Belgium: Conte’s well-drilled defensive scheme overwhelms Belgium’s individualism

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LYON, FRANCE – JUNE 13: Players of Italy celebrate the goal of Graziano Pelle during the UEFA Euro 2016 Group E match between Belgium and Italy at Stade de Lyon, Parc OL on June 13, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Belgium had no answers for Italy’s impressive defensive display in their opening match of Euro 2016.

Marc Wilmots surprise inclusion saw Marouane Fellaini start in a no.10 role behind Romelu Lukaku, which pushed Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne into wide positions. Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan formed a midfield duo, while Wilmots opted to play Jan Vertonghen at left-back.

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Without Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, Antonio Conte turned to Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo in midfield. Eder and Graziano Pelle formed a strike partnership, whereas Mateo Darmian and Antonio Candreva were fielded as wing-backs.

This was as good a defensive performance as you will see in this tournament, as Italy’s collective defending stifled the Belgium’s explosive individual attackers.

Italy’s shape

It was well known that Italy’s strengths lied within their all-Juventus centre-back trio and goalkeeper, but whether Conte would adopt an alternative defensive approach remained a mystery. Ultimately, Italy constantly interchanged between their base 5-3-2 and two banks of four when Belgium pushed forward.

Giaccherini and Parolo would shift to the flank to close down the full-backs, with the available Italian midfielders remaining compact and shifting centrally in unison. But when the shuttlers were unable to close down the Belgian full-backs, the available Italian wing-back would step forward and effectively see Conte’s side transition into a 4-4-2.

This was a highly successful approach considering Belgium lack natural full-backs, and it equally contained their star wide players. But more importantly, Conte’s men were disciplined, maintained structure in central areas, and their constant lateral movement as a unit ensured the Belgians encountered difficulty locating space in the opposition’s half of the field.

Belgium struggle

While Italy’s defensive shape deserves credit, Wilmots and his players are equally culpable for their downfall. It must be said that they lacked a creative ball passer in deeper zones to help bypass the Italians’ defensive shape, but overall their play was based on individualism opposed to collective effort.

Despite dominating possession for large portions of the opening half, Wilmots’ men had two Nainggolan shots from outside of the box represent Belgium’s threat from open play. Romelu Lukaku was often outnumbered upfront – his linkup play was poor – De Bruyne’s passing in the final third was sloppy, Hazard was unable to play nifty intricate passes with his teammates to break forward, and apart from pressing De Rossi, Fellaini’s inclusion as a no.10 still remains peculiar.

Laurent Ciman often over hit crosses into the box with sometimes Fellaini, or solely Lukaku in the box, but it’s difficult to assess whether that was Wilmot’s preferred approach or an element of attack Belgium was forced to adopt due to Italy’s defence. More so, it’s evident Italy’s ability to clog spaces in central areas, and the lack of a genuine passer in Belgium’s combative midfield proved beneficial to Conte’s men.

Italy going forward

Conte’s Italy were always expected to be competent defensively, but their method of attack appeared intriguing prior to kickoff. In ways, it was fairly similar to how Conte’s Juventus side operated in the final third during the Italian’s first season at the club.

While third man running from midfield was hardly noticeable, the Azzurri were unsurprisingly focused on combinations amongst teammates across the pitch. The Italians remained compact centrally, but the most key aspect involved the wing-backs positioning themselves as wide forwards – Italy practically transitioned between a 3-1-4-2 and a 3-3-4 in certain offensive phases.

However, the productivity from both flanks were fairly contrasting. Darmian was always an open outlet for cross-field diagonal balls, but when he combined with Giaccherini the latter’s crosses were underwhelming. Candreva, on the other hand, was arguably Italy’s main attacking threat with his crossing from the right flank.

Eder and Pelle struggled in this respect, but the latter squandered two decent chances around the box when he drifted into dangerous positions. Conte’s focus on playing through partnerships was logical, but the lack of quality throughout the side certainly hindered Italy’s efficiency in the final third.

