Sunday, June 08, 2008

Euro 2008, Days 1 & 2 Analysis

The first two days of Euro 2008 featured matchups that paralleled each other well -- in the early games, the presumably overwhelmed host nations would play against countries considered to be dark horses for the title. In the late games, a team considered to be one of the favorites played against teams that would have a shout at getting out of the group stages and not much more than that.

In both of the early games, pre-tournament analysis* was proven to have missed one of the canonical rules of soccer -- host nations are invariably lifted to at least one level higher than their talent due to the homefield advantage. Although Austria and Switzerland lost their games, both were the dominant team and were unlucky not to get at least a point.

In the later games, a 2-0 scoreline was paralleled as both contenders managed to control their games and either could have scored more. Portugal and Germany identified themselves as having a significant amount of influential players in their sides as well as a quality in depth that is lacking from many other squads in these championships. While the late games were more one-sided that those than game earlier, they were also more entertaining, as the greater technical abilities of the contenders created a more open, end-to-end game, as opposed to the cageyness of the early matches.

Switzerland v. Czech Republic

The Czechs lacked any sort of fluency in midfield, consistently turning the ball over 30-40 yards from the Swiss goal. They took the one clear chance that they had, otherwise it was extremely forgettable. Having Rosicky, Nedved and Poborsky removed from the team that looked so good at Euro 2004 is a let-down; however, I was surprised that Milan Baros was not on the field at any point in the match. Although he is a flawed and limited player, one of his major attributes is his willingness to run at players with the ball at his feet, something that the Czechs were lacking and which might have opened up the game.

One odd moment was near the end of the game, with the Swiss pushing for an equalizer. The camera cut to the Swiss bench and showed Liverpool-bound Philippe Degen sitting next to the injured Alexander Frei. With his team down 1-0 and struggling to make anything happen, as well as sitting next to the captain of the team that was injured near the end of the first half and struggling not to break down, Degen was laughing and smiling, apparently trying to share some sort of anecdote to Frei, who appeared to be studiously ignoring him. Considering that reports out of Borussia Dortmund around the time of his leaving were accusing Degen of having the intelligence of a rock with developmental issues, I'd be wary of him if I were a Reds fan.

Portugal v. Turkey

In the second half, Portugal took off Gomes and went to the formation that many people had been suggesting they adopt as the default, using three attacking wingers up top (in this case, Ronaldo, Simao and Nani) switching positions with no real center-forward. This type of formation has been used very effectively in club football by Manchester United and Roma and with Portugal not having a stand-out classic forward, it's a very attractive idea for them to adopt the fluid and interchangeable style that is currently the cutting-edge of modern soccer tactics. That said, it is worth noting that the winning goal was scored by a center-back, Pepe, who was put through on goal by a one-two played by Nuno Gomes, who started the game leading the line.

Austria v. Croatia

This match for me highlighted the problem with the traditional "flat" 442. Austria came out with an unusual 3-5-2 formation and after going behind early, the wide players in the midfield played more as wingers than wingbacks. For the majority of the match, the Croatian wide players were pinned back defending, allowing the Austrians to easily crowd and overwhelm the two Croatian forwards, who were forced to check back deep into midfield to receive the ball. In this kind of situation, it would have been beneficial for Croatia to play with one central attacker and two attacking widemen in the vein of the classic Ajax 443, since with their wide players pushing up, Austria was leaving the flanks open. However, with the Croatian wide midfielders having to spend most of their time defending, there was nobody exploiting that space. Although Croatia won the match, they were lucky to have done so and would have been better off being able to generate chances on the counter than desperately hoping their defense could hold out.

The man of the match for me was Dario Srna, who was responsible for the majority of the chances that Croatia generated and was an excellent defender down the right side. Croatia should have scored from one of his excellent dead-ball deliveries, although his one direct shot from a free-kick was poor and into the wall.

Germany v. Poland

Germany decided to go with an attacking lineup featuring Podolski wide left and Gomez and Klose up top. This decision paid off with all three players involved in the first goal, Gomez playing a tremendous flicked through-ball that sent Klose free before he set up Podolski for a tap-in. While they did not score again until the later part of the second half, the Germans were consistently able to generate a variety of chances, although neither Michael Ballack or Torsten Frings were able to get forward as much as they would have liked.

Poland played well tactically yet could not generate more than a few clear-cut chances, which they were unable to take advantage of. The best chance was a cut-back from the right side of the penalty area that was put wide of the far post, which was quickly followed by the Germans blowing the exact same situation at the other end of the pitch. Although the Poles had a great deal of shots, most of these were from 30+ yards and were either wide of the goal or easily handled by Mad Jens.

* - Sensibly missing from TMFF, of course.

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