Zack Goldman has your afternoon and lunchtime Cliff Notes right here.
Out of all of the old rivalries and politically-charged matchups that the European Championships have thrown up in recent years, this is one of the most compelling. Let’s sink our teeth into the second quarterfinal, Greece against their sugardaddies… this is… The Bailout Bowl.
What we learned from the group stage.
Essentially, we learned in the group stage that while Germany is not unassailable, they will be an extremely difficult out in this tournament. At the risk of sounding reductive, they are an incredibly talented side that moves the ball well, defends competently, and works tirelessly as a team for 90 minutes (my Group B preview found here describes their playing style in greater detail).
The midfield spine of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mesut Özil has been every bit as good as advertised and absolutely central to the success of Die Mannschaft so far. The trio is versatile and look as though they play the game with a single brain—always on the same page and moving off the ball in support. They embody what is great about Joachim Löw’s team: they defend together, they attack together, and they run their socks off. Look no further than their collective performance against Holland to see the difference they can make together.
At the defensive end of things, Mats Hummels has answered any questions about his readiness for a starting role with three dominant performances at center-back. Superb anticipation, commitment to ball-winning, and a commanding presence in the air have made German fans forget all about that pre-tournament five-goal fiasco in Basel. What’s more, Hummels has embodied the free-flowing spirit of the side with his willingness to become a meaningful part of the attack. Whether it’s something like his stellar run against Holland—which parted the Dutch like the Orange Sea—or just lending support to the midfield by being available to bounce passes off in the center of the park, Hummels has done his part on both sides of the ball through three games and looks much more comfortable straying from the backline in possession than he once did.
Up top, Löw was rewarded for his willingness to stick with Mario Gomez, who bagged three goals before the final whistle blew against the Netherlands. If for any reason they should need an attacking punch beyond Gomez, they’ve got plenty of it on the bench, including some guy named Miroslav Klose waiting in reserve.
The Greeks squeaked through to the knockout stage after a series of gritty, battling performances in Group A (otherwise known as the Group of Life or the Group of Can We Have Our Money Back?). They kicked off the tournament with an end-to-end, pulsating 1-1 draw with the Poles that you had to see to believe—a complete tale of two halves. From here, they narrowly lost to the Czechs, 2-1, and seemed dead in the water before securing a place in the knockout stage with an improbable, but well-earned victory over Russia.
This marked a measure of revenge, perhaps, for the final Group A match in Euro 2004 in which the Russians nearly knocked the Greeks out of the tournament with a 2-1 victory. And none of us even want to think of a world where that team doesn’t win the Euros and we all have one less banal thing to say about what ‘typical’ Greek soccer looks like. In any event, Greece’s gritty win over Russia this time around sent them through to this matchup versus Germany against all odds and kickstarted a very historic 24-hour period for the nation in which they apparently had some election that was probably of very little consequence (eat it, SYRIZA).
So, what do we know about them from these first three matches? Well, the comparisons to 2004, as tired as they may sound, are actually well-founded for the most part.
The Greeks still play in many ways like they did in 2004—soaking up pressure and being remarkably economical in the final third and finishing their chance (occasionally chances). But, we can also say that they are a much different side under the stewardship of Fernando Santos than they were under Otto Rehhagel, both personnel- and style-wise. For starters, they are much worse defensively than anyone is willing to say (primarily because after they advanced to the knockout stage, it became very tempting to conflate this side’s grittiness with 2004’s legitimate defensive prowess—when they are, in fact, two different things). The shape of Greece’s backline has been dire at times, as seen in the first half against Poland and for much of the game against the Czech Republic.
Poor José Holebas, the Greek left back, has been absolutely picked apart in this tournament by everyone from Jakub Blaszczykowski to Theodor Gebre-Selassie. He was a substitute in the second half against Russia and (thankfully) picked up his second yellow of the tournament, thus leaving him suspended for this Germany match (my hands get clammy thinking of the awful things Thomas Müller would have done to him). The defense against Russia was better than in the first two games, but Dick Advocaat’s men still had tons of chances—and, let’s face it, they’re no Germany. One would expect the backline to have to be much more organized—and receive far more support from the midfield—in order to have any shot at remaining airtight against the Germans.
