Whether or not one would agree on Germany being the best side of the tournament so far or not, there is little doubt to whether they have been one of the most entertaining sides to watch so far or not. It is not only the mixture of experience, young-talent and never-ending passion that makes them a team to watch out for but it is also the group that they had been drawn into, which has made things all the more curious for the fans.
With the reigning World Champions France and the reigning European Champions Portugal as the opening fixtures of the tournament, Germany have had quite a lot of thinking to do in terms of finding the most suited, effective and balanced system with the names they have in hand. One may have felt after their hard-fought 1–0 loss to France that coach Joachim Loew may not get the best farewell possible as Portugal could have also been a tricky matchup their knack of grinding out results. However, die Mannschaft turned cranked it up a notch against the defending Champions and looked an entirely different beast in the final-third.
So what was the difference for Germany in possession, what changed over the two games and what can we expect from Germany’s last fixture? Let’s take a look!
STRUGGLE AGAINST FRANCE
France’s Defensive Shape for most parts of the game was a traditional 4–3–3 with the Back-Four & Mid-Three forming compact lines in front of the penalty area and the front-three providing passive pressure on Germany’s Centre-Backs. France were careful about not letting Germany’s midfield slice through them in the central areas and hence the World Champions’ major objective was not to allow Germany’s front-three to drop into space to receive the ball and turn towards goal.
With the likes of Hummels and Ginter as part of Germany’s back-three, there were attempts by the centre-backs to find Havertz, Muller or Gnabry who would drop into space in front of French’s midfield but before they could receive, control and ready to progress the ball, the trio of Pogba-Kante-Rabiot’s pressure was on them.
However, Germany were allowed to go wide via their wing-backs who could receive the ball mostly in the shaded-area given in the above image. Space was allowed on either side of the mid-three and in front of the French full-backs. However, the problem was France’s quick close-down once the ball reached Kimmich or Gosens along the touchline.
When Germany tried using their wing-backs Kimmich & Gosens, France closed-down the space as quickly as possible with the ball-side full-back. winger, central-midfielder with support from Kante available as well. This not only ensured that the wing-back couldn’t progress forward but also could not connect with the nearby passing options as they were mostly shadow-covered by French’s pressing-trio.
After a series of failed-attempts, Germany were forcing play through the central-areas by trying to connect with their front-three between the lines. However, there was hardly any space between France’s midfield-trio and back-four. While Germany were left with no solid plan to breach the French defence, the lack of runs in-behind didn’t help their case either.
As you can see in the image above, there was very little space between France’s defence & midfield with their front-three also trying to block passing lanes into Kroos & Gundogan. Germany were forced to playing into the shaded-area with the hope that Kimmich & Gosens could receive with lesser-pressure and make combination-play in the wide areas with the front-three. But the quick closing-down of the wide areas also made it challenging for Germany, forcing them to go central
A simple stat which narrates the story of how Germans failed in penetrating the French defence through the middle:
i) 9 tackles, 11 interceptions & 16 clearances between French CBs & the midfield-trio
ii) 0 dribbles completed by the entire German attack & midfield combined
REDEMPTION AGAINST PORTUGAL
It looked like die Mannschaft had learnt their lessons, did their homework and were out on the pitch against Portugal to prove a point. On the other hand, Portugal from the get-go were not in the game owing to their shape off-the-ball which made things a tad bit easier for Germans to go all-out in the final-third.
As you can see in the image above, the major problem with Portugal was that they got a combination of factors absolutely wrong to create a perfect mix of how-not-to-defend.
To name a few:
i) Height & Width of back-four
ii) The space they occupied and the space they didn’t
iii) The pressing intensity of the attackers — Ronaldo, Jota & Bernardo Silva
Portugal’s Defensive Structure was a flat 4–5–1 with Ronaldo as the lone forward and all the others falling back into forming a compact, narrow structure to not let Germany progress through the middle. So what exactly was wrong with the height, width, space coverage and pressing by Portugal?
As you can see in the image above, the back-four is positioned extremely narrow, high up-field with enough space to attack in-behind them. While this has proven an effective tactic when executed right, Portugal were far from it. The whole point of a narrow and a high-back four will carry a meaning only when there is pressure by the attackers on the opponent’s ball-progressors.
