Czech Republic 2-1 Greece: Greece vulnerable down their left again
The Czech Republic had a very good first ten minutes, and that was enough to put themselves in a commanding position.
Both coaches made changes to their starting line-ups, moving their XI closer to the side that finished their opening matches. Michal Bilek started holding midfielder Tomas Hubschman, with Petr Jiracek on the left of midfield. At the back, Michael Kadlec moved into the middle from the left-back position he looked uncomfortable in against Russia, so David Limbersky came into the side at left-back.
Fernando Santos went with the forward trio that ended the 1-1 draw against Poland, so Giorgos Samaras started in the centre, with Dimitris Salpingidis on the right, and Kostas Fortounis deeper on the left. Santos was without both first-choice centre-backs, so Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Kostas Katsouranis played there, with Giorgos Fotakis starting in the centre of midfield.
This wasn’t a high quality match – the Czech Republic raced into a 2-0 lead and then sat back, preserving their lead, conserving their energy. Like in the first game, Greece improved after half-time, but were still disappointingly tame in the final third.
The main story from this game was how improved the Czech Republic were, having previously looked like one of the competition’s weakest sides. The presence of Hubschan gave the midfield stability and allowed Jaroslav Plasil more freedom to dictate play without having to worry about his defensive responsibilities.
But more important was the balance the Czechs had on the flanks. In the first game they started two similar players on the wings, Vaclav Pilar and Jan Rezek. They both made the same movement from opposite flanks, and the Czech build-up play was rather predictable.
The presence of Jiracek on the right flank made their passing much better – he drifted inside and became another playmaker between the lines to assist Tomas Rosicky, and allowed the Czech captain move deeper into midfield, away from Giannis Maniatis to help retain the ball (which, considering the Czechs went 1-0 up within three minutes, was a large part of their gameplan). But, importantly, Jiracek was also content to stay wider when needed, attempting to get in behind Jose Holebas, the Greek left-back.
Holebas’ defensive weakness had been exposed in the first game by Poland – when Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek teamed up and created 2 v 1 situations against him, and also took advantage of Holebas’ intention to play high up the pitch. Part of the problem in that match was the fact Samaras was playing on the left wing for Greece (but basically as a second striker) attempting to do his defensive work but frequently switching off, and letting Piszczek past him.
Bilek obviously noted that problem at left-back, and the Czech Republic made the most of it. In theory, Greece should have been stronger on that side of the pitch, because Samaras was upfront and the young Fortounis was on the left, more willing to track back and help out. He wasn’t particularly good defensively either, however, and Greece’s shape without the ball was poor – the wide players were slow to get back into position.
Fortounis can’t be blamed for the first goal, however – he was too high up the pitch to help out. Holebas was also high up, and was slow to regain his position, though the Czech Republic’s pressing was the major reason for the goal. They put immediate pressure on the Greek defence, with Rosicky moving forward to join Milan Baros, and pressing 2 v 2 from the front.
In turn, Pilar closed down Vasilis Torosidis, with Limbersky following up behind. Torosidis miscontrolled, Limbersky intercepted, and the Czechs were on their way. Greece lost possession in their own half, with only three man behind the ball. Holebas couldn’t shut down the gap between himself and Papadopoulous, and Jiracek raced through and finished. Oddly, his run was probably more typical of the movement (the dropped) Rezek would make, but Jiracek showed his adaptability to play that role too. From then on, he focused more upon linking play.
But that didn’t signal the end of the Greek problems down that flank. Another key feature of the Czech approach was moving Theodor Gebre-Selassie high up, forcing Fortounis back. For the second goal, Rosicky and Jiracek had swapped positions, and Fortounis got drawn into closing down Rosicky on the wing – in turn, giving Gebre-Selassie a run on him, and Fortounis couldn’t make up the ground, so Gebre-Selassie crossed for Pilar. It was the quickest 2-0 lead in the history of the European Championships.
Pilar played his role very intelligently – with Jiracek moving inside from the opposite flank, Pilar stayed very wide on the touchline to stretch the play, increasing the active playing zone and making it harder for Greece to close down. He still made those direct runs in the channels towards goal, but didn’t move inside and help pass the ball, leaving that to the ball-playing midfielders.
The early two-goal lead meant the rest of the first half was very quiet. The Czech Republic were content to cool the tempo, while Greece had problems getting themselves back into the game. Their midfield was not geared to attack – Giannis Maniatis had previously been the player connecting the midfield and attack, but was now the deepest midfielder. Fotakis didn’t replicate that role adequately, while Fortounis continued to be pushed back by Gebre-Selassie. Meanwhile, the presence of Hubschman helped protect the defence.
The second half was basically a test of Santos’ ability to turn the game. He’d used his substitutes excellently in the opening match, but here was limited to two tactical substitutions, having been forced to replace his goalkeeper in the first half.
His half-time change was Gekas on for Fotakis. Samaras went to the left, Gekas played upfront, and Fortounis came inside into a central playmaking role, almost turning Greece into a 4-2-1-3. But Hubschman nullified his influence, and most of Greece’s play seemed to go through Samaras, who played an odd hold-up role on the left.
Santos realised Fortounis wasn’t having much of an influence on the game, so replaced him with Kostas Mitroglu, more of a centre-forward. He roughly played in Fortounis’ position, but naturally moved higher up the pitch and effectively became a second striker.
Greece had got back into the game following a terrible Petr Cech error, but after Mitroglu’s introduction they seemed to be overstaffed high up the pitch, with four forwards, and lacked players to carry the ball towards goal. Sotiris Ninis or Giannis Fetfatzidis would have been useful options, players able to take on opponents. Instead, Greece hit lots of crosses, often from very deep positions.
Bilek’s swaps didn’t change things significantly. The Czech defence often dropped too deep and the side had effectively given up trying to score a third, but they hung on for the win.
Both managers attempted to correct the mistakes they made for the first game. For Bilek, it went perfectly – there was more defensive presence in the midfield, and more balance on the wings.
Greece simply failed to defend the left-back zone adequately for the second game running. On paper, Fortounis offered more protection for Holebas – but on the pitch, Holebas played too high up, and Gebre-Selassie got the better of Fortounis.