The pass masters
There was a telling moment just eight minutes into the Germany vs. Italy semifinal that not only indicated which way the match was going, but effectively summed up the entire tournament. As Daniele De Rossi set himself to receive the ball about 30 yards from the German goal, he suddenly had Bastian Schweinsteiger bearing down on him like an express train. The former was relaxed; the latter in a rush. It told.
De Rossi simply backheeled the ball to simultaneously take Schweinsteiger completely out of the game and set up Andrea Pirlo. There was the reason Germany were eliminated. There was the reason Spain and Italy are in the final. The latter two had control; Germany lacked it.
Control is the element that has defined and decided Euro 2012. Ultimately, Germany went out for similar reasons to England, Greece, Czech Republic, Ireland and France.
Whereas those sides didn’t have the necessary composure or self-assurance in defense to actually play a tight game at that level prior to being eliminated, the Germans did away with dependability in pursuit of dynamism. They went too far. Germany, for example, could have done with the composure of Italy and Spain.
It is a fact that should completely reframe the debate about Spain’s supposedly "boring" style. With the accumulated fatigue of the past four years having brought it right to the brink, La Roja has exerted just enough control of games to push it right to the end.
There, in the final, it’s no coincidence that they face the team that has most consciously adopted their poised possession game. On Sunday, Kiev will host a clash between the two finest passing teams in the tournament. The big question, though, is who will maintain the greater control.
In the opening group game, Italy effectively ceded possession to Spain and played a counterattacking game out of acceptance of the fact that the world champion is the superior technical side.
Since then, though, the dynamics have shifted sufficiently to bridge the gap. Italy has grown in confidence and momentum while Spain has declined in fitness and sharpness; the difference between the sides is typified by the contrasting tournaments of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi.
On the eve of the semifinal, Italy manager Cesare Prandelli said it would show a “lack of maturity” for his team to suddenly abandon its approach. Against the masters of that style, we’re going to see how mature Italy really is. Who can take control of the final and, thereby, the trophy?
That Italy-Germany semifinal also summed up another key issue of the final, but in a somewhat ironic way. His erratic career aside, Mario Balotelli’s match-winning performance was remarkable precisely because it was so rare in this tournament: an actual forward proved the difference.
Look across the current top scorer standings: as it stands, there are 15 players on either two or three goals.
For one, that means that unless Balotelli, Fernando Torres or Cesc Fabregas steps up, the tournament is likely to see its lowest-scoring Golden Boot winner since the Euros expanded to 16 teams. Secondly, there’s the fact that the goals came in single games for most players. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, got two of his three against the Netherlands while Mario Mandzukic got both of his against Ireland.
More than anything, the numbers illustrate that this hasn't been a summer for strikers. It has been dominated by midfielders, with Pirlo and Spain again the best examples of this trend.
Vicente del Bosque’s side, of course, only plays this contentious 4-6-0 formation as a response to the increasingly defensive approaches of its opponents – most notably, the novel 3-5-2 Italy successfully implemented in the opening game.
The idea, in theory, is that Spain can open up new angles because the marking defenders won’t be so familiar with the runs or positions. That adds another layer of intrigue to the final. Will Del Bosque take the risk of attempting the same formation against Italy as he notoriously did in the opening game? Will Italy even line up so defensively? Would that necessitate a response from Spain?
And the biggest question of all: will any of that actually create the space for a pacey, more direct forward – such as Balotelli or Torres – to settle the tournament all on his own? After everything that’s happened, that would be ironic... but also oddly probable.
History or hysteria
Jogi Loew was emphatic when he said “the past... has no effect on our players.”
The German manager was probably right. Before any match, too much is made of previous games between players who retired years before. Indeed, those results probably have as much relevance as matches that take place between teams from thousands of miles away.
On this night, though, the details went against Loew. His German team still hasn’t beaten Italy in a tournament match. And that very fact creates another set of historic conditions for this final: Spain has never beaten Italy in a tournament match without need for penalties, either.
Arguably even more important, as we all know, is that no side has ever won three major tournaments in a row. Then there’s the potential coup de grace: Italy has tended to win tournaments immediately preceded by a scandal.
But, if Loew is correct and such previous fixtures simply don’t condition current players, there is at least a question about whether all of the talk has a subconscious effect.
If Spain, for example, is within minutes of the most momentous victory in international soccer history, will this suddenly dawn on them and cause them to retreat or mistakenly refuse to take risks, despite it all having had no tangible effect for the previous 90 minutes?
Given that this Spanish side already has set and broken so many records, there is an equal argument that such supposed truisms simply don’t apply to it. What’s more, it effectively began this remarkable run by demolishing a series of other historic mental blocks.
Before June 22, 2008, Spain very rarely had gotten past the quarterfinals of a tournament, had almost never won on penalties and had never eliminated Italy from a competition.
That night, it did all three. If it can manage something similar, then Spain can complete an even more remarkable set of three.