I never thought it would come to this – my last ratings report of Euro 2012, and I’m not writing about the final. Instead, another semi-final against that old banana skin Italy, and yet another painful defeat. I cannot speak for every Germany fan out there, but there is a sense of emptiness that may take some time to go away.
This was there for the taking, and had the team simply been allowed to play their natural game we may not be indulging in this maudlin post mortem. Instead we saw some desperate last-moment tinkering, an early goal for the opposition, and a German side that suddenly looked like rabbits caught in the headlights. Or headless chickens, lambs to the slaughter – just pick your cliché.
Italy deserved to win: on this we are all agreed I think. Even as the most biased supporter this side of Heligoland, I had no complaints about the opposition. They played fairly, they did what they had to do, and they did it well. I wish I could leave it at that, but let’s press on.
Facts and Stats
This was Germany’s thirty-first match against the Azzurri, and their eighth competitive encounter. The previous meetings had seen four draws and three wins for the Italians, and it would be a simple matter of form versus history.
The Nationalmannschaft would be aiming for their 500th international victory, and a fifth successive win in a Euro finals tournament which would have taken them level with the winning French side of 1984 (which in the old eight-team format would only have to play five games en route to winning the tournament).
The last two meetings between the teams had taken place in Dortmund: in January 2011 a friendly international had finished 1-1 with Italy grabbing a late equaliser, and prior to that had been the World Cup semi-final of 2006, where the Azzurri won the game at the end of extra time with goals from Fabio Grosso and Alessandro del Piero.
Germany’s last victory of any sort against Italy was in Zürich in June 1995, when they achieved a 2-0 result.
The Team and Tactics
Nationaltrainer Joachim Löw had started with a consistent eleven for the opening group matches and then played a more positive starting lineup against Greece, and observers were widely predicting a 4-2-3-1 formation with the combination of those players who had done their best to impress. When the team lineup was revealed however, there would be widespread consternation among the commentators on Twitter and the various Germany fan blogs.
While the defensive unit would remain the same – with defensive midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger being declared fit – up front we would see a leftfield selection that would take everyone by surprise. There would be no place for André Schürrle, who had provided energy down the left flank against the Greeks. There would be no place for the hard-working Thomas Müller, who had more than made up for his lack of form with his usual spirit, determination and enthusiasm.
More pointedly however there would be no place for both Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose, who had helped boss the game in Gdańsk. The omission of Reus in particular raised plenty of eyebrows: the young player had more than impressed in his first tournament appearance, and to not see his name on the team sheet bordered on the disturbing.
More so when we would get to see who the coach had actually picked.
Up front, Mario Gómez would start. Not really a problem one may argue, given his three goals in the opening two matches. While Klose offered variation and link-up play, Gómez would offer strength. Well that was the theory. Out on the left would be Lukas Podolski, a player who had been so disappointing to the point where many hoped they would not see him again in this tournament. Then the real leftfield sucker punch: a first tournament start for Toni Kroos.
The players picked suggested more of a 4-3-3 rather than the usual 4-2-3-1; one wondered who would slot in where, with Kroos not being the most obvious candidate out on the right. When the game began, it was clear that the players had no idea where they were supposed to be either – a situation that became even worse after Italy had taken the lead after twenty minutes.
Things actually started brightly, and Löw’s side could very easily have taken an early lead with a little more luck. A scuffed Mats Hummels effort was cleared off the line (with a little bit of arm) by Andrea Pirlo, and the opening quarter an hour saw the usually safe Gigi Buffon look more like Gigi the floppy haired buffoon.
Italy would look dangerous on the break however, and so it proved with they took the lead with a smart but not massively complicated charge down the left. With Jérôme Boateng caught slightly out of position Antonio Cassano worked his way down the wing, skinning poor Hummels and turning him inside out before sending in a cross to Italy’s bad boy Mario Balotelli, who left Holger Badstuber standing like a tailor’s dummy as he powered the ball into the German net past a helpless Manuel Neuer. Why Badstuber didn’t jump, Gerd only knows.