The simplest reason is, when your defensive structure is high & narrow, then there is space for the opponent to run in-behind. Hence if the opponent’s ball-progressor is given ample time and space on the ball to pick out the right passes, then it is pretty much a matter of time before the defence is breached. To prevent this from happening, the attackers need to press and least, close down space/time on the ball. There was virtually no pressing from the likes of any of Portuguese attackers. While Ronaldo’s role was pretty much waiting for the counter-attack, Jota & Bernardo Silva’s roles off-the-ball had no clarity. Either they weren’t given enough clarity or their execution was abysmal.
With Portugal’s back-four maintaining such less width, it is important to have some protection on the flanks as Germany positioned their wing-backs Kimmich & Gosens I the same line as their front-three. So it was almost as though Germany were playing with 5-man forward line in possession (3–2–5 shape). Now that makes it very simple for Jota & B.Silva as they either close down the ball-progressor (Ginter/Rudiger) or they stay close to the wing-backs (Kimmich/Gosens) to cut off the passing-lane. But what had actually happened? NEITHER!
The above image is a snap from the game just seconds before Germany’s 2nd goal. As you can see, Rudiger charges with the ball with no pressure on him. Here, B. Silva is supposed to make a decision quickly between closing down Rudiger & Gosens. The lack of decisiveness leaves him in a place which neither is close enough to Gosens cut the passing-lane nor close enough to Rudiger to go for a tackle. This allows Rudiger to find Gosens, who combines with Muller and in the next few seconds, the ball is behind the net.
Comparing France & Portugal’s handling of the exact-same situation
In the above clip:
i) Pogba holds his position alongside the back-four without charging at Rudiger and hence is able to close down Gosens after he receives the ball
ii) France’s back-four also retreat quickly to the edge of the penalty area to avoid a pass in-behind the defence
In the same situation, Portugal collectively make a blunder:
i) B.Silva steps out of position to close down Rudiger, which is too late
ii) Portugal’s back-four retreats way too late, after the pass has been released
iii) Back-Four not staggered correctly in terms of width, way too narrow which leaves far-post completely empty with Kimmich awaiting patiently
The image above capturing the same shot as we saw above from a different angle. With this height and width of back-four being maintained, there needs to be either pressure on the ball-progressor or protection on the flanks to cut out simple passes. Personally, I feel this is about adjusting the defensive structure as a whole. The extreme narrowness of both the back-four and mid-three shifted the entire onus of defending wide areas on the attackers. In case of France, you can see how the width of back-four and mid-three were balanced to the extent that there weren’t acres of space in-behind or on the flanks. It is quite possible that it is the fear of being played through the middle which causes this over-narrowness we are talking about.
Another Example of France’s Defending in the Wide-Areas
In this game, Germany regularly blitzed the flanks with overloads of to pull Portugal towards ball-side and switch play to the other. There was a stark difference in the way Gosens’ role had transformed from the game against France to this game
i) You can clearly see the difference as Gosens had just 2 touches in the penalty area against France while he had about 7 touches in the box against Portugal
ii) It is also visible how he had much fewer touches in his own-half against Portugal as compared to the game against France. This was mainly due to the high-positioning
Hungary have easily been among the most organized, disciplined and hard-working teams without the ball in this EURO so far and hence, it is not going to be a cakewalk for the Germans in anyway. Coach Marco Rossi has blended his classic Italian-flavoured 5–3–2 shape off-the-ball which almost leaves no space in the final-third for the opposition to exploit.
As you can see in the image above, the Hungary back-line comprises of three centre-backs with two wing-backs forming the back-five. Ahead of them, there is a midfield-trio which has arguably been the highlight of this team as they work like clockwork, shifting from one flank to the other across the entire width of the pitch. Without the midfield-trio of András Schäfer, Ádám Nagy & László Kleinheisler, the system would pretty much break down eventually as the three cover an insane amount of ground to maintain solidity.
In the first two games of Hungary, we saw that their approach was pretty clear: Sit back, stay disciplined, deny space, win the ball back and hit the opposition on the counter. Having seen the firepower of Germany against Portugal, it wouldn’t be of surprise for Hungary to stick to the same formula. It has pretty much worked wonders for them despite the record stating a
3–0 loss against Portugal, the determination to not give up was evident till the penalty was awarded for Portugal.
In the image above, you can see the clear 5–3–2 shape that we were talking about. The objective is simple to absorb pressure, cover the spaces, refuse to be pulled out of position and give the opponent no space to penetrate into the final-third. As simple as it sounds, it is probably a mighty difficult task for a team like Hungary to keep defending Champions Portugal at bay for 84 minutes and World Champions France for 66 minutes. Especially given the massive difference in quality on an individual player-to-player basis, it is definitely the planning, discipline, determination and hard-work which has made Hungary a tough side to beat.