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Giaccherini’s opener came at a time when neither side showcased distinct superiority, and with Italy’s midfield lacking creativity, Bonucci’s passing range was a reminder of the centre-backs significance in both phases of the game. Without Marchisio and Verratti, Italy’s midfield trio is very functional, and Bonucci’s exceptional passing range ensures Conte’s men has the option of bypassing the opposition from deep.

But the winner equally highlighted Bonucci’s brilliance and poor defending from the Belgian back-line. With no Belgian player eager to close down Bonucci, the Italian simply lofted his pass over Toby Alderweireld for Giaccherini, who calmly controlled the delivery on his first touch, and subsequently placed his shot past Thibaut Courtois.

At the time, an Italy opener appeared unlikely, as they struggled to retain possession in Belgium’s half, whilst failing to pose a threat on the counter-attack. It was undoubtedly a moment of genius from both Italian players, but it also exploited the Belgian defence that may have been better persisting with Spurs duo Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld as a centre-back pair.

Open second half

Oddly, the final 45 minutes saw the game open up despite the Italians having no incentive to push their wing-backs so high up the pitch. Belgium should have equalized via a sensational counter-attack involving Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku from the right, whereas the former tested Buffon from distance after turning Darmian at the edge of the box – Conte immediately swapped the fatigued left wing-back for Mattia De Sciglio.

Conte’s persistence with his first half approach was possibly down to Hazard and De Bruyne’s poor display, but with Belgium retreating into their base shape following half-time, Wilmots’ men located a plausible route to goal via swift counter-attacks. Four Italian players were booked in the second half to halt prevent the Belgians from scoring in transition, which raises the belief that Conte was better off continuing with his initial reactive approach.

Wilmots substitutions

In search of an equalizer, Wilmots’ attempt to rescue the match witnessed Dries Mertens replaces Nainggolan, as Belgium transitioned into a standard 4-2-3-1. The meant De Bruyne and Hazard interchanged positions behind Lukaku, while Fellaini now played alongside Witsel in midfield.

Although Hazard and De Bruyne slightly improved following the change – the former’s dribbling and combinations improved, while De Bruyne’s crossing created two legitimate chances for Divock Origi and Fellaini – the Belgians still struggled to get behind a sturdy Italian back-line. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco was introduced as an auxiliary right-back and Origi’s pace also offered a glimmer of hope, but neither substitute was capable of shifting the match. Fellaini played within close proximity of Origi in the latter stages, and though they created two solid chances from this route attack, Belgium appeared solely dependant on crosses into the box.

Despite two botched opportunities from the Belgians in the box, Vertonghen and Carrasco’s willingness to join the attack presented space in the channels for Italy to exploit on the counter. In contrast, substitute Ciro Immobile was involved in two counter attacks that forced Thibaut Courtois to make a stellar save, while his appreciation of space was pivotal to Pelle’s injury time goal.

Conclusion

This was a remarkable defensive display from an Italian side that displayed discipline, organization, and natural cohesion as Conte out-coached Wilmots throughout.

Following his anticipated move to Chelsea at the conclusion of the tournament, Conte was always expected to be heavily critiqued based on Italy’s results and performances. The decision to encourage the wing-backs forward forced Belgium’s star wide players to defend in their half, as the only question regarding Conte’s Italy was the productivity in the final third.

Nonetheless, the issues halting Belgium from joining the elite were on display, here: poor team selection, a system that mainly relies on individual talent, and the lack of natural fullbacks were all responsible for the aforementioned underwhelming performance. Unlike other teams in the tournament, Wilmots’ reluctance to maximize his star players’ talent was bizarre, and that must be his main goal for the remainder of the tournament.

In what will be remembered as a dream start for a group of men widely dismissed by many, this shouldn’t overshadow the notion that Belgium was the ideal opponent for this Italian side. The defensive display was likely to fluster Belgium’s individualism, but they were still culpable of conceding great opportunities – and heavily exposed on the counter – that better sides would convert.