The Germans were suddenly all over the place, and the second Italian goal provided the perfect illustration of what was wrong with the Mannschaft’s game. After a German corner had gone astray – something that would happen all evening – the Italians broke at speed, and in a flash the man with the strange-looking mohican was in again, slamming the ball past Neuer. The Germans were quite literally gasping for air, and the half-time break couldn’t have arrived any sooner.
By the time the coach realised that his tinkering experiment had backfired and threw Reus and Klose on for the abject Podolski and the wandering Gómez, it was way too late. Working back a two-goal deficit against semi-final opposition was always going to be difficult, but against a hard-working, well-drilled and intelligent team like Italy it was going to be next to impossible. Let’s just say they tried, and for fleeting moments in the second half there were signs that had Löw started with the side everybody expected and wanted things might have turned out differently.
Try as they might, the chances wouldn’t quite drop for the Mannschaft. Reus was unable to get power on his shot follwing a lovely little run and his stinging free-kick was pushed onto the crossbar by Buffon, and while Mesut Özil was occasionally producing little bursts of magic he was unable to stamp any kind of authority on the play. The impressive Sami Khedira continued to fight manfully in spite of the increasingly desperate situation, but his defensive midfield partner Bastian Schweinsteiger was still lightyears away from his dominant best. Was he really 100% fit? Should he have even started the game? These are questions that will continue to be asked.
Cesare Prandelli’s side would miss a hatful of chances to put the game to bed, and when Germany finally got a break it was just too late to apply the pressure. Özil’s late penalty was well taken and led to a couple of mad minutes as ‘keeper Neuer threw himself forward, but the game was summed up by the final act and poor Schweinsteiger, who instead of lumping the ball up into the Italian box chose to roll it forward and provide the referee with the perfect opportunity to blow the final whistle.
There would be tears in the German dressing room after the match, but the criticism should be rightly aimed at the coach, who for all the pre-match talk couldn’t bring himself invest the appropriate level of trust in his team when they most needed it. Had he named the same attacking line-up as had started against Greece, I think most of us could have lived with a defeat, but the last-minute tinkering showed a distinct lack of faith in the system that had served the team so well for the best part of two years.
While it made perfect sense to respect the Italians, the overly negative formation was borne more out of little more than fear. The opening psychological battle had been won by the Azzurri before a ball have even been kicked, and they would never look back. In fairness to Joachim Löw, he would take responsibility for both his tactics and the result.
When watching this match again, I cannot help but be impressed by the highly professional Italians – right down to the moment when Mesut Özil went to collect the ball after scoring his injury time penalty. No attempts to grab the ball, no shenanigans. I wish them well in the final, and genuinely hope that they can beat the Spaniards.
One can say many things about the “Nutella Boys” being a softer touch than their 1980s forebears, but this cannot be said about the almost immovable object that is Manuel Neuer. Neuer hat Eier. Brave and innovative, his charging forward right at the death showed what sort of player he is. Had no chance with Balotelli’s two excellent goals, and was safe as houses when everything else came his way.
The entire back four didn’t cover themselves in glory, but Boateng was probably the best of a bad bunch. Was caught slightly out of position during the move that led to Italy’s first goal, but apart from that didn’t do much wrong. Provided a few decent crosses coming forward. Was sacrificed for Thomas Müller late in the second half as the coach threw his last tactical dice.
Hadn’t put a put wrong for the first four matches, but let himself down badly as he allowed himself to be turned inside out by Cassano which led to the first goal. However was man enough to admit his error, and one can only hope the experience will make him improve further.
Could have done a lot better to stop Balotelli having such an easy time with his first goal, and was caught short on a couple of occasions. However overall he was no better or worse than anyone else and did make a few important challenges.
