In one of the most anticipated matches of this week’s UEFA Nations League, Spain played host to group four leaders, Germany. Whilst Germany are leading group A, a win for La Roja would see them clinch first place and secure a place in the semi-finals. To do so, they needed to overcome last Sunday’s scare against Switzerland, claiming a draw in the final minutes thanks to Villareal striker, Gerard Moreno. With a number of changes across Spain’s previous fixtures, it is evident that former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique is yet to be settled on his best starting eleven.
Die Mannschaft, on the other hand, are coming into this game in red-hot form having recently beaten the Ukraine 3-1 thanks to goals from Leroy Sane and Chelsea striker, Timo Werner. The win extends Germany’s twelve-game unbeaten stretch, having not lost a match since September 2019. Their head coach, Joachim Löw, came out during the week and told the media that Germany are out to win and not to just sit back for 90 minutes and defend.
In what promised to be a game of quality football, this tactical analysis will showcase the tactics used by both managers as they try to exploit weaknesses in their opposition. This analysis will also highlight key moments within the game which lead to gains in momentum.
Setting up in a 4-3-3 formation, Spain made a number of changes to the side that played against Switzerland. Unai Simón started in goal with José Gayà, Pau Torres, Sergio Ramos, and Sergi Roberto forming the back four. Sergio Canales, Koke and Manchester City midfielder Rodri Hernández made up the three central midfielders, replacing Busquets and Merino. Ferrán Torres and Dani Olmo started as the left- and right-wingers and supported Álvaro Morata as the lone striker.
Germany also lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with only two changes made to their side against Ukraine. Manuel Neuer started in goal and is set to become Germany’s most-capped goalkeeper with 95 international appearances. With no Antonio Rüdiger, the back four consisted of Philipp Max, Robin Koch, Niklas Süle, and Matthias Ginter. Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos came back into the midfield, supported by Ilkay Gündogan and Leon Goretzka. Finally, one of the most dangerous-looking front three in international football saw Timo Werner and Leroy Sané out wide with Serge Gnabry as the striker.
Exploiting speed on the counter
It was evident within the first ten minutes that Germany were looking to get a feel to how Spain circulated the ball in possession. During build-up phases, Spain split their centre-backs wide and had two midfielders drop in support, usually Koke and Rodri. As a result, Werner and Sane were tasked with marking the full-backs so it was up to Kroos and Goretzka to man-mark Spain’s dropping midfielders. This allowed Gündogan to cover the space in between the midfield and defensive line and mark Morata if he was to drop into midfield to create the 4 v 3 overload. However, depending on the positioning of Ferrán Torres and Olmo, Germany would have to make subtle variations to the way they structure their mid-block.
In the situation below, Spain are circulating the ball around the back four with a slower pace just to shift the opposition and open up larger passing lanes to advance the ball. When the ball is over on the left-hand side, Sane stepped up and place pressure on Gaya whilst Goretzka marked the closest supporting midfielder.
To provide more protection in central areas and to create a defensive overload ball-side, Werner dropped and shifted across to mark the far side holding midfielder. If the ball was on the right-hand side, the same movements would be replicated just with Sane tucking in and Goretzka dropping and covering.
We can also see that Torres and Olmo are taking up their positions out on the flanks which enables the added option of support for the full-backs in wide areas. It is then both the responsibility of full-backs, Max and Ginter, who push higher to pick up the ball-side winger. In a scenario where Ginter moves forward to mark Olmo who is dropping, Max connects with Koch at centre-back and the backline shift across.
At times growing impatient just shifting the ball across the backline, Spain looked to progress the ball forward when the moment wasn’t right. This is seen in the next scenario, when Roberto sees space and drives forward hoping to release one of the front three. However, he finds himself with a lack of space and too many defenders around him. Once Germany win the ball, they need to exploit the speed of their front three and get them running at Torres and Ramos.
When Werner gets the ball, he immediately accelerates into space, causing the backline to retreat. When they are in such an advantageous position, it is all about finding the right ball and slotting the highest players in behind the defence. Here, a cross-line run from Gnabry allows Werner to slot him in behind, but the deeper positioning of Torres allows him the advantage he needs to close Gnabry down.
Whilst Die Mannschaft were effective in closing down the space ball-side, this left them exposed on the far side. This was typically exploited by a longer cross-field pass from centre-back to the winger. As a result, Germany needed to ensure that their far-side defenders remained balanced in central areas, whilst maintaining awareness of Spain’s far-side players.