In compensating for any defensive frailties, however, this Greek team actually goes forward in a much more dynamic way than the 2004 squad. The chances this team was able to create in the first three matches have proven that they are both formidable on the break and capable of fairly decent combination play when they can get numbers into the attacking third. While Otto’s corps eight years ago did this brilliantly at times (I’m thinking in particular of the opening match against Portugal that they won 2-1), they were, for the most part, reduced to rigid bunker defending and making the most of dead ball situations. Yes, they poured forward on the counter, but much of their time in possession was spent resting on the ball, rather than streaming up the pitch.
Their game was to industriously and calculatedly advance into dangerous positions more than it was to simply break. This team seems different in that regard. The difference may be subtle, but one wonders if they can surprise Germany with having a little more mettle and adventurousness going forward than anticipated. The enterprising trio of Dimitris Salpingidis, Theofanis Gekas, and Georgios Samaras (yes, I just described Samaras as enterprising) gives them an attacking oomph that cannot be ignored.
While Samaras does not give the Greeks much in the way of tracking back, playing him and Salpingidis on the wings does enable Santos to drop them deeper into the midfield when not in possession. They are more defensively postured than the average winger and given Greece’s reputation to play almost everybody behind the ball, it seems reasonable that Santos will have them immediately drop when not in possession. He can then use them to plug passing lanes and apply pressure in the center of the park, as well as to track advancing outside backs.
None of this should complicate the notion that Greece will look to play defensive, reactive football against the Germans. One might expect them to start with this 4-3-2-1 in name, but I think Santos will compress his team’s shape to the point that we see something significantly more defensive (the famous Greek 6-1-2-1 perhaps!). Quite honestly, I think Greece, in many ways, have been at their best in this tournament when forced down a man. After drawing a red card in the opening match, Santos reverted to essentially two banks of four behind a lone striker. If I’m the gaffer, I compress my team’s shape with a 4-4-1-1 against Germany in this same way. The plan should be to congest the center of the field and play Salpingidis in the hole behind Gekas—but, alas, I’m not Fernando Santos and I fear we will see a more defensive-minded version of a 4-3-2-1.
Two main things to focus on: the Greeks started very, very slowly in their first two matches. Needless to say, if this happens against the Germans, Greece’s hopes of progression will be put to bed faster than me after a glass of ouzo. Secondly, ‘Captain Hellas’ Giorgos Karagounis is suspended. Already an absolute legend for his performances in Euro 2004, Karagounis was a revelation for this squad in their final group match. Making amends for his penalty miss in the opening match against Poland, Karagounis sent the Greeks through to the next round with a goal against the Russians on the stroke of halftime. He then proceeded to draw what many felt should have been a penalty—and then, in disbelief, carried out one of the most splendid freakouts anyone has ever seen. Losing him is a massive blow, but will perhaps force Santos’s hand in introducing a more defensive-minded player to partner Kostas Katsouranis as a second deep-lying midfielder. It’s hard to spin Karagounis’s absence into any kind of a positive, but tactically it may take some of the pressure off Katsouranis defensively.
What can we expect?
First off, expect Germany to line up unchanged. The only decision to make is whether to go with Lars Bender at right back after his goalscoring performance against Denmark. I’d imagine we’ll see Jerome Boateng reclaim his spot, though, after serving his one-match ban. Greece are missing the talismanic Karagounis, as well as world-class Holebas.
I expect Germany to boss possession and to defend high, keeping the ball in Greek territory for most of the game. The absence of Karagounis could not come at a worse time against the deadly midfield trio of Germany. The darting runs and dangerous through-balls that Löw’s men have deftly displayed throughout the group stage should still yield plenty of chances in front of goal, despite Greece’s defensive focus.
Expect Greece to get a chance or two—and they will have to stick those away and defend well if they have any hope of escaping this test.
Nothing is usually easy against Greece, but given the gulf in quality between the sides, I feel Germany will win this one with relative ease. Let’s say 2-0. Angela Merkel rejoices.