More so, the real test for Italy rests in their final two games, where their functional midfield and uninspiring forwards will be forced to outwit a Swedish and Irish side that will sit deeper, and aim to compress space around their box. Conte undoubtedly possesses the best defence in the competition, buy the productivity from the front six will define Italy’s success at this tournament.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Toni Kroos display against Ukraine showcased he may control Germany’s Euro destiny

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Toni Kroos of Germany runs with the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group C match between Germany and Ukraine at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on June 12, 2016 in Lille, France. June 12, 2016| Credit: Alexander Hassenstein

Toni Kroos made it his mission to persuade Germany manager, Joachim Low, to start the 26-year-old in their Euro 2012 semi-final exit against Italy.

Consistently displaying his displeasure from the bench throughout the tournament, Kroos received extreme faith from his manager to aid Mesut Ozil in combatting with Italy’s abundance of ball-playing midfielders. On the day, Low’s men were considerably outplayed, whereas Kroos failed to impress in a right-sided attacking midfield role that ultimately limited space in the final third for either German to maximize their talent.

Four years later, in a completely different midfield role, Kroos has transitioned into key component in Low’s setup.

Where the German excelled in an advanced playmaker role prior to Euro 2012, now, Kroos is at his utmost best in a midfield trio as the designated passer, rather than a destroyer or a chief creator. Ultimately it wasn’t an entirely new prospect for the Real Madrid star considering he’s always showcased his ability to fulfill various duties in central areas – put simply, Kroos is the ideal all-round midfielder that can meticulously dissect the opposition with his metronomic passing, yet is also capable of utilizing his physical stature to dominate the centre of the pitch.

However, the evolution of Kroos’ game didn’t occur overnight. Since that tragic defeat to Italy in Warsaw, Kroos has played a significant role in Germany’s World Cup success, and most recently, Real Madrid’ eleventh Champions League title. From open play, Kroos sets the tone of the match with his composed passing and willingness to locate open space to receive the ball. And from set-pieces, the German’s deliveries have been the catalyst to several pivotal goals for both club and country.

To be frank, his impact in midfield is unparalleled from a stylistic standpoint, as Germany are now suited to play on the counter-attack, but equally adopt a false-nine system that heavily emphasizes quick movement, constant interchanging, and possession dominance. But Kroos faced a different task in Germany’s Euro 2016 opener against Ukraine, where he was responsible for directing the route of attack, but also offering protection for a backline without the injured Mats Hummels, and the retired Phillip Lahm.

Essentially, German supporters and Low would prefer Kroos perform superbly in both phases, but here, his limitations were on display. From an attacking perspective, he was one of Low’s best performers – which isn’t saying much due to several average performances from his teammates – as he recorded the most passes, created the most chances, whilst winning all of his take-ons.

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In other words, Kroos did what he does best, and that’s passing his side to victory. Whether it was quick combination plays to evade defenders, an inch-perfect free-kick that resulted in Shkodran Mustafi’s opener, or the splendid ball over the Ukraine defence for Sami Khedira, Kroos provided penetration and invention to a German side struggling to create chances from open play.

Yet, out of possession – mostly in the opening half – he was left with too much space in midfield to cover, thus enabling Ukraine to pose a threat via swift counter-attacks.

Nevertheless, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s late cameo and insurance goal suggests he’s nearing full-fitness, which provides Low with the midfield trio that starred in Brazil two-years ago. Schweinsteiger offers additional muscle in central areas, and a defensive shield that will enable Kroos to play within closer proximity of the interchanging attackers.

Low’s attack was at their best when they played quick intricate passes amongst each other, and while the German manager may insist several shots from outside of the box was a tactic to limit counter-attacks, in truth, they simply lacked runners behind the defence. Mario Gotze didn’t offer much as a false nine, Mesut Ozil’s appreciation of space was evident, but he lacked runners to supply passes, whereas Thomas Muller’s movement from the right was lacklustre. At times, the reigning world champions were simply guilty of circulating possession casually, opposed to quickly moving forward and combining in tight spaces – they were dangerous when doing the latter.

