Five observations from Poland and the Ukraine so far…
1. Strikers hog the headlines but the Playmakers have been the key players
Naturally, strikers often get much of the headlines, for one reason or another. Pre-tournament, Wayne Rooney was the centre of attention for the two game ban he received for needlessly and stupidly kicking out at Montenegrin centre back Miodrag Dzudovic and the peril this may put his country in. An already difficult task for England of progressing at Euro 2012 was deemed near impossible without Rooney, although the draw against France and the win over Sweden would most likely have been accepted had the Manchester United frontman been in the team. Similarly, the lack of Spain’s all-time leading goalscorer, David Villa, due to a broken leg sustained playing for Barcelona at the Club World Cup last December was indeed a blow, but if any footballing nation has a plethora of talent from which to turn to, it is the current World and European champions.
Whilst strikers will always grab the headlines, whether that be through Robin Van Persie’s relative ineptness in front of goal in Eastern Europe or Mario Gomez’ ruthless efficiency – scoring three goals in the first two games of the tournament despite only having possession of the ball for only 22 seconds – for me, it have been all about the playmakers so far in this tournament, and they have there in abundance. For Spain, Xavi and Andres Iniesta continue to set the very lofty benchmark for the modern attacking midfielder and continue to be the best two players in the world for that position. The Italians have continually looked to the majestic Andrea Pirlo, l’architetto as his team-mates call him, to carve open opposition defences and to inspire them. For the Germans, many peoples’ favourites for this tournament, including mine, the duo of Mesut Ozil just behind the striker and the excellent deep-lying Bastian Schweinsteiger have continued to pull the strings in the centre of the German midfield, the latter setting up both of Gomez’ goals against the Dutch and the former giving a sublime pass for Lars Bender’s winner against Denmark. For England, Steven Gerrard seems to have readily accepted the mantle of the captain’s armband of his country and has arguably been the Three Lions best player at this tournament, setting up goals for Joleon Lescott against France and Wayne Rooney against the Ukraine.
Even those who have experienced the pain and anguish of elimination, namely Wesley Sneidjer and Andrey Arshavin had their moments in Poland and the Ukraine, the latter of which probably frustrated Arsenal fans even more as he seemed to play better in the three games he played for Russia at this tournament then he did for the whole of his last season in the Premier League. Strikers may well steal the headlines, but it is those in the engine room who help to print them.
2. Young talents have risen to the occasion
Every international tournament has a youngster or two who come to the fore, and Euro 2012 has been no exception so far. In the very first round of games in Group A, Russian Alan Dzagoev blew the Czech Republic away with a sumptuous brace scored on the counter-attack, whilst Poland striker Robert Lewendowski, fresh from a double-winning season in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, led the line relatively well for the host nation, scoring the opening goal of the tournament and attracting attention from the bigger clubs in England.
Closer to home, there have been a few talents who, when given the chance, have impressed for England. In the opener against France, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was deployed on the wing and performed admirably given the magnitude of the game as well as his young years. Similarly, in the game against Sweden, the trio of Andy Carroll, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck will have all made an impact on Roy Hodgson’s team selection for different reasons. Carroll for a trademark powerful header he scored in the first half, Walcott for the impact he made as a second half substitute and Danny Welbeck for scoring the winner in a moment of improvisation. Youth once again is being given a chance, and it seems the kids are alright.
3. Chances are being created aplenty but not necessarily being taken
It would be safe to say that this tournament has been a very exciting one so far, with plenty of chances being created and lots of attacking football on show. However, a few nations in particular have been guilty of being particularly wasteful with the opportunities they have created, and have been punished with the ultimate low of being dumped out of the tournament at the first hurdle. By far the most guilty have bee the Netherlands, the most high profile team to go out of the tournament at the group stage so far. In their opening game against Denmark, the Dutch had no fewer than 29 shots on the Danish goal, only six of which were on target. This was really the game that the Dutch will look back on and say it cost them as, with all due respect to Denmark, the Netherlands really should be beating them. In the intensely passionate game against Germany, the Dutch mustered 12 shots on goal, one more than the Germans managed, but only a third of these forced Manuel Neuer to make a save. In the final group game against the Portuguese, it would be fair to say that the Iberians were the better side and deserved to win, yet the Netherlands still had 14 shots on goal, but only three of them were on target. These stats alone sum up Euro 2012 for the Dutch, often so capable of beautiful attacking football, but unable to convert the chances they created in so much abundance.
