Germany faced its nemesis Italy in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016, hoping to reverse a historic losing streak against their southern rivals. The match proved to be a tactical masterclass, as Jogi Löw and Antonio Conte fielded teams in a similar formation (variants of 3-5-2) but with widely differing tactics. As Germany dominated possession and Italy pounced on counters, the two sides battled each other to a first-half stalemate. A score of 1-1 in regulation time was reached on fluke plays that defied the coaches' tactical conceits. Finally, after 120 minutes, Germany emerged victorious from a tense nine-round penalty shootout.
A tactical duel with no clear winner
Jogi Löw surprised observers today by benching Julian Draxler and lining the national team up in a modified 3-5-2, with a back three rather than the usual four. Benedikt Höwedes played alongside Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, while Joshua Kimmich started opposite Jonas Hector at wing-back.
The gambit by Löw proved adequate to negate any attacking threat by Italy, but the reactive formation failed to generate a high number of quality shots. On Germany's offense, the absence of the creative winger Julian Draxler was particularly felt. Germany's left side was almost lifeless throughout the game - almost. Hector seemed outclassed, and Toni Kroos in particular was isolated, as the game swirled on around him.
The stalemate was the most pronounced in the first half. The only occasion when Germany managed a genuine tactical breakthrough was negated by a foul, as Schweinsteiger headed the ball into the net after pushing aside the defender marking him. Adjustments in the second half gave Germany a modest offensive edge, but it was not enough to recover after needlessly conceding a penalty.
Fluky goals win games... or not
The tactical stalemate was broken by two highly unusual plays - both by Germany. The first began when Mario Gomez collected a loose ball off a goal kick by Neuer. Dribbling improbably on the left wing, Gomez managed to retain control of the ball and outmaneuver Italy's defenders, passing inside to Hector in a strange reversal of roles. Hector had no shot, so he passed the ball on across the face of the goal to his teammates. The ball took a lucky deflection and landed at the feet of Mesut Özil who buried it in the net. This strange series of events gave Germany the lead.
Yet Germany also authored the second bizarre play that gave Italy the equalizer: in this case, Jerome Boateng inexplicably leaped into the air while raising both his arms to block a free kick. The ball collided with his upper arm, and the ref rightly called for a penalty, coolly converted by Bonucci. Boateng's decision to leap with both his arms stretched skyward in the penalty area defies all reason. Italy made the most of its improbable luck, and so the match was tied.
And finally, against all odds, Hector would prove to be the man of the match for Germany today. Not only did he provide an unlikely assist to Özil's goal, but he also put away the game winning penalty kick. Such was the game today.
A Pyrrhic victory?
Germany at last triumphed over Italy in an international competition, but the victory may have exacted a heavy toll in injuries. Sami Khedira left the match still early in the first half with what is reported to be an adductor injury to his left thigh. Mario Gomez also was forced to leave the match, departing later in the second half with an apparent muscle injury.
Now Germany faces the prospect of a semifinals match against France or Iceland next without Khedira or Gomez. Khedira may be easier to replace: Although Löw had intended to spare him, Bastian Schweinsteiger put in a solid, aggressive performance. Having played through extra time today, the captain seems to have the match fitness to play a full game. Is he ready to start in the next one? Besides the foul that negated his go-ahead goal, Schweinsteiger's penalty kick was the only major blemish on his game today.
The loss of Mario Gomez may put Germany in a more difficult position. Gomez had recently reestablished himself in the first team as its true no. 9. He proved to be a more consistent threat at center-forward than the mercurial Mario Götze, whom Löw also tested throughout the tournament. If Gomez cannot play, Löw may return to Götze, but he will have to adjust his tactics to accommodate for Götze's radically different skillset and lack of height. Can a combination of Götze and Draxler perhaps finally pay dividends?
And finally, having received his second yellow card, Mats Hummels will also be ineligible for the semifinal, although with Benedikt Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, Jogi Löw has viable options to fill his place alongside Boateng.
PS: Maybe Thomas Müller really is cursed?
Not only did Thomas Müller again fail to score in a Euro match, despite taking a team-high four shots, but he also failed to convert his penalty kick. Nothing he touches stands a chance of scoring. For fans used to his clinically precise penalty kicks of yore, his recent struggles from the penalty spot are downright disturbing. Müller would be the last player I'd suspect of a crisis of confidence, but something has got to give. Can Tommy finally find his Euro-groove and make a run for the Golden Boot in the next match? I wouldn't put it past him.