Having done my utmost to avoid getting involved in transfer speculation since the end of the domestic seasons in Europe (and congratulations to Montpellier in their triumph against evil petro-dollars), suddenly the European Championships are upon us.
With a slight bunker refuge approach to the Jubilee and a sense of outrage at the powers that be doing their best to ensure the Olympics are totally off-limits to native Londoners, I had forgotten Euro 2012 was starting so soon. For a self-confessed football addict my previous apathy can be attributed in part to the war of attrition at the end of the Premier League season and Chelsea’s successful attempt at winning the Champion’s League without actually trying to score very much. This would ignore the main reason, however, that international football is often very very dull, especially as a hereditary England fan. The last world cup was won by the right team, but two great games and a few moments aside was a big disappointment from a football perspective, and international football is becoming increasingly negative.
This has been reflected in the tournament to date. Poland, having totally outplayed a negative Greece side in the first half of the opening match, mysteriously crept into their shells against their ten-man opponents during the half time break, totally handing the initiative to their Hellenic visitors. Although loyal Gooner, Wojciech Tomasz Szczęsny, avoided any interest from Europe’s big clubs with his display, the Poles were already trying to hold what they had rather than press home their early superiority. Greece, as ever were defensive until going behind, when the more positive aspects of the stubbornness and pride they play with came to the fore.
Holland, apart from missing a lot of half-chances against Denmark, continued with their most un-Dutch tactic of playing two holding midfielders, and as a result were often a man short in a lot of promising attacking positions, leading to hopeful shots from distance. That and Arjen Robben refusing to pass to a team-mate in the second half. For a nation blessed with a plethora of quality attacking midfielders, it seems almost cowardly to have guaranteed places for the loyal but ageing Mark Van Bommel and the tough but limited Nigel De Jong. Traditional dutch holding players have all been decent on the ball and able to play in every area of the pitch, but this pairing brings very little to the table outside the middle third. It is an approach that has lost the manager much credit with the Dutch public and his peers in Netherlands football. More than any other nation, except perhaps Brazil, Holland takes much of its modern identity from football and as such the ‘Oranje’ are expected to represent the proud traditions of Cryff, Rep, Neeskens, Gullit, Van Basten and Bergkamp.
On this occasion, the approach also cost them the match. Whilst the two holding players successfully snuffed out the threat of Christian Eriksson, placing all the creative burden on Wesley Sneijder meant that against the hard working Danes, Holland’s front three became isolated. Bert Van Marwijk, took too long to react and change his system, by which time a combination of tension, increased Danish confidence and humidity inspired fatigue had served to unravel the Dutch. Will he have the courage to change against Germany?
Denmark were also set up with a very similar formation to Holland, but as clear underdogs, a more conservative approach is sensible. Denmark also isn’t exactly blessed with a great generation of attacking talent, as evidenced by their reliance on the unpredictable input of Nicklas Bendtner.
Germany’s formation is similar to Holland’s; with one crucial difference. Alongside the holding Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger is a very multi-faceted footballer and is used accordingly. With the skill and passing range of someone who started out on the wing or in the hole, he is given licence to roam anywhere along the middle third of the pitch (and occasionally beyond), thus providing support to and creating space for his team-mates. For me this a model of the modern 4-3-3 should work, and in fact very similar to the way Arsenal are set up, but with greater defensive discipline and greater experience. In truth it is a 4-1-1-1-2-1, with a staggered midfield trio, thus opening up a lot more angles for triangular passing and greater flexibility in attack. Germany also are a lot more simplistic tactically because the great strength for both their centre-forward options is attacking crosses, as demonstrated with the winning goal against Portugal from the otherwise ineffectual Mario Gomez. Schweinsteiger and particularly Mezut Ozul provide the invention when the wide players come to the inside forward positions, but otherwise it is a case of get the ball wide and into the centre forward. The key aspect is they have the flexibility in central midfield to pick up the pieces and have options on the ball in the attacking third from broken play and on the counter.
Portugal, short of getting the ball to Ronaldo and hoping for genius, were very flat across midfield and risk averse until they went behind. Then suddenly they went for it and looked very threatening, whilst still retaining their well documented defensive solidity. Unlike previous generations, Portugal now have two truly top quality centre-halves, but still the same problem at the other end. Apart from the good service from Pauleta until 2006, Portugal haven’t had a quality striker since Eusebio. Which often means their endless supply line of talented wingers and diminutive playmakers never really reach their potential. Pretty much since Pauleta retired, the plan has been to compensate for this by rarely having more than four men in the opposing half except at set-pieces. This obsession with the pursuit of the clean sheet has neutered them, leading them to stumble through qualification behind Denmark, and endure three nil-nil draws in a row before tonight. Perhaps the emergence of the movement and touch of the young great hope Nelson Oliveira will temp them collectively back into the more progressive football we are used to from the Iberians. Either way, having lost their first game, they need to support their wingers more if they want to have a chance of getting the points required to escape ‘The Group of Death’ (TM).