On the other hand, apart from Mustafi’s winner, and Jerome Boateng’s distribution, Germany’s defence were vulnerable when Ukraine pushed men forward to deliver crosses into the box. In fairness, Low is forced to play an inexperienced make-shift back-line, which once again emphasizes the risk of presenting Kroos with such significant defensive duties.

Although Germany have developed a ‘getting the job’ done identity in recent years, there were too many underwhelming performances in one night to assume they won’t improve as the tournament progressed. Schweinsteiger’s return to fitness offers a new dimension to Low’s midfield, while Mario Gotze’s role as a false nine could be sacrificed for a classic centre forward in Mario Gomez.

What can’t be denied is the numerous options available to Low, and similar to Brazil, regardless on whether he persists with the same XI or makes various changes, anything less than a winner’s medal will be deemed a failure. But unlike four years ago, Low can now rely on Kroos’ passing to control the tempo and outcome of a nations fate.

 

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Euro 2016 Preview: How the tournament may be dull but ridiculously unpredictable

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There’s a contrasting feeling looming around the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament following the decision to include eight additional teams.

Although it offers an increased viewership due to a larger tournament, the overall quality drastically decreases due to a limited amount of great sides.. Now, the inclusion of eight teams paves an easier route to the knockout stage, and can arguably hinder the tournament from a footballing perspective.

Frankly, that belief hinges on the true definition of ‘entertaining football’ – while one used to associate the term with Spain’s ability to retain possession and pass their way through opponents, the sudden shift in success involves organized defending and quick transitions on the counter-attack. Leicester City’s Premier League triumph, combined with another successful Atletico Madrid campaign – despite finishing the season trophy-less – suggests teams may attempt to replicate their approach considering the tournament favourites’ insistence on possession dominance.

More importantly, despite the inevitable likelihood of several limited sides reverting to deep defensive blocks and solely attacking on the counter-attack, realistically, the ploy is fairly logical. Defensive solidity is essential in a knockout competition, and considering avoiding heavy defeats should guarantee progression beyond the group stage, tight games could surface throughout the tournament.

This reactive approach, however, should favour several tournament underdogs if executed properly – the best teams in the world possess various attacking options, and would clearly prefer to operate in space opposed to probing until they find an opening. Likewise, the lack of a genuine great side or tournament favourite equally increases the tournament’s overall interest. The quality is fairly scarce, but ahead of the opening match, it’s difficult to fully justify a clear favourite.

Spain, Germany and France dominate the conversation, but the European giants all possess positional deficiencies that inhibit the belief that they’re superior to their rivals.

Reigning world champions Germany and two-time defending Euro holders Spain can no longer turn to reliable goal-scoring centre-forwards and may both encounter issues providing penetration in the final third. Mario Gomez, Alvaro Morata and Aritz Aduriz will be responsible for the goals despite the possible stylistic inadequacies, whereas Mario Gotze and Cesc Fabregas have featured as significant false-nine options in past tournaments – the former is arguably better in midfield, whereas the latter’s role requires out-of-form wide players David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez to offer penetration.

The reigning world and European champions pose different tactical dilemmas ahead of their opening group games, though. Often accused of over-possessing the ball, Spain have additional direct options in Lucas Vasquez and Nolito to offer variety to their patient possession-based football. Germany, on the other hand, have the option of utilizing Gomez as a legitimate target-man, but will be without key players in Ilkay Gundogan, Anthony Rudiger, and Marco Reus.

