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What I Learned From Watching Day 16 of The Euros 2012, Quarterfinal No. 4, and a Look at The Battle Of Iberia

June 27, 2012

Last Sunday, Italy finished setting the table for the Euro 2012 semifinals with a dramatic penalty kick survival over a yet again starcrossed England.  We look back for a few moments before attending to the matter at hand today:

  • Sometimes the story just wants to write itself.  I’ll avoid harping on the fact that England is again out of a major tournament in the quarterfinals as well as the fact that they again exited a major tournament by losing a penalty shootout, and instead focus on what should happen going forward.  It should be clear by now, as clear this moment as it was seconds after their loss Sunday, that if England wants to win a major tournament ever again (and I’m sure they do), they have to reinvent themselves and their approach to soccer. Shake things up much like Germany did starting after Euro 2004 under current U.S. Manager Jurgen Klinsman when they embraced new training methods and placed a higher value on creative expression over confining precision (while still maintaining their cunning directness), as well as Spain the past two decades incorporating Dutch and Brazilian influences into what has now become a unified offensive and defensive tactical approach, their triangular tiki-taka possession-oriented game. In today’s soccer climate, no team can win anything of importance by initiating what I call the “Grand Chase” for 90 minutes: a reactive approach that allows your opponent to dictate the terms of engagement in the midfield, not emphasizing the importance of ball possession by giving the ball away too cheaply when you do possess it, and in effect chasing both the ball and the game even when they are ahead on the scoreline. No longer will physical effort, gritty determination and hoping for luck at the expense of technical skill, ball possession and passing accuracy suffice, even as there is more than one way to achieve winning results; See Greece in 2004 and Italy in 2006, both defensive, counterattacking teams that still played the game on their own terms, forced opponents dance to their tune and made their possessions count. It’s not so much that England must develop a sense of what some call “Latin flair” – a creative expressiveness in attack for which “Latin” nations like Italy, France, Spain, Brazil & Argentina are known – or dominate the ball like many other soccer nations do, but rather they must make the possession they do enjoy count for a purpose.  England must make their own “luck”, and develop an approach that tests the highest level of opponents’ patience when they possess the ball, as well as limit their own turnover in the middle third of the field. It doesn’t have to be the German directness that now has more nuance than German champions of the past, nor does it have to resemble Brazil’s “Samba Soccer” or Spain’s “Death of 1,000 Paper Cuts.” However, the idea that possession isn’t that important when you can just win the ball back again with physical defense and rely on blunt, low percentage offensive tactics does not work against the best teams in Europe, South America, and soon Africa. This I’m afraid goes to the very spirit, the zeitgeist if you will of the English psyche, the puritanical focus on effort and directness over acumen and efficiency that has dominated England’s stylistic approach to soccer since they invented the game, and is something that has to change inside the overall cultural mindset first, before imbuing a new generation of English footballers with fresh ideas on winning soccer. Otherwise, I’m certain the history of English futility in major championships since 1966 will repeat itself.
  • Sifting through the details of Sunday’s match, it was an intense yet glacial affair, as if it was following a script written by Albert Camus. Both teams played not to lose after the first 20 minutes, neither team was able or even appeared capable of navigating their way through the other’s defensive armada, nor were they willing to stray from what clearly wasn’t working. England was technically outclassed in several ways by Italy, who dominated possession, controlled the midfield and created the more legitimate scoring chances in regular and extra time, goalkeeper Joe Hart and their organized backline the only saving graces. The few times England was on the attack, Italy had a simple strategy that never stopped working: All Italy had to do was to surround any England player with the ball with three defenders (sometimes only two), and any potential threat was soon ended. In a microcosm of what has been the downfall of English Soccer for the past two decades, Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott were the only two England players who could keep the ball under pressure and in a crowd, while Andy Carroll was the only other one who could even hold the ball in the attacking third and have a chance of making quick and proper decisions distributing the ball. While Stephen Gerrrard is also capable of these things, between fatigue and defensive duties he was never able to join the attack. At best, it was 3-on-6 for England trying to score goals (and that’s with Walcott and Carroll being substituted in after an hour), a simple math that was never going to yield positive results. England couldn’t win the ball enough from Andrea Pirlo and his mates, nor could they keep it long enough in the times they did win it back to create any meaningful pressure, giving it back to Italy cheaply and almost willingly. A fatalistic approach that in the end only prolonged England’s agony, like they were waiting for lightning to strike on a clear day. Not that Italy was any better in finishing the chances they had, a continuing trend that portends to their own exit on Thursday against Germany.
  • In the first of what should be two scintillating semifinals, Spain faces their Iberian neighbors and rivals Portugal on Wednesday.  In many ways Portugal has been the more impressive squad, losing narrowly to fellow semifinalist Germany before beginning an upward trajectory that has seen them vanquish Denmark, Netherlands and the Czech Republic in succession.  The Seleccao has also been the beneficiary of Cristiano Ronaldo having found his best form in a national kit, his enterprise and sheer ability overcoming what has effectively been for Portugal more of a “False No. 9” than Spain.  While the ongoing dialogue of Spain’s conquest for their own major tournament “Three-peat” has been about the questions facing them, so far Spain has had all the answers needed.  In short, I expect Portugal to attack down the Spanish flanks behind their world-class wingers and stretch a narrow Spanish midfield.  I expect Spain in return to deploy a “True No. 9”, a striker up to stretch the Portuguese defense vertically.  In the end, I expect Spain to win that tug of war, possibly with a score of 2-1.

Up Next: Wednesday June 27 (today), the first participant in the Euro 2012 Final is decided by “The Battle of Iberia”, Spain and Portugal kicking off in Donetsk at 11:45AM PST.


From → Soccer, Sports

  1. 30 more minutes in Gdansk … At this point, too much of a bad thing?

  2. EDIT: June 27 ~5:40PM PST, to add two more links in the Spain-Portugal preview and edit the last sentence to “Battle of Iberia”.

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