A sample showcasing how the team’s Defensive-Structure functions
To show you an example of the Hungary’s structural balance and how they close-down spaces across the width of the pitch, here is an animation of the team’s movements.
i) As you can see, the first unmarked passing option available for the centre-back in possession is the near-side full-back
ii) The near-side central-midfielder goes to close down the full-back receiving the ball, with the entire midfield-trio shifting ball-side
iii) The near-side striker also falls back to provide support
iv) Incase the opponent decides to go back and change flanks, then it may be difficult for the midfield-trio to shift across to the other end of the pitch
v) Farside wing-back charges up-field to close down opponent with the rest of the defence sliding across to become a 4–4–2
Possible Setup to unlock Hungary: A 3–1–4–2 or 3–3–4
First of all, it is important for us to understand where the space is before we get into the shape, formation and other specific factors. The only possible challenge for Hungary in their own-half has been dealing with width in the middle-third. Let’s find out by looking at their shape and analyse why the shape proposes could work wonders for die Mannschaft.
Goretzka as the Lone-Pivot
A single-pivot would be better off than the 3–4–2–1 that Germany have fielded is because Hungary play with two men up-front. When Germany field a double-pivot it would be an easy reference point for them to shadow-cover and press the centre-backs in possession. With a single-pivot in Goretzka, Germany can break the first-line of Hungary with ease as a 3–1 shape will only require the wide centre-backs to increase the gap between the two-strikers with their passing and when there is sufficient gap, Goretzka can receive and break the first-line.
Kroos-Kimmich on the Half-Spaces in the Middle-Third
As mentioned earlier, the mid-trio are responsible for covering the entire width of the pitch as they don’t play with natural wingers. Yes, they do get help from the farside wing-back when there is a switch of flanks. However, it is possible to pin the wing-backs along the defence with the right positioning of players and giving the best-passers space and time on the ball. So in my humble opinion, the space to look for is on either side of midfield and deploying Germany’s best passers in that space directly. When we speak of the best passers in Germany, the first two names are Toni Kroos and Joshua Kimmich by default. These have been two players for whom the opponent doesn’t want to give time or space on the ball as when they pick their teammates’ runs, it is going to connect 9/10 times. The problem for Hungary here could be that, their midfield-trio will have to keep shuttling right and left in order to ensure both don’t get any time or space on the ball. While it is a possibility, it is an uphill task to keep doing the same consistently when the opponent has the ball 65–70% of the time.
Diagonal Runs from the Wide-Attackers may be of utmost importance
When playing against a back-five which is as drilled as Marco Rossi’s Hungary, it is realistic to accept that there is going to be very less space just outside the penalty-area which is where any attacking team would love to have the ball in. It is also not going to be possible for Germany to use Kimmich-Gosens to the maximum potential in the way they did against Portugal as in that scenario, it was a back-four which was extremely narrow and high, giving space to attack the flanks. In this case, there is going to be a five-man backline which will be deep across the width of the pitch in and around the penalty area. So there wouldn’t be much space to make straight runs in-behind. However, the alternate that can be considered is to make diagonal run-ins from outside to inside through the five-man backline. It will be all the more better if the in-to-out runs are doable from both flanks. Hence, the shape proposed above (3–3–4/ 3–1–4–2) shall allow Germany to do the same with Gnabry-Gosens on one side and Sane-Havertz on the other side.
As shown in the animation earlier, a major reason why this can be done is the positioning of Kroos-Kimmich on the wide half-spaces in the middle-third. With the kind of passing-range the German-duo have, it would be deadly to have them play-in diagonal balls from the half-spaces into the box with the likes of Sane-Havertz or Gnabry-Gosens running in to meet them.
i) 3v2 Advantage with the three centre-backs against Hungary’s two-strikers
ii) Single-Pivot of Goretzka to either keep the strikers narrow, allowing space for wide centre-backs to push forward and attack or receive between the lines and progress play
iii) Kroos-Kimmich on the outside of Hungary’s midfield-trio, going wider to receive passers from the centre-backs and pulling the midfield along with them
iv) Quick switch of flanks to attack the farside where numerical superiority is bound to be there and find space+time on the ball
v) Diagonal passes from Kroos-Kimmich from the half-spaces into the box to be met by Diagonal runs-in from the likes of Gnabry-Gosens or Sane-Havertz
vi) Gnabry & Sane to be kept in opposite flanks to have 1v1 expertise on both flanks, which can also be used as an option in the wide areas to beat defenders and enter the penalty-area