As with 2008, the entertainers so far (in the absence of Dutch goals galore), have been the Russians. Against perhaps the weakest Czech Republic team in 20 years, Arshavin’s men attacked with a verve and sense of cohesive enjoyment that was a joy to watch. Despite the best efforts of the lively Rosicky and Plasil in midfield, the Czechs were blown away, and could consider themselves lucky to only lose by three. Eschewing a now commonplace defined holding player, the Russian trio of Denisov, Shirokov, Zyryanov were much more fluid in interchanging positions, whilst all retaining the discipline to fill in when the naturally attacking full backs Anyukov and Zhirkov went forward. This included fluidity across the width of the pitch as well as moving between defence and supporting the forward players, allowing the likes of Arshavin and Dzagoev to cause havoc behind the target man. Whilst a very non-Dutch formation, a certain amount of total football has been brought to Russia by first Hiddink and now Advocaat, and it is very enjoyable to watch. If they win their group, which is by far the weakest in the tournament, and Holland re-discover their attacking potency and tactical courage there could be a mouthwatering re-match of the classic between them in 2008.
Looking forwards, I expect England to aim for solidity and try to catch their opponents with pace on the counter, Spain will pass people into submission unless attacking injuries catch up on them, and France could be exciting if it clicks out wide for them to complement their strong spine. I would expect Italy to progress behind Spain, but this is a far from vintage Azzuri, and Sweden could pip England if Zlatan is in the mood. Apart from Russian exuberance, Holland potentially returning more to their heritage or a possible French adventure, there is little to excite about the Euros. Normally the world cup will throw up African adventure, staggering enthusiasm levels from South East Aisa, or either Brazillian or Argentine flair, as well as one or two heroes we didn’t previously know much about. The European Championships is somehow more familiar and stale, unless a team of great vintage or an unlikely story emerges, which is in part due to the influx of European players into England and the number of games in the Champion’s League. So lets hope the Russians inspired a few other coaches to find their courage!
The other thing of interest that has been thrown up beyond tactics, is the football authorities’ response to racism. Or lack of it. In England we have Rio-gate, where the best centre half in the country (or at least most experienced), is omitted, even as a replacement, in favour of inexperienced mediocrity in unusual circumstances. Or ‘Football Reasons’ as they shall now be known. Football Reasons which in no way are related to the alleged racial abuse of his brother by the man who would be his obvious defensive partner, who is currently awaiting trial on the issue. That the FA first dithered, and the Police allowed the case to be put on hold until a more professionally convenient time (wouldn’t we all love that courtesy if we got into trouble!), is pretty embarrassing, but it has now moved into farce. Particularly as no-one in the media or amongst past or current professionals believes the new England manager regarding his selection. After, of course, the whole situation led to the resignation of our then manager.
Far worse than that, has been UEFA and Platini’s stance on racism at the tournament, basically offering zero support for any players subject to racist abuse, and passing the responsibility for dealing with it onto match officials. Now we have the disgusting situation where if a player is subject to sufficient abuse to make him want to leave the field of play, he has to ask the referee for permission to effectively suspend the match, or he will be punished by the disciplinary sanction of a yellow card. This is of course the organisation that fines teams twice as much for kicking off 30 seconds late as it does for turning a blind eye to mass racial abuse and indulging fascist hooligan groups. Personally I hope that a player, if abused, does walk., not only standing up for himself, but also thoroughly embarrassing the suits at UEFA. And then when there is the possibility of professional sanctions, he takes them to the European Court of Human Rights.
Anyway enough about Euro 2012. Dortmund hotshot Shinji Kagawa has sadly gone to Manchester United. Exactly the player Arsenal needed for my money, but its hard to argue with his choice. Unlike Eden Hazard, who after lifting his skirts to (in order); Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Tottenham, Manchester City, publicly stating his desire to play for them all, signed at the last minute to Chelsea, following their Champion’s League fluke. And not at all because they are paying him a reported 170,000 pounds a week (& signing on fee). A great, great player, but his whole twitter transfer announcement, playing off interested suitors and holding his own public auction suggests that some of the rumours about his attitude may hold some water. We shall see.