Meanwhile, hosts, France aim to hoist their first major tournament in 16 years, and the talent Didier Deschamps’ possesses suggests Les Bleus may never receive a better opportunity to end the drought. The hosts have several direct options like Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba that can play off Olivier Giroud’s impressive linkup play, but defensive absentees Raphael Varane, Mamadou Sakho, and Jeremy Mathieu leaves the French with very few options in defence. It’s also difficult to overlook that France’s recent tournament exits have come against Spain and Germany, and Deschamps’ men still look devoid of the experience to overcome their rivals in a head-to-head showdown.

Elsewhere, the same issues arise amongst the remaining notable contenders.

Italy possess the best defence and goalkeeper in the tournament but offer no creativity in midfield due to injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, while their attacking options are extremely underwhelming. Antonio Conte has been heavily criticized for his selection prior to the tournament, but from an optimistic perspective, the Italian manager’s first two seasons at Juventus were fairly similar, with various players from midfield players scoring goals. Conte’s attention to detail, and overall cohesion in attacking moves will define an Italian side that appears sturdy at the back.

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Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player at Euro 2016, and a free role upfront ensures Portugal won’t be overloaded down the left. Fernando Santos midfield is one of the best in the tournament, and though they also lack major tournament experience, they’re capable of outmuscling and dominating most sides in central areas. The movement of the Portuguese attackers will be interesting, but the defensive options at Santos’ disposal places significant responsibility on the midfield to ensure their shape isn’t disjointed – Ronaldo’s role will always be the difference-maker but Santos must find balance quickly.

Oddly, it’s difficult to identify better striker options in this year’s tournament than the four men Roy Hodgson possesses in Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford. However, with England straying away from a flat 4-4-2, and the rapid growth in youthful, highly-technical players amongst the ranks, England currently suffers from the same issue that’s plagued them for years – striking the right balance and fielding his strongest XI. Needless to say, while many other teams would welcome England’s striking issues, like Portugal, their back-four is undoubtedly the clear weakness.

While this was expected to be the tournament Belgium evolved into world beaters, the same questions are being raised regarding their role amongst Europe’s elite. It still feels like Belgium’s success rests on the form of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne as the front line hasn’t substantially improved, whereas Marc Wilmots is still without natural full-backs. While Belgium’s individual talent still remains – they can count on a rejuvenated Moussa Dembele, possibly the best Premier League’s best centre-back partnership in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and two top-class attacking midfielders in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard – the pressure is now on Wilmots to put the pieces together to launch a deep tournament run.

The tournament is still filled with stars like Gareth Bale, Robert Lewandowski, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic that will be aiming to overcome a lack of genuine support to make a statement, whereas Croatia’s impressive midfield – that still lacks a holding midfielder – is unlikely to make up for a tireless, yet often frustrated Mario Mandzukic and an unconvincing back-line. With more room for error, and no real powerhouses – this is possibly the antithesis of this year’s Champions League – it really leaves the tournament up for grabs.

Denmark (1992) and Greece’s (2004) triumphs – in much difficult circumstances – offers every team a sense optimism, and with the likes of Iceland, Turkey, Austria and Slovakia also involved, this is possibly the most open tournament in recent memory. It certainly may be a truly dull spectacle from a football standpoint, but the possibility of several winners guarantees a high-level of excitement.

So many questions remain unanswered.

So many teams look far from the finished product.

And with the international game drastically suffering with every passing tournament, the level of unpredictability presents a breath of fresh air that many will appreciate.

EURO 2016 is unlikely to be remembered as the best tournament of our lifetime, but the inaugural 24-team format has potential to usher in a new era courtesy of several shock results.

Perhaps now is the time where the impossible becomes possible.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Napoli 1-0 Roma

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Napoli narrowed the gap with Roma to three points as Jose Callejon’s second half header handed Rudi Garcia’s men their second loss of the season.

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Rafa Benitez was pleased to welcome back Gonzalo Higuain and Raul Albiol to his starting XI, while Blerim Dzemaili slotted in midfield alongside Gokhan Inler.

