Saturday, June 30, 2012

Invention vs Prevention, Or Simply Execution?

Soccer managers, even the best of them, have a nasty habit of retreating into a strategy of trying not to lose in big matches. The stakes are so high that this becomes a more common tendency than we might think. Who wants to lose embarrassingly to an inferior opponent, or have their historic soccer club/nation bow out of a tournament too early, or not tactically adjust to a team who is more talented than they are? The pressure can force otherwise brilliant soccer minds into playing to make sure that they don't fail while still kind of sort of maybe trying to win the game as long as they don't overexpose themselves. When that happens, you have a recipe for disaster. The tentative, preventative play is rarely a winning strategy and that's what occurred yet again in the 2012 Euro semifinals: two teams tried to prevent themselves from losing and two teams got sent home.

Well, three teams played prevention come to think of it. Both Portugal and Spain played a cagey type of soccer that doesn't exactly work as an advertisement for the game. Portugal were rightly afraid of the Spanish possession game and so they geared their plan of attack around disrupting the tika taka and making sure that Spain never became too comfortable on the ball. Credit where credit is due, Portugal did a better job of this than anyone else I've watched. Their midfield attacked Spain high and refused to allow Xavi, Sergio Busquets, or Xabi Alanso to simply play the ball around and get into a rhythm. The Spanish midfield looked confused and surprised for large stretches of the game and it showed. They often missed passes in the middle third and Gerard Pique compounded problems by often mishitting balls from the back. Portugal was aggressive in their pressure and the Spanish starters never quite adjusted, trying to keep their passing careful and close in order to maintain possession since their normal skills were not shining through.

This aggression, however, was all in the service of prevention. Portugal did an excellent job of knocking the Spanish out of their comfort zone, but they were never able to turn that into anything positive. Cristiano Ronaldo had a couple of chances to put Portugal up in the match, but mishit them both. Indeed, out of 120 minutes of soccer, Portugal only had a total of two shots on goal. The extent to which Portugal was focused on being anti-Spain rather than pro-Portugal was evident after Spain took out Alvaro Negredo and David Silva in exchange for Cesc Fabregas and Jesus Nava. Spain turned their game around after the substitutions and became more direct, starting to finally look like the better team after Portugal had been in the ascendancy for the first hour or so. How to handle that? Between the introduction of Navas and the end of regulation, Portugal received four yellow cards in their attempts to knock Spanish players off the ball, ending with 31 fouls to Spain's 21. Spain retaliated in kind with four yellows over the course of the match (Portugal had five in total) but that served Portugal more than Spain and the game was predominantly clogged and bogged down. Though Spain played better in the overtime periods, everyone watching knew where this was going. And so, in a match characterized by preventative soccer on both sides, eventually someone had to win. It was Spain, thanks to the (frayed) nerves of Bruno Alves and the (steel) nerves of Fabregas.

Germany, though, was an obvious case of preventative play getting the better of a good coach. Joachim Low  has made attacking soccer the new hallmark of the German national team. The wingers are fast and direct, always moving into the open space creating by quick passing. The midfield controls the game, alternating runs forward and keeping the ball forever moving. Mesut Ozil is a force unto himself, dragging defenders this way and that while also putting balls in at angles that no one else can predict or even see. Then the striker up top finishes clinically, taking advantage of the service provided to him as well as his own killer instinct. This is German soccer in the new millennium and it is what we have expected of this dynamic young squad.

But Low didn't play to the swashbuckling strengths of his team. Instead of a talented winger like Thomas Muller or Marco Reus, he started Toni Kroos, a gifted but more conservative option in the midfield. Suddenly Germany was looking to match up with Italy rather than the other way around, Kroos chosen to obviously challenge in the midfield and deny Andrea Pirlo time and space. Where was the high flying side we were used to seeing, the one who had put in four goals on hapless Greece just one round prior? Low turned his team into a preventative one and as a result, Italy got two superb goals from Mario Balotelli and is into the finals instead of many people's pre-tournament favorites.

Hold on, that's not right either. I know I messed up the whole "two teams were preventative and two teams lost" thing earlier but this is a little more egregious. Germany might have come out with a preventative lineup but didn't it still make sense? Kroos would mark Pirlo tightly, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira would take possession away from the less skilled Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, Lukas Podolski would threaten down the left to keep the Italy fullback on the defense, and Ozil would feed Mario Gomez (and any breaking midfielders) all game long. The tactics make sense. Plus, let's look at the stats here. Germany took 15(8) shots(on goal) to Italy's 10(5) while also winning the corner kick battle 14 to ZERO and holding the ball for 54% of the game. That can hardly be called preventative.

Italy doesn't quite fit the bill as that dynamic, inventive force either, now that you mention it. Sure they got some shots and Balotelli finished beautifully, but their entire midfield is designed around giving Pirlo time and he is the only truly creative element. There are no marauding wingers or fullbacks, just Pirlo feeding open players as well as working the channels. Germany didn't really even play with a right winger, instead letting Ozil drift centrally from that position all game because they weren't in the least afraid of Giorgio Chiellini going forward. That doesn't exactly sound like a team that was a Platonic ideal of total football. What has happened to our easily constructed narrative and the ready made boxes that we put things in?

Simple: execution. There is so much talk these days about positive versus negative soccer, the creative versus the reactive, this style is better than this and blah blah blah. I'm not completely dismissing the debates of course. They fascinate me after all and the whole philosophy of soccer is something I've written about several times. But sometimes we get too busy casting what we see into ideal forms, strategies that are all A, B, or C and not made the least bit impure by dashes of each other, that we don't look at the reality of what we're seeing. So, simply put, this is what we saw: a Portuguese team that tried to disrupt Spain and create goals off of that disruption, but failed to execute because their counters and transition game were never threatening; a Spanish team that tried to play possession soccer and break down the Portuguese defense with fatigue and superior passing, but failed to execute because they were taken out of their quick passing game and never adjusted to what the defense was giving them; a German team that tried to bog down Italy in the middle, limiting their danger going forward, all while relying on their playmakers and shot takers to create goals, but failed to execute because their attackers flubbed what chances they had and the passing was not incisive enough in the final third; and an Italian team that tried to defend superbly, move the ball after taking possession from the Germans, and rely on their talented strikers to finish chances, and executed perfectly in all areas of their gameplan.

This isn't rocket science or a debate on the intricacies of tactical formations. If all things were equal and we saw one strategy win instead of the other then it might be a different debate, but instead there was one team that was clearly better than the others. Portugal could have moved the ball up high and finish chances but didn't. Spain could have worn down the Portuguese and scored tap-in goals but didn't, needing penalties to win instead. Germany could have used Kroos to shut down Pirlo and gotten key contributions from their attacking players but didn't. Only Italy did exactly what it wanted to do, no matter if it was preventative, inventive, creative, or any other theoretical ideal we want to use. Italy won because they were better than the team they played, obviously so. Now all that's left is to see if they can ride that form and if Spain can regain theirs. Here's hoping we get both so that we also get a hell of a final.

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