Euro 2012 is over. The best team won, but what did we learn? I look at three important lessons that this Summer's tournament taught us.

It’s eight days after the final of Euro 2012. The dust has settled on what was, in the main, a fantastic international tournament. Plenty of goals, some surprises along the way, some fantastic skill, drama and, of course, a few wedges of controversy were all on display as Europe’s finest footballing nations  competed to take home the coveted trophy. Spain emerged as Champions once again, claiming their third major international tournament victory in a row and nobody can say that it wasn’t deserved in the end. However, rather than jumping on the Spain bandwagon and waxing lyrical about them for an entire article, I thought I’d bring you my take on what I feel are  three of the most important lessons, in no particular order, we can take away from the competition as a whole.

The first lesson to take away from Euro 2012 is that doing enough, is enough. Spain are, quite simply, the best international footballing side of this era. Some accused the Spanish of being boring, Arsene Wenger accused them of being “negative”, however, these accusations are wide of the mark. Perpetual winners become tiresome to watch, yes, that is human nature. We all like to see the underdog triumph, at least from time to time,  and in that sense Spain are reaching the end of their honeymoon period, however, they were not boring, they simply did enough.

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                                             Just Enough is Good Enough: Spain Champions

There is a saying in football that “you can only beat what’s in front of you” and that’s what Spain did, without ever getting out of second gear if truth be told. The closest Spain came to losing was against Croatia in the final group match, but they didn’t concede and they eventually made the breakthrough. Portugal gave them a game but could not score, in extra time the Portuguese had nothing left and, even when it went to penalties, it looked like there would only be a Spanish victory. 

In the final, Cesare Prandelli altered the Italian formation and line-up that had been so successful against the Spanish in their tournament opener and this played right into Spain’s hands. Having said that, the first half of the final was the only forty-five minutes of the tournament when Spain actually moved from first into second gear and they left Italy for dead in that opening period. After Prandelli’s desperate gamble with Motta failed, La Roja happily slipped back into first and comfortably saw the game out, adding two more goals in the process.

In winning the tournament, barely breaking sweat, Spain proved that they are still the best in Europe and that the best of the rest have got a long way to go to catch up with them. With Torres winning the Golden Boot, they proved that you don’t have to start a striker in order for him to ultimately be effective and, with the contribution made by Fabregas in the “false 9” role, that perhaps it can be better to switch between the two systems. Ultimately though, and perhaps that’s why they received so much criticism up until the final, Spain proved that just doing enough to win, is enough. 

The second lesson to take from Poland and Ukraine this summer is, that England are in reverse with Roy Hodgson at the helm. Controversial, perhaps, but thoroughly true. Whilst the rest of Europe’s elite footballing nations are playing fluid 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 systems, playing short passing games and experimenting with  the afore mentioned “false 9s”, England have Hodgson’s 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1.

Not only is this system (it is only one, don’t be fooled) totally outdated in the modern game, it is also never going to get you past the quarter finals of a major tournament. Hodgson and the media did a fantastic job of lowering expectations before the finals so that England’s tournament seemed ok on the face of it. It wasn’t! People bought in to the fact that Chelsea fluked the Champions’ League playing defensively  and that it could work for England. It didn’t. Even after the tournament people are buying into the belief that England were defensively sound and unlucky to go out. They weren’t.

The reason England stayed in so long was two-fold, good luck, and a good goalkeeper. England had conceded more shots at goal than any other team in the competition when they went out, thirty six against Italy alone. Joe Hart made more saves than any other keeper in the tournament, including Buffon, who went all the way to the final and faced Spain. These stats do not indicate a solid defensive unit, rather they reveal the truth about England’s defensive frailties, even when playing such a boring, calculated, low risk brand of football.

There are now those out there who think that Hodgson will change tack, that he was only using those tactics for the tournament because he’d had so little time with the players. He won’t and he wasn’t! Roy Hodgson has used these same tactics, two rigid banks of four, everyone in position at all times, no room for expression, for over thirty years with various clubs/countries to varying degrees of success. Wherever he has been,  Inter Milan, Fulham, Switzerland, Liverpool or West Brom. the tactics have remained rigidly fixed and they will not change now, he has no other way of playing.

IMG_9856                                                                       Brontosaurus Roy!

So newspapermen, England fans, the F.A., all those who’ve put faith in Hodgson to lead England forward at least to the next World Cup, please do not be surprised when, after limping through a weak qualifying group, which England will do, playing the same unadventurous, at times torturous, brand of football, the team are torn apart in Brazil the first time they play anybody half-decent. Football has changed, very noticeably, in the last eight years and, while the rest of the world is evolving quickly and adapting to the change, England are stuck in reverse with a Brontosaurus calling the shots.

The third lesson we can take from the summers’ championships is that, regardless of how strong a squad you have at your disposal, it is always folly to make wholesale changes. This point is particularly in reference to Joachim Loew, the German coach, who, for the game against Greece, changed several members of the starting line-up in order to “rest” them for the semi-final.

A presumptuous move, which initially seemed to have been a sensible one, with Germany crushing Greece by a 4-2 score-line in the end, however, in the semi-final, his decision came back to haunt him.  The performance of some of those brought in against Greece, particularly Reus, tempted Loew to keep them in the starting line-up against Italy in the semi-final at the expense of other regular first-teamers. Germany were poor against the Italians and, in particular, couldn’t get going as an attacking force. This was particularly obvious because this German side is normally so quick and fluid going forwards. After falling behind, to Mario Balotelli, Germany never really looked like coming back.

Many Germans, the press and former players, including Didi Hamann, blame the performance against Italy on the re-shuffle made before the Greece game. Why? Firstly, tournament football is different in that the games come every three or four days and each one is hugely significant, played at high intensity. Players, tired after a long season, often only get through these tournaments on adrenalin so, bizarrely, giving them too much rest can actually make them more tired, their muscles heavier etc.. Secondly  making so many changes and then half-changing back for the semi meant that Loew disrupted the fluency of the German side and, being so spoilt for choice, the feeling here in Germany is that Loew got the recipe wrong when selecting his starting eleven for the Italy match, particularly in leaving out Thomas Mueller.

Ukraine-Germany                                                       Too Much Tinkering by Loew & Co

Germany are, no doubt, one of the best international sides in Europe at the moment. I fancied them to seriously challenge Spain for the trophy and they certainly played some mouth-watering football, smashing in plenty of goals along the way. Unfortunately, the strength of Loew’s squad and perhaps the confidence that this gave the manager was their undoing. During the tournament, Joachim Loew spoke brazenly about not being shy of tough decisions and having the confidence to change a winning team so it is ironic, in a way, that ultimately it will be his decision to do just that which will be remembered for costing the nation its place in the final of Euro2012. The old adage then, in this case, remains correct; never change a winning team.

 These are three of the main conclusions that I drew form Euro 2012. A tournament eagerly awaited but quickly finished, the excitement of an international competition over for another two years. It was fun while it lasted, it added to our summer evenings and taught us all a lesson or two but now, it’s back to the real business of club football as we look forward to the beginning of the 12/13 season.