WARSAW, POLAND - JUNE 21: Raul Meireles of Portugal runs with the ball during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between Czech Republic and Portugal at The National Stadium on June 21, 2012 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Forget destroyers, passers and runners - Portugal have taught us that beating Spain needs midfield annoyers. Can Italy follow their lead?
Spain don't stop themselves. There have been plenty of complaints about their lack of directness, but if given the choice, the players would certainly be more than happy to turn their possessions into goals. But football is played against other teams, and said teams* don't seem to be particularly tempted by the idea of getting a royal pasting from the defending world champions. So they set up to frustrate and annoy. To make the match boring, if you like.
This is the fate of all great attacking sides, incidentally. Granted, Vicente del Bosque's conservative, pragmatic approach doesn't help them, but ultimately, when teams play against Spain, it's all about shutting them down rather than playing their own game. That's obviously no easy feat, but the team that's come closest to doing it in the knockout rounds of the past two tournaments is Portugal.
Although the game itself was fairly dull, with an interesting period of extra time failing to make up for the drab ninety minutes that preceded it, the tactical implications were actually fairly interesting. Portugal managed to both restrict Spain's possession and mitigate the damage they could do with the ball, forcing them to blind alleys or poor decisions. That's not easy to do against a side of Spain's quality. Have their Iberian rivals discovered a weakness which Italy can exploit in the final?
Sort of. The fact that Spain's players don't like being pressed isn't exactly news -- Marcelo Bielsa demonstrated that fairly well during Athletic Bilbao's 2-2 draw against Barcelona at the San Memes last November -- but Portugal did an excellent job in applying it, which we haven't really seen from any other team in the tournament.
What are the ingredients? The primary one is an energetic, intelligent midfield trio who is able to pick up Spain's central players, applying pressure on them whenever they have the ball and cutting off the passing lanes otherwise. Can Italy match Portugal there?
When people describe midfielders they normally talk about three basic archetypes. There's the destroyer, who breaks up play, generally with crunching tackles. There's the passer, who orchestrates his own team's moves from deep. And then there's the runner, whose ability to collect the ball and burst forward adds an extra dimension to the attack.
Portugal are evidence that a fourth class exists. Instead of disrupting Spain with tackles -- Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho had six between them, according to WhoScored -- they (especially the latter two) focused on other ways of breaking up Spanish attack. Their interception total is staggering. Moutinho ended up with nine, Meireles six. Veloso, who's more of a traditional destroyer* than the other two, ended up with a pair, but he was playing significantly deeper.
*Although he's more into the space denial than the Nigel de Jongish leg-breakers.
Out of that trio, Meireles is the most difficult to peg. Moutinho can mostly be looked at as a 'passer,' if you don't squint hard enough, but Meireles, while competent enough at everything, is at his best when he's off the ball, harassing the opposition into submission -- an annoyer.
This isn't the first time he's had to deal with tiki-taka football either. As part of the Chelsea team that saw off Barcelona, the former Porto man was forced to try to contain their midfield over the course of two games. He didn't look spectacular doing it (nobody does), but he's been strangely effective against the best players the world has to offer.
Can Italy field a similar player? That's a difficult question. Daniele de Rossi's an interesting shout, but the Roma midfielder's a red card waiting to happen if you let him chase shadows, and Claudio Marchisio's penchant for running serves him better on the attack than the defence. Riccardo Montolivo and Andrea Pirlo are out for obvious reasons.
That leaves us with Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Motta, who has some anti-Barcelona experience of his own to draw upon. However, Motta hasn't started either knockout game, with Cesare Prandelli preferring the silky skills of Montolivo to link the midfield to Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. It's difficult to imagine Italy making significant changes to the team that made Germany look so average, but if they really want to take the game to Spain, they need to ditch a playmaker and go for harassment.
It's not out of the question for Italy to disrupt Spain's game without destroying their own. If they can engage del Bosque's midfield three while maintaining a pocket of space from which Pirlo can operate, they're going to be in very good hands.
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