Rudi Garcia was forced into making a few alterations as he was without the injured Francesco Totti, while Daniele De Rossi is currently serving a three-match suspension. Miralem Pjanic, Michel Bastos and Alessandro Florenzi formed an attacking trio behind Gervinho, while Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan retained their roles in midfield.

This was a tight affair in which Roma’s wastefulness in the final third prevented Garcia’s side from keeping pace with Juventus.

Shape

With both sides adopting identical formations, a significant feat in the match was based on which side defended better without the ball. Neither side opted to press high up the pitch, as they focused on limiting space in midfield. Nainggolan and Pjanic pressed Napoli’s double-pivot, while substitute Rodrigo Taddei tracked Marek Hamsik’s movement.

Likewise, Napoli’s front two occasionally pressed Roma’s centre backs, as they aimed to contain Roma’s threat in midfield. Unfortunately, Pjanic’s movement and Taddei’s energy exposed Napoli’s midfield. However, both sides’ persistence on negating the opposition’s full-backs was pivotal.

The two sides possess attacking full-backs that provide width, but it was evident that both sets of wingers were instructed to prevent the opposing full-backs from pushing forward. With that being said, this meant that central areas were congested, thus explaining why both sides struggled to create chances when they sustained possession.

Roma on the break

Garcia’s team selection indicated Roma’s approach – the away side was aiming to play on the counter with three runners in their attack. Garcia’s tactics were logical, as Gervinho – arguably the best player in the match – consistently posed a threat on the break.

In the opening 20 minutes, Gervinho had already dragged a shot wide of the net, and ignited a break in which Taddei’s heavy touched ruined a legitimate goal-scoring opportunity. Afterwards, the Ivorian’s pace troubled Benitez’s men. Gervinho ran at Cristian Maggio and played a key pass to Florenzi – who should’ve shot – but the Italian winger conceded possession with a poor pass. Minutes later, Gervinho ran behind the Napoli defence and held up the ball, before teeing up Bastos – but Pepe Reina pushed away his long-distance effort.

Roma’s pace in attack constantly exposed Benitez’s back line but their decision-making in Napoli’s third was putrid, and a final ball eluded the away side.

Midfield battle

Seeing as both sides were unable to utilize their full-backs, the battle in central areas was significant. Strootman was forced to leave the match in the 12th minute due to injury, thus forcing Garcia to introduce Taddei alongside Nainggolan. Although Nainggolan struggled to impose his authority, Taddei and Pjanic outshone Dzemaili and Inler in midfield.

In the opening half, Taddei drifted into pockets of space to receive the ball, while playing key passes in midfield, and linking play in wide areas. Ultimately, the substitute was Roma’s most proactive player in midfield, thus signifying Napoli’s poor first half display.

Despite not being at his best, Pjanic influenced Roma’s attack in the second half. The Bosnian midfielder dropped into deeper positions, and provided the guile Roma lacked in the first half. It was Pjanic that played an exceptional ball into Gervinho that should’ve given the away side the lead, and although he was unable to replicate a pass of that quality, the Bosnian was Garcia’s spark in midfield.

Pjanic nearly crafted Roma’s opener when he slid a delicate ball into Bastos, but Florenzi couldn’t convert the Brazilian’s cutback pass. The Bosnian drifted into nifty positions to receive the ball, and was Roma’s link between midfield and attack – Pjanic did all he could.

Napoli, on the other hand, struggled to dictate the midfield. Despite Napoli looking dangerous when Hamsik received the ball in pockets of space in Roma’s third, the Slovakian midfielder was ineffective. Roma dominated central areas and created the better chances on the counter, but Napoli coped with their threat in midfield.

Second half

Prior to Callejon’s winner, both managers turned to their bench in search of a spark. Henrique and Lorenzo Insigne were introduced in the second half, and while the former’s inclusion didn’t affect the match, the latter offered Napoli mobility and pace behind Higuain.

