2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™

2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™

9 June - 9 July

2006 FIFA World Cup™

Germany 2006 analysis: The defenders

Should Italy win the Final and keep a clean sheet in the process, it will rewrite FIFA World Cup™ history. No team, after all, has ever claimed football's greatest prize – nor, indeed, finished in the tournament's top four - without conceding a minimum of two goals and only France can stop Italy setting a new record.

The fact that Gianluigi Buffon has been beaten just once – and by a freak own goal – is remarkable enough, but when one considers that this has been achieved without the assistance of Alessandro Nesta, rightly regarded among the top centre-halves in world football, it can be considered truly amazing.

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Yet while Italy's rearguard may currently be the most frugal – aside, of course, from poor Switzerland , the only team in FIFA World Cup history to have exited the competition without conceding a single goal - the Azzurri not provided the only defensive success story. Germany 2006 has, without doubt, been a FIFA World Cup of generally first-rate defending, borne out by an average of 2.27 goals per game, which compares to 2.52 in 2002, and is the lowest since Italia 90 (2.21).

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Naturally, fewer goals will always be interpreted as a negative, and understandably so, but FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG) member Andy Roxburgh believes that to accentuate offensive failings would do a great disservice to the "controlled, careful and intelligent" defending that this tournament has produced in abundance.

"What we are seeing is that teams are defending far more carefully than ever before," he told FIFAworldcup.com. "(Fabio) Cannavaro is the perfect example. For all that he defends with tremendous power and aggression, it's also very controlled, careful and intelligent. (Lilian) Thuram and (William) Gallas are also excellent in that respect.

"With these guys, you very rarely see them diving in to make a challenge. They press, they look to intercept, they close space – and that puts the onus on the attacker to produce something special. It comes back the old point that, as a striker, if the defender dives in, he makes your decision for you.

"This has not been a high-scoring World Cup and, while there should also be a concern that teams are perhaps not attacking well enough, it should also be acknowledged that the excellent standard of defending has also had a lot to do with the low scores.

"If you're looking for proof of that, just take the finalists. Italy have made it to the Final conceding just one goal – an own goal at that – and France just twice, one of which was a penalty. If you extend that to the last four, Portugal made it to that stage only conceding two goals – again, including one penalty – and Germany, after conceding twice in the opening game, made it all the way to extra time against Italy before Jens Lehmann was beaten again."

'Finalists present mirror images'

Along with his fellow TSG members, Roxburgh has been taking an all-encompassing overview of Germany 2006, and in analysing, among other things, the defensive systems and approaches favoured by the 32 finalists, the former Scotland coach has noticed several attention-grabbing trends.

"In general, teams are defending in blocks and defending deep," he said. "What's also very significant is that, out of the 32 teams, only four played with a three-man defence and, of those, only Mexico and Australia made it to the knockout phase. So the remaining 28 teams, including all eight quarter-finalists, have all opted for a back four.

"What we should point out, though, is that these back fours have invariably been protected by a screening midfield player. In fact, in several cases, we've actually seen two screening midfielders deployed, although it should be stressed that, with Brazil for example, Ze Roberto would go chasing the game at times, and that though Italy also play with two anchormen, (Andrea) Pirlo has the freedom to step forward and create.

"What's very interesting for the Final is that the teams are mirror images of each other in that they both line up in 4-2-3-1 formations with a square central defensive block of four that includes two centre-halves and two screening midfielders. It's a system that's very difficult to penetrate, particularly against teams who play it as well as France and Italy do. Then again, when you have centre-halves of the quality of Thuram and Cannavaro with midfielders like (Patrick) Vieira and (Gennaro) Gattuso ahead of them, it will always be tough to play through."

Yet, for all that the finalists have built their Germany 2006 campaigns on a solid foundation of rock-solid defensive performances, Roxburgh believes that it would be unfair to define this tournament as a ‘defender's World Cup', having seen much at the tournament to thrill and enthrall him.

"You can't sum up a whole World Cup because there are always some great games and some not-so-great games," he said. "What I will say, though, is that the quality on show has been very good and, in general, so too has the excitement. And it's not finished. In terms of the final, I just hope that the standard of defending remains as high as it has been throughout this tournament, but that the strikers and attacking players on both sides can better it."

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