Italy produced a heroic performance to defeat Germany for a place in the Euro 2012 Final. Rob Paton reflects on what made the difference.
Italy produced a remarkable 90 minutes in Warsaw’s National Stadium this Thursday to upset the odds and deservedly take a place in Sunday’s tournament Final with defending champions Spain.
Facing this Germany side had been somewhat suffocating for opponents in the past two years and going into the game, Italy knew they had a task to defeat them. From oppressive closing of space to the mixture of direct, fast passing and patient, intricate play, this particular Mannschaft had breezed through Euro 2012 qualifying, the group stages and quarter-final, allowing opponents little space on the pitch and even less time in which to think. It had been oppressive nature mixed with a technical flair that going into this semi-final had won them many plaudits, seen them break the world record for consecutive competitive wins and had them as outright favourites to progress to the Final. Italy, it seemed, had been overlooked and, as their own admittance that previous history counted for little, were perhaps anticipating an uphill task.
Subsequently, for Bild’s headline earlier in the week ‘Nothing can stop us now’ and Mesut Ozil’s rather disrespectful declaration that the camp was already thinking of the Final, the opening 20 minutes or so at the National Stadium proved to be going to script as Italy struggled to gain a foothold in play.
Germany’s midfield and attack was flexible, providing limited reference points for Azzurro shirts to track and notably they were using the entire width of the pitch and both sides of it from which to probe and press at the Italians. At the same time, this same selection of Germans then narrowed their shape when out of possession - Andrea Pirlo and Leonardo Bonucci’s failed early passes symptomatic of very little space afforded to Prandelli’s side. It was as it had been for previous opponents to Germany - suffocating - and as un-German as Low’s side had been labelled, their control was looking again ominously characteristic of German nature in football.
Yet, true to Prandelli’s pre-match promise, Italy’s own ambitions to play to their style and preference remained in place and, with some prompting from the Coach himself from the sidelines, it was perhaps why they eventually were able to play their way back into the first half and open the scoring. Germany may have had a hand around Italy’s neck, but with Prandelli’s cajoling of his players to push forward as normal, the Azzurri’s lack of oxygen wasn’t followed by a lack of thought.
And as much as anything, for Germany’s recent good work in convincing opponents, pundits and even themselves this week that their ability as a unit was unmatchable, Prandelli will have had in the back of his mind the long-running debate pre-tournament over the quality of their centre-backs. From Mats Hummels being pulled out of position by Antonio Cassano’s clever turn to Holger Badstuber being caught ball-watching to miss Mario Balotelli’s presence, Prandelli and Italy’s persistence to attack and to test this theory proved to be the breakthrough, and the turning point in the contest.
All of a sudden, from having the ascendancy and almost forcing the opener through sheer Azzzuro nerves, the Germans, who were the youngest squad at the tournament, for the first time in the tournament began to look like the youngest squad. Claudio Marchisio should have done better from a half-chance almost immediately after Balotelli’s opening goal, whilst the rhythm and importantly the movement to the Germans’ play dissipated in an uncharacteristic state of panic. Perhaps as the correct reason for the ‘un-German’ tag, this drop in concentration was highlighted not only by the mis-controlled passes between each other, but crucially also the failure to reorganise in time for Riccardo Montolivo’s simple but well-executed lofted pass to set Balotelli away for goal number two. It manifested further in the second half, as an increasingly desperate Germany pushed forward with little success and still struggled to prevent Italy passing back through them time and again.
Important was Italy’s dedication to this passing play. They could not sit back and defend as had been tradition in past meetings between the two nations, theirs was not a defence that could guarantee a clean sheet to such an opponent. So, whilst their attitude as a collective unit ultimately proved to the difference, it was not through a manifestation of catenaccio, but rather through workrate, both without the ball to win it back and with it to move their opponents around.
Italy, in maintaining this dedication to a plan A style of play that had served them well up to this point, were obstinately tenacious throughout the 90. A characteristic of Prandelli’s work with the group, theirs has been a tenacity that during a difficult pre-tournament has united and focused the players to take them to this semi-final. It is a tenacity that left tournament top-scorers Germany looking short of ideas in attack, regularly troubled at the other end and not like the team that had had two days of extra preparation. It is also a tenacity that can give fans hope heading into Sunday’s final, that anything is possible. Most importantly, it is a tenacity that whilst displayed by an Azzurri playing most un-Italian football, is still very Italian in style and nature.