One can argue that Napoli’s attacking three is superior without Hamsik, and Insigne’s arrival created more space for the likes of Callejon and Mertens to dominate. Callejon had already missed two great opportunities to hand Napoli the lead, while Mertens gift-wrapped a chance for Higuain, but the Argentine skied his shot over the bar.

Garcia, on the other hand, called upon Adem Ljajic for the unimpressive Florenzi. Ljajic’s persistence to locate pockets of space, and play quick intricate passes around the final third, while posing a goal-scoring threat led to the decision. Florenzi epitomized Roma’s wastefulness in front of goal, as his tame effort from an excellent Maicon pass, along with his inability to play a final ball around the edge of the box summed up his night.

Napoli’s winner came in the final 15 minutes of the second half as the shackled Faouzi Ghoulam finally busted into an advanced position – after receiving a pass from Mertens – and delivered a fantastic cross towards the back post towards Callejon, and the Spaniard nodded the ball past Morgan De Sanctis.

The second half was split with both sides creating legitimate goal-scoring opportunities, but Napoli’s attacking three improved in the latter stages, and Benitez’s side pounced when their full backs advanced further up the pitch.

Conclusion

Despite producing the better football for larger portions of the match, Roma failed to solve Pepe Reina, as they drop maximum points for the second time this season. Garcia’s approach was logical, but his men lacked conviction in the final third, and a top-class striker that can score goals when Totti is unavailable.

“We decided to wait for Napoli and go on the counter with Gervinho, Florenzi and Bastos. We had many scoring opportunities and only missed that little bit of luck to convert them,” Garcia said.

“Mattia came back from international duty with a slight injury and couldn’t play 90 minutes, but the truth is I didn’t want to leave too much space to the opposition full-backs, as Maggio and Ghoulam could do damage. That’s why I chose some energy on the flanks.”

The victory sees Napoli close within touching distance of Roma for second place – while maintaining an imperious record at the Sao Paolo – but it also ends the title race in Italy, as Juventus now hold a 14 point lead at the top.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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AC Milan 0-2 Juventus

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Despite being the inferior side for large portions of the match, Juventus’ clinical finishing proved decisive in their road victory at the San Siro.

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Clarence Seedorf was forced to make a few changes to his starting XI that defeated Sampdoria last week. The Rossoneri were without the suspended Sulley Muntari and the injured Mario Balotelli, so Nigel de Jong and Andrea Poli slotted into midfield. Also, Christian Abbiati, Urby Emanuelson and Daniele Bonera featured in Seedorf’s back line.

Antonio Conte was without the suspended Arturo Vidal, while Giorgio Chiellini was sidelined due to injury. Claudio Marchisio and Martin Caceres slotted into Juventus’ rather predictable XI.

Great teams find ways to win even when they’re not playing particularly well, and ruthless finishing enabled Juventus to replicate this feat.

Milan’s approach without the ball

One of the peculiar feats regarding this year’s Milan side has been their tendency to perform against the top-sides, yet underachieve against lesser opposition. Despite the vast gap between both sides in the table, Milan was expected to raise their game at the San Siro, and their approach without the ball was pivotal towards their dominance for lengthy periods.

Seedorf instructed his men to press Juventus’ back line when they played out of the back. Giampaolo Pazzini, Kaka and Adel Taarabt pressed Juve’s back three, while Poli man-marked Andrea Pirlo. With Milan’s fullbacks quickly closing down Juve’s wingbacks, Conte’s men were unable to build attacks from midfield, and Milan were able to dominate possession.

Milan negated Juve’s midfield by stifling Pirlo, and ensuring that distribution from the back was limited – without Vidal’s energy in midfield, Juve struggled to compete in central areas.

Midfield battle

The biggest surprise was Juve’s poor display in midfield. The aforementioned absence of Vidal was clearly a massive loss, and with Pirlo shackled, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba were expected to carry the weight. Pogba, however, was languid in midfield, thus producing arguably his worst performance this season, whereas Marchisio’s runs from midfield were promising – it was vital in the build up – but his overall impact was minimal.

