Three Thoughts on the Euros
1.) More enjoyable than the World Cup
The World Cup brings the excitement of seeing countries from across the globe take battle: the samba stars of Brazil, the exhilarating Lionel Messi for Argentina or the raw power of Didier Drogba and his Cote d'Ivoire team. However, compare the opening stages of this Euros (or the last for that matter), where the sublime Russians destroy the Czech Republic, only for the Czechs to qualify at the former’s expense, whilst the next day saw Denmark overcome the much-fancied Dutch with a brilliant piece of individual skill, to the tedious opening stages of the last World Cup, where we saw Slovenia and Algeria do battle in a woeful game decided by a goalkeeping howler, while Japan and Cameroon made up another painfully bad “contest”. Of course, circumstances vary from tournament to tournament but what the Euros gave us was 16 on the whole well-matched teams, all sensing an ability to beat each other and thus competition was fierce and great. Can the same be said of the 32 team World Cup, where one can simply fall asleep through the group stages and still predict who will go through? Can South Korea realistically harbour hopes of beating Argentina? No. But can Croatia realistically believe they can put out the all conquering Spanish? An Ivan Rakitic point-blank miss was the only prevention from doing just that. This of course makes a mockery of UEFA’s plan to increase the size of the Euros to 24 teams for 2016, with Michel Platini citing the need for “good teams such as Lithuania and Scotland” to take part in the tournament. Did anyone watch Scotland play a relatively limited (as this Euros told us) Czech Republic in Prague in 2010, famous for the Tartan Army’s 4-6-0 formation (played in a very different way to Spain’s strikerless formation)? Exactly.
2.) Deep-lying playmakers are in vogue.
Ask for many peoples’ player of the tournament and a good number would say: Andrea Pirlo. Brilliant, they said. The way he controlled the tempo of matches from a deep lying position. Superb. For Spain, Xavi and Xabi Alonso picked up the plaudits for their distribution from deep. The Portuguese marvelled at the displays of Joao Moutinho, particularly in the tournament’s latter stages. What these players all have in common is that they really move forwards with the ball at feet; their position rarely advanced enough to be described as “attacking midfielders”. Rather, they sit deep, pinging passes long and short and dictating the tempo of matches. The “Makelele position”, that of a deep midfielder that simply destroys is slowly dying. Holland supporters and observers for example, harangued their coach for playing two destroyers in midfielder, Nigel De Jong and Mark van Bommel. Instead, their were calls for Rafael Van der Vaart to arrive in place of one of them as a deep lying playmaker. For England, following the lesson handed out to them by Pirlo, the hopes on Jack Wilshere, seen as a deep-lying play maker, grew further. Fundamentally, as teams become more defensively solid and impenetrable, Even at club level, the need for holding midfielders to do more than simply “hold” is becoming paramount; none more so shown by Barcelona, who play without a conventional “destroyer”, while Arsenal’s “holding midfielder” Alex Song proved quite the creative force last season. Even Yaya Toure, so often seen as a pure “destroyer”, has become a monumental attacking presence for Manchester City, whilst his more defensive counterpart Nigel de Jong, has been marginalised.
3.) The striker is not dead
The Golden Boot winner Fernando Torres, top-scored with only 3 goals from just over 2 matches played, Spain produced a display of such artistry and goal-scoring potential in the final playing a formation with playmaker Cesc Fabregas as the “false 9”, while other strikers, such as Gomez, Rooney, Kerzhakov and Benzema flattered to deceive. The end of the striker? Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer seemed to think so on the BBC during the final. Is it however? Consider Spain’s 4-0 final victory. As brilliant as it may have been, let us not forget that the scoreline only increased from 2 to 4 once conventional number 9 Fernando Torres entered the field, making vertical runs that stretched the Italian defence. Suddenly, a Spanish team that looked comfortable sitting on a two goal lead looked like running riot. Similarly in the Spain v Italy game earlier in the tournament, it was only through the introduction of two conventional strikers in Antonio Di Natale for Italy and Torres for Spain that saw a greater goal threat emerge. In other matches, without the predatory instincts of Mario Gomez, where would the goals have come from in Germany’s opening two matches versus Portugal and Holland. The Holland game in particular saw Gomez produce an exquisite turn and finish in the box that only a pure finisher could have produced. Similarly, Italy’s vanquishing of the Germans in the Semi-Finals were hugely down to the vertical runs of Mario Balotelli, who’s two goals obliterated the dreams of the tournament favourites. Even from an England point of view, the sheer beauty of Andy Carroll’s headed opener v Sweden showed that a striker will forever be needed in football. Of course, there was something magical about Spain’s striker-less formation, where 6 attacking midfielders buzzed around to almost cerebral effect, but let us not forget that Spain were often on the brink at times due to such a striker-less formation and indeed their best group stage performance came (albeit against the Irish), when Torres was introduced from the start. Essentially, as defences become tighter, whilst prompting and probing attacking midfielders are useful; there are occasions when predatory striking instincts are what’s needed to make the difference.
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