Euro 2012 previews: general themes

June 5, 2012

Team-by-team previews are on their way later today. But, to save repetition in many articles, here are some general themes based upon recent international tournaments:

1. For underdogs, being defensive and organised, then playing on the break is the best bet

Fans of outsiders in this competition have often complained that they’re not passing the ball well enough and that they want to see a more expansive game. That might be personal preference in terms of aesthetics, but the current success as Spain shouldn’t be seen as the template for more minor football nations in this competition.

Recent underdogs who have proved successful have generally been very defensive, have allowed themselves to be dominated, then relied on counter-attacking and set-pieces. Continental champions Greece in 2004 and Zambia in 2012 had the lowest pass completion rate of any side in the tournament. Uruguay weren’t quite so extreme in World cup 2010 and Copa America 2011, but were very reactive. For the likes of Ireland, Czech Republic and Ukraine, playing ‘good football’ is not on the agenda.

Being a knockout tournament, you can get far simply by being hard to beat – Paraguay reached last year’s Copa America final with five consecutive draws.

2. Strikers don’t need to be prolific to be part of a winning side

In 1998 Stephane Guivarc’h spearheaded the victorious French side despite not scoring in the entire tournament, in 2006 Luca Toni did something similar, only scoring in one game. Even Spain in 2010 didn’t see their starting striker score in any matches – David Villa only scored in games where he’d started on the left, and Fernando Torres didn’t score.

In international football the striker is often a target man and a hold-up player rather than a brilliant poacher, and the Golden Boot might be won with as few as four goals.

3. The schedule will be important

This has been touched on before – the draw was important not just because of who each team was drawn against, but because some sides will have a serious advantage in terms of preparation time.

4. Club connections are vital

Spain depended a lot on Barcelona at the last World Cup, Italy had good club connections (Pirlo-Gattuso, Cannavaro-Zambrotta, Totti-Perrotta) thoughout the side too. Football is, more than ever, based around familiarity and cohesion when it comes to passing moves. Club football has never been so superior to international football, and it’s now obvious that international sides suffer by not having enough time to work on attacking moves as club sides.

Therefore, it’s clear to see that Russia have built upon Zenit and CSKA players and the Czechs have built on (ex-)Plzen players, for example. There are many more instances.

5. Lesser nations don’t have stars

With the exception of Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and a couple of younger players like Christian Eriksen who haven’t yet proved themselves on the international stage) the outsiders in this competition don’t have a single world-class figure to build the side around.

That, to a certain extent, has always been the case. But there is no Gheorghe Hagi, no Hristo Stoichkov, no Pavel Nedved, no Zlatko Zahovic, no Marc Wilmots – players who, around ten years ago, utterly dominated their side and played a huge part in their success or failure. This time around, coaches of outsiders have stressed the importance of playing as a team to maximise ability, having acknowledged the lack of top-class players.

6. Various sides are atypical of their nationality

Holland aren’t very Dutch, Germany aren’t very German, Italy aren’t very Italian, Sweden aren’t very Swedish – the list goes on.

7. The major contenders have made few changes from 2010

Germany, Holland and Spain were the only three European sides to make the World Cup quarter-finals two years ago. Then, there was no talk of a ‘last chance’ for any particular generation of players, and these three nations have broadly kept the same side. Spain have called 19 of the same 23 players, for example (it would have been 21 had David Villa and Carles Puyol been fit) while the German and Dutch sides will be familiar to anyone who hasn’t watched them in the last two years, though each side has been forced to evolve slightly to prevent becoming predictable.

Coincidentally, left-back has been the position each of these three sides has either changed, or struggled to fill.

8. Little variety in shape

Tactical interest at the World Cup came from non-European sides: Brazil’s lopsided shape, Chile’s 3-3-1-3, North Korea’s 5-1-2-1-1, New Zealand’s 3-4-3, Uruguay’s various systems, the USA’s 4-2-2-2, Mexico’s 3-4-3 / 4-3-3.

Unless Italy spring a surprise, there probably won’t be any three-man defences. We’re also looking to Italy for the only real chance of a 4-3-1-2. Every other country will play a back four, a central striker, two wide players and a combination of three central midfielders, in some format. It’s 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Any side that is brave enough to try something different may prosper.

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