The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Put the outcome to one side. The astonishing thing about this match was that Turkey set the tone from the beginning, and with the exception of a few bad stretches in the second half, controlled it till the end. Germany’s moments of success came from exploiting lapses in Turkey’s execution of their gameplan, lapses that were largely due to the inexperience of the Turkish personnel, rather than by imposing their own system. That was a triumph for Turkey in itself.
I want to be cold about this, because a lot of the commentary around this match has emphasized Turkey’s “heart” and “faith,” their “refusal to quit” and their “belief that they always had a chance.” None of which is wrong, necessarily; but taken together it winds up being a little patronizing, turning the Turks into a team of inspired, naive underdogs, a team out of a sports movie (how many times have we heard a commentator talk about their “unbelievable script”?) who squeak by on pluck and conviction rather than preparation and intelligence. Turkey had to play beyond themselves, had to play with inspiration, in order to have a chance against more talented opponents. But tonight, at least, they also had the better set of tactics and the sharper approach to the game.
So if I’m clinical about this, I’m clinical out of respect for their accomplishment, and not from an empty heart. I want what happened tonight to have an established reality beneath the poetry it’s bound to produce.
With injuries and suspensions keeping most of Turkey’s best players out of the match—their only reliable goalkeeper, their captain, their inspirational goalscorer, an armada of centerbacks—there was no tactical approach open to them that wasn’t going to leave weaknesses on the pitch. But rather than doing what everyone expected and playing a tightly packed defensive formation to try to shore up the inexperienced back line (this was Turkey’s fifth centerback duo since the start of the tournament, and it included Mehmet Topal, a defensive midfielder, and Gökhan Zan, who is hardly a first choice) Fatih Terim did the exact opposite. He came to the match with an attacking formation designed to put Germany, and not his own centerbacks, in danger.
Turkey lined up in a sort of 4-1-4-1 in which the fullbacks and (especially) the wingers were given considerable freedom to go forward. To deal with the threat of Michael Ballack, who was at the center of Germany’s somewhat uncharacteristic 4-2-3-1, Terim used Mehmet Aurélio, his quasi-Brazilian defensive midfielder, as a kind of dedicated stopper. Who, incidentally, played Ballack out of the match.
Terim’s preferred approach when in possession of the ball was to play it up through the middle of the pitch via Altintop and Ayhan Akman, creep the whole formation forward, then pass quickly to one of the wingers as they broke past the German fullbacks. The fact that this worked as relentlessly well as it did tells you everything you need to know about the play of Friedrich and Lahm, who were repeatedly beaten by Boral and Kazim. Friedrich, in fact, was frozen in place during the scramble that led to Boral’s opening goal, and Lahm was exposed during the build-up that led to Semih’s equalizer at the end of the match.
Turkey’s approach did three things: first, it created opportunities for goals, especially in the first half, when Kazim had a series of near misses—hitting the crossbar twice in the first 22 minutes—and Boral scuffed the opening goal past Lehmann. Second, and as importantly, it minimized the responsibilities of the Turkish centerbacks, their greatest liability, by keeping the ball on the German end of the pitch for long stretches (again especially in the first half). Third, it provided an element of surprise, as the Germans seemed unprepared for the Turkish attack and were forced into a reactive, uncertain style of play as a result. For most of the first half it was hard to say exactly what the Germans wanted to do with the ball; they repeatedly let Metzelder and Mertesacker kick it between them till someone decided to send a prayer toward Podolski on the left.
The inevitable problem with the Turkish strategy, which Germany eventually learned to exploit, was that it moved the entire midfield too far forward too quickly, and then dragged the defensive line up behind them for support. The high back line combined with the very aggressive midfield led to a number of opportunities for Germany, especially where Podolski was concerned: his break down the left led to Schweisteiger’s 27th-minute equalizer, and he would have gotten on the scoresheet himself had he been a little luckier with his solo breakthrough in the 34th minute.
Turkey lost. Germany had the better team. But given the players at his disposal, it’s hard to imagine how Terim could have devised a better set of tactics to neutralize Germany’s overwhelming advantages in talent, size, and experience. And even still, it nearly worked. Had Volkan been playing instead of Rüştü, it’s hard to imagine Klose having a chance at that header, and had the exhausted Kazim not fallen during the build-up to Lahm’s late winner, it’s possible that that passage of play could have turned out differently. On paper, this match looked like a walkover for Germany, and the fact that it was instead one of the most thrilling matches of the tournament says as much about the intelligence in Turkey’s setup as it does about the heart.
by Brian Phillips · June 25, 2008