Similarly, one of the host nations, Poland, were guilty of such profligacy in their final group game against the Czech Republic, when it mattered the most. The first half of the game against the Czechs will be the moment Poland will look back on and rue in years to come, simply by not taking advantage of the immense pressure they put their opponents under, particularly in the first 30 minutes where they effectively steamrollered the Czechs. Then, as football inevitably can do, the Poles were punished for their wastefulness on 72 minutes by a quick Czech counter-attack that led to Petr Jiracek scoring the only goal of the game. Football often takes no prisoners and shows little sympathy to those who fail, and this has been no exception.
4. The simplest football, centered around passing the ball, has often been the most successful
This seems like a fairly simplistic and rather obvious observation to make, but it is no coincidence that the two favourites for this tournament are the two teams who seem to do the simple thing of passing the ball the best. It is no surprise to learn that it is the Spanish who have passed the ball the most at this tournament, and naturally, given their exploits in world football over the past five years, they are along with the Germans the favourites for this tournament. It is no coincidence that both Spain and Germany are the two most likely to lift some silverware on July 1 in Kiev, as they can do the simple thing which some teams often struggle to do, particularly England, of passing the ball to a team mate. Other nations must take note of this.
5. The best teams may have great attacks, but not great defences
A decade ago, France had a centre-half partnership of Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram. Today, the French rearguard has the duo of Phillipe Mexès and Adil Rami and the entire French back five has been widely criticised as one that can be exposed, one that England did not exploit to the full potential. This is despite being behind a team that includes Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Franck Ribéry and Yohan Cabaye. The French have ultimately paid the price for this fragility and will play Spain in the quarter-finals. Still, as was proved by the way Croatia hit Spain on the break, the French will feel that they can expose a defence that is missing the inspirational Carles Puyol and that includes the at times defensively suspect Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa. Everton striker Nikica Jelavic may well never forget the free header he directed straight at Iker Casillas
Many of us purred with anticipation at the Dutch before a ball was kicked, at an attack comprising Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Klass Jan Huntelaar, Ibrahim Affelay and the mercurial Robin Van Persie. Yet for all the offensive potential of this side, they scored two long-range efforts in three games and were exposed both in open play and through devastating counter-attacks by Germany, Denmark and Portugal, leaving them bottom of Group B. England may well be very organised under Roy Hodgson and have been difficult to break down defensively, indeed one of the key facets of his management style. Nonetheless, there have still been a few ‘heart-in-mouth’ moments during England’s Group D campaign, as there always are. Against Sweden, England conceded two extremely soft goals, particularly the second one where no one appeared to challenge Olof Mellberg in the air and the veteran former Aston Villa defender gratefully nodded home. Similarly, last night against the Ukraine, there were a few occasions where the joint-host nation created chances far too easily, indeed having a shot that crossed the line not being given, just as England experienced two years ago in Bloemfontein against Germany in the World Cup. One gets the impression that a team with a better attack than the Ukraine will create chances more readily and punish England more ruthlessly if given the opportunity to.
Even the Germans, despite having an attack that includes Mario Gomez, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Müller, Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger, it could be said that their defence has not really been sternly tested yet, and the young centre-half partnership of Hummels and Badstuber is one that can be exposed, one that Portugal only really attacked in the final 20 minutes of their opening game and one that the Dutch once again were profligate with their attacking opportunities. It is clear then, that whilst the best teams at this tournament may have mouth-watering attacks, their defences still leave much to be desired, so expect more goals to come in this so far very exciting European Championships.