Teams of the Decade #1: Greece, Euro 2004

March 29, 2010

This Greek side achieved perhaps the most astonishing thing in the history of international football. There have been one-off shocks, games that went against the favourites because of a particular set of circumstances. USA 1-0 England in 1950. Senegal 1-0 France in 2002. But those things can happen; shocks in football happen because it’s such a low-scoring game, and dominance doesn’t always equal goals.

But never before has a team so unfancied gone onto win a major international tournament. Available at odds of up to 250/1 and having never won a tournament game in their history, Greece’s march to wining Euro 2004 was unquestionably the tactical achievement of the decade.

Remember them as negative, defensive, cycnical and unimaginative if you like, but it’s interesting that this only became the prevailing mood when Greece actually looked like winning the thing. In the opening game, where they beat Portugal, they were widely praised for their football. Slick passing, plenty of players attacking and generally positive play, the first game upset was treated like the Senegal victory two years previously, a great start to a tournament.

Admittedly, Greece didn’t play quite such wonderful football in the knock-out stages. But you have to marvel at quite how effective their strategy was:

Quarter-final against France (the holders) – won 1-0, header from a right-wing cross.

Semi-final against Czech Republic (the best team in the tournament) – won 1-0, header from a right-wing corner.

Final against Portugal (the hosts) – won 1-0, header from a right-wing corner.

To beat the holders, the best team and the hosts in successive rounds – by the same scoreline, by scoring in the same way – doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through immense tactical wisdom and careful deployment of tactics to suit each game.

Cast your mind back to 6th October 2001. In the 93rd minute at Old Trafford, David Beckham sent a majestic free-kick over the ball and into the net to secure England’s place in the World Cup Finals at the expense of Germany. Depending on your memory, you might remember that England were playing Greece, and you might remember that actually, England played awfully, struggling to create chances and being outplayed for the entire game.

You probably won’t remember this, but that was Otto Rehhagel’s first game as the manager of Greece. The side was in crisis, but that game showed Rehhagel had an idea of how Greece could beat better teams, by playing a strict man-marking system. They may have only got a draw, but for a team in such an awful situation, it went down in Greece like a victory.

For a side painted as rigid and boring, Greece did brilliantly to adapt their shape to suit different opposing formations – the only constant was to make sure they had a spare man at the back. Against France they set out with what almost a cross between a three- and four- man defence. France played two forward players, and therefore Greece used two man-markers with a sweeper. Trezeguet played centrally and was marshalled by Kapsis, Henry tended to move to the left and therefore the right-back, Seitaridis, stuck to him throughout. The left-back, Fysass, was free to venture forward, whilst the right-sided width came from Zagorakis.  Interpretation of the formation the newspapers the next day varied between a three- and four-man defence – but in a way, that was the point. Greece’s system used strict man-marking and was therefore dependent upon the movement of the France players. Since France’s side was so lopsided, Greece’s defence was too.

Meanwhile, playing four relatively central midfielders restricted France’s ability to keep possession. The shape effectively used seven defensive players, but the runs of the Fysass and Zagorakis created their best goalscoring opportunities and meant they attacked with five men, and it was no surprise when Zagorakis provided the cross for the only goal of the game.

They kept a similar shape for the game against the Czechs, who also featured two upfront. Although they were overrun by the Czech’s attacking threat early on, they pulled off the same trick again – Dellas heading home a Silver Goal.

Then, they faced a completely different challenge against Portugal in the final. Portugal played 4-2-3-1 with Pauleta as a lone forward, meaning that had the Greeks kept to a three-man defence, they would have had a surplus of centre-backs and been weak either in midfield, or in wide areas, where the Portuguese full-backs looked to get forward. And so Rehhagel switched to a more traditional four-man defence, retaining a spare man at the back. The full-backs marked Figo and Ronaldo relatively high up the pitch. They matched Portugal 3 v 3 in midfield, with Basinas and Katsouranis sitting deep and Zagorakis providing some kind of attacking presence – although the Greeks missed the real quality on the ball of the suspended Georgios Karagounis and rarely threatened in open play.

Further forward, Vryzas played the lone striker role and held the ball up – and was supported by two players; Stelios Giannakopoulos, a fairly traditional winger who stuck to his flank and forced back the dangerous Portuguese right-back Miguel. The opposite full-back, Nuno Valente, was less of a threat, and so Angelos Charisteas (more of a forward) was fielded tending to play towards that side of the pitch, although he became a forward when Greece had the ball, and right-sided width came from the excellent Seitiaridis.

Could they do it again? Of course they could. Charisteas was again the hero, and Portugal rarely looked like breaking the Greek defence down. For the final 15 minutes, Giannakopoulos was replaced with Stelios Venetidis, a left-back – and Greece effectively sat with eight defenders in front of their box. Felipe Scolari, the Portugal manager, never looked to challenge Greece’s determination of having a spare man at the back – a switch to two forwards may have asked questions, but he brought Nuno Gomes on for Pauleta, rather than changing Portugal’s shape.

Not many teams switch between a three-man and four-man defence so easily, and most managers would have stuck to the “Don’t change a winning team” theory having put out France and the Czechs. But you should change a winning team if the circumstances require it, and Rehhagel believed that as the underdogs, Greece should let their shape be dictated by that of the opposition.

Rehhagel stuck to the two key components of any successful tactical deployment:

Firstly, he played to his own side’s strengths. They had solid, reliable defenders and a hard-working midfield, with little attacking talent. To play open football would have been suicidal. They defended solidly, then countered at speed with numbers – and their set-piece organisation was superb.

Secondly, he changed his team to nullify his opponent’s strengths, and to stifle their main threats. The system against the France and Czechs wouldn’t have worked against the Portuguese, and vice-versa.

He maximised Greece’s strengths and nullifed his opponents’ strengths, to produce the biggest shock in international football history – and that is why this Greece is at #1 on this list.

A brief analysis of their victory over France:

And a fan’s eye view of the final victory over Portugal:

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