Spain combining to break lines
As the game progressed, Spain had taken the lead midway through the first half. Therefore, Germany needed to score. In doing so, they pressed higher and were more aggressive in their marking scheme. Rather than just having Gnabry float between both of La Roja’s centre-backs, Germany committed another midfielder forward. This meant that both Ramos and Torres had a marker decreasing the time they had on the ball.
To ensure that they didn’t have a numerical disadvantage in midfield, there were situations where both Koch and Süle followed their man into midfield. Whilst risky, Germany’s far-side full-backs needed to forget about their man and tuck in to cover the space left by the centre-backs. Again, the danger with this approach is that the defenders need to ensure that they don’t get beaten otherwise the pressure valve is released and the defensive structure is exposed.
As seen above, Germany have got all of the immediate receivers marked so there is no numerical disadvantage. We even see Süle stepping out of the back to go and press Koke receiving the ball. However, the timing of the German defender’s press is a split second too late. This allows Koke to receive the ball and flick it behind him to Morata. Once Morata bounces Koke, Spain have now solved the pressure situation and continue forward with momentum and attack the open space behind.
Taking it the next step further, La Roja would also use the third man concept to release a midfielder or full-back. This pattern might look like Ramos playing the closest supporting midfielder who could bounce Sergi Roberto. During build-up phases, we also saw Morata drop deeper to act as the second man.
Once he received the ball with back to goal, he was able to bounce the highest supporting midfielders underneath or find Torres and Olmo out wide. Because of the quick pressure applied to supporting teammates, the pass to the third man had to be in front of him, not directly to him. So, when he was able to receive the ball, he could continue with forward momentum. With a lack of momentum, it would be easy for the defenders to make the tackle because of the short distances between themselves and their markers.
Another way to progress the ball was by manipulating the immediate markers to create space for teammates. The ideal situation was to create space for a midfielder to face forward with space to progress forward. An example of this can be seen below.
There are two main factors that allow Rodri to receive the pass. The first is Morata’s positioning. Because in the minutes prior when Germany were caught out with both centre-backs pushing forward, they were hesitant to commit both Koch and Süle again. Therefore, with Morata dropping and committing one central defender, the other had to stay and cover. If the same situation happened earlier, Süle would be the one to push up and mark Rodri. The second main factor is the movement of Koke to drag Gündogan out wide. If you look at Rodri’s body shape, he knows he isn’t in a position to receive the ball. His main target is to drag his marker away. You can even see him point to Rodri who is now free.
Apart from their positioning, what makes Spain so good at breaking lines is the manipulation of ball speed. When the ball is circulated around the back, the pace is lowered. When a progressive pass is made for a third man combination, the pace is higher. Therefore, they begin to control the movement of Germany’s defensive structures.
Change of system
With a clear lack of possession and goal-scoring opportunities, Joachim Löw had to change something to spark a shift in momentum. Shifting from a 4-3-3, Germany went to the formation that some anticipated they would start with. Making a direct swap for Süle, Jonathan Tah came on to form a back three with Max and Ginter. This meant that Koch pushed forward into the midfield alongside Kroos and Gündogan, allowing Goretzka to work alongside Werner up front. Sane kept his position on the right and Gnabry pushed across to the left flank.
However, the high and wide positioning of Olmo and Torres were causing problems for Max and Ginter. The effect of this caused the back three to disconnect and leave Tah considerably isolated at centre-back.
The picture below highlights this and showcases the lack of awareness that the back three have. To his defence, Tah had been told that if Morata drops, you follow and cover. This is exactly what he does in this picture as the goalkeeper plays long to Morata. Leaving a massive gap behind, Tah is in a situation where he must win the ball, otherwise there is trouble.
To his credit, he does win the ball and finds a teammate, however Spain immediately counter-press and Morata ends up pushing the ball past Tah and exploiting the space. Koch now has no option but to leave his marker and engage Morata since Max isn’t quick enough. Luckily for Germany, Morata tries to find Torres to his right instead of Olmo who is free.
After Spain’s first three goals in the first half, Germany never looked likely to recover. Some poor defensive marking and match-ups off crosses and corners led to Spain taking the lead within 17 minutes. In the second half, Ferrán Torres bagged a double to complete his hat-trick and Mikel Oyarzabal sealed the deal in the 89thminute. With a match that nobody saw coming, Spain overtake Germany and progress onto the semi-finals of the UEFA nations league.