In stark contrast, Milan physically imposed their authority in midfield. De Jong was fielded higher up the pitch, aiding Milan in retaining possession through pressing in Juventus’ third, whereas Riccardo Montolivo produced an extraordinary performance. He recovered the most balls in midfield (12), while his five interceptions and four tackles in midfield typified his overall impact.

Milan attacks

With Seedorf fielding Poli as his no.10, Milan’s creativity came from wide outlets. The movement from Milan’s wide men created space for Milan’s fullbacks to push into advanced positions, despite early pressure from Juve’s shuttlers. Ultimately, there were three elements to Milan attack.

  • Fullbacks push forward: Emanuelson and Ignazio Abate’s advanced positions posed a threat for a short period. Buffon comfortably saved Emanuelson’s shot from outside the box, and later on, Taarabt overloaded the right flank with Abate, but the Juventus goalkeeper easily coped with his cross. Emanuelson continued to push forward throughout the half, and his ball into the box evaded Pazzini, and fell to Poli, but the Milan striker skied his shot over the net.
  • Direct balls into Pazzini: Over the course of the first half, Juventus’ back three failed to cope with Pazzini’s movement. In the 8th min, Pazzini nodded down a long ball to Kaka, but his shot flashed wide of the net. Minutes later, Taarabt’s ball from the right flank were flicked on by Kaka towards Pazzini, but his header flew over the net. Towards the end of the half, the Italian did well to hold up the ball and turn on Andrea Barzagli, but Buffon comfortably held his tame effort.
  • Kaka direct runs: Pazzini was behind Kaka’s first legitimate goal-scoring opportunity, as he beat Leonardo Bonucci to a loose ball and drove towards goal, thus leading to Kaka forcing Buffon to make a key toe save, and his rebound was cleared off the line by Bonucci. The Brazilian tormented Juventus later in the half, when he drifted infield from the left flank, but his curling effort was pushed aside by Buffon, and Poli blasted the rebound over the net. Lastly, his direct running from the left created space for teammates as well, as he squared a pass to Montolivo, whose effort was also saved by Buffon.

Milan created an abundance of chances to take the lead, but a terrific showing from Buffon, along with woeful finishing prevented Seedorf’s men from taking the lead.

Juventus goals

While Milan struggled scoring goals, Juventus’ ruthless finishing signified the difference between both sides. Fernando Llorente’s opener stemmed from a simple long-ball that Adil Rami couldn’t clear, in which it fell into space that Marchisio ran into. The Italian located Tevez in the box, while Stephane Lichtsteiner’s forward run enabled him to latch onto the Argentine’s clever forward pass, and complete his cross for an unmarked Llorente to tap the ball into an open net.

Juventus found more space in midfield in the second half, and it was evident when Tevez received time to fire a venomous shot off the crossbar to secure three points. Tevez, in general, displayed his significance to the side – his creativity created Llorente’s opener, and his goal-scoring prowess led to his fantastic strike for Juve’s second.

In truth, he epitomizes a striker fit for Conte’s system. His willingness to press Taarabt in Milan’s third, thus creating a chance that Lichtsteiner shockingly missed, along with using his strength to easily brush aside Rami and force Abbiati to make a save illustrates what he offers Juventus. The Argentine’s remarkable goal was his 15th in 26 Serie A appearances, and it’s fair to say that not only was Tevez the best striker in the match, but he’s possibly the best in the league.

Conclusion

Usually matches between two top-sides – disregarding the Milan’s position in the table – are decided by the narrowest margins. Although, Milan produced a positive performance, their inability to beat an impressive Buffon haunted the Rossoneri.

The win puts Juventus in pole position to claim their third consecutive Scudetto, and this match indicated the significance of Llorente and Tevez’s arrival. The strike duo has formed an unparalleled partnership this season, as they combine superbly within the final third, while providing flexibility, consistent performances, and goals.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2014 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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