With Italy concentrating their attack mainly down the their left there was little for the left-back to do, but he too would be caught napping for Italy’s second goal. Made the odd decent run forward, and could have done better when he carved out a shooting chance for himself in the second half.
The latter part of the season had taken its toll on the man touted as the Mannschaft’s midfield general, and once again he turned out a performance that could at best be described as unconvincing. Was he really fit, or should he have been replaced by Toni Kroos? It is one of those many debates that will rumble on.
The best man on the pitch in a white shirt, and not for the first time during this tournament. Khedira’s job would be made much harder as a result of the tactics, but greatest players are those who are able to stand out even when things are going badly. Worked like a Trojan, and had a decent shot on goal as well.
It was unclear what Kroos had to do, but he made a decent fist of things. He neither disappointed nor impressed, but was clearly out of his comfort zone. Clearly wasted as an aimless midfield floater, it would have made far more sense to start with Kroos alongside Khedira instead of the clearly injured and out of sorts Schweinsteiger.
Tried his best to work with this made-up formation, and had a seriously disappointing first half through no fault of his own. The arrival of Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus at the start of the seocnd half allowed Özil to do a little bit more in the seocnd half, but it was never going to be easy chasing the game. Fronted up at the death to dispatch a well-taken penalty.
What can I say about Podolski without resorting to insults? This is not the energetic player who impressed in 2006 and to a lesser extent 2008, but a useless lump of protein that spent most of his time floating aimlessly with no great intent or purpose. His performance was summed up in the closing moments of the first half when he found himself in space before dithering like a Sunday schoolboy player and pushing the ball wide. Was spared further humiliation when he was replaced by Marco Reus at the start of the second half.
Mario Gómez is a trier, and that’s about all one can say. Was completely anonymous, though it has been established and largely agreed that this is through no great fault of his own. Gómez does not do linkup play, and unless the crosses are swinging in – something that was not going to happen given the coach’s bizarre tactics – he will just sit and wait. Didn’t have a sniff of an opportunity as a result, and his best contribution would be a series of poor first touches. Replaced by Miroslav Klose at the start of the second half.
Should have started the natch, and had an immediate impact at the start of the second half. Created panic in the Italian defence early on and sent in a rasping free-kick that was well kept out by Gigi Buffon. Was less prominent as the game wore on, but overall a decent performance.
Immediately made a difference to the German attack as he allowed Mesut Özil to find more space, and made a few decent runs on and off the ball. When push comes to shove however he too didn’t have a sniff of a chance.
Introduced late on in the piece but was unable to settle down. Provided extra movement down the right flank, but had too little time to make a significant impact. Another player who could and perhaps should have started.
Neuer (3), Boateng (4), Hummels (4.5), Badstuber (4.5), Lahm (4), Schweinsteiger (5.5), Khedira (2.5), Kroos (4), Özil (3.5), Podolski (6), Gómez (5.5). Substitutes (before 75 minutes): Reus (3), Klose (4), Müller (3.5)
Neuer (3), Boateng (4.5), Hummels (5), Badstuber (5), Lahm (5), Schweinsteiger (6), Khedira (3.5), Kroos (4.5), Özil (4.5), Podolski (6), Gómez (5). Substitutes (before 70 minutes): Reus (3.5), Klose (5)
Neuer (4), Boateng (4), Hummels (5), Badstuber (5), Lahm (5), Schweinsteiger (6), Khedira (4), Kroos (5), Özil (5), Podolski (6), Gómez (6). Substitutes (before 75 minutes): Reus (3), Klose (4), Müller (4)
Overall, not too much disagreement here, but then there hardly ever is when judging what has overall been a poor performance. Sami Khedira gets the top marks, and the judgement of Lukas Podolski is pretty unanimous. Comparing my scores to those dished out by Bild I think I might have been a little easy on the entire back four.
So there we have it. The end of another tournament, and another glorious German failure. It’s something we are starting to get used to now.