With the Euro 2012 coming to an end, we highlight the top 5 talking points from the second most prestigious tournament in the world.
1. Strikers Off Target
This has not been a tournament for strikers. Other than Mario Balotelli, no striker was able to leave a mark and even Super Mario was not sure of his place in the team until his semi-final exploits. Fernando Torres won the Golden Boot with 3 goals, which is the lowest score for a golden boot winner since it became a 16-team tournament in 1996; and none of his goals had any major impact on the result of the matches.
There were a large number of star strikers that failed miserably. Robin van Persie could not recreate his club form while Wayne Rooney scored an easy header in his first match, but produced a procession of erratic touches and misplaced passes for the remainder of his outing. Karim Benzema was another one of the high-profile flops of the tournament, particularly poor against Spain and Klaas jan Huntelaar failed to make any impact in his limited playing time. Portuguese strikers Hugo Almeida and Helder Postiga’s primary role was to create goals or space for better attackers in the forward line. Mario Gomez scored 3 goals but calls for him to be replaced by 34-year-old Miroslav Klose never died out.
Fittingly, Spain with their striker-less 4-3-3-0 formation won the tournament (although Fabregas played as a No.9, not a False 9 in the final). The fluid front three could interchange positions and create better angles for attack than a more static frontline with a central striker; as showcased by Fabregas’s run behind Chiellini and chip for Silva, to cut in from the right, and score the opener in the final.
2. Against Tradition
‘Germany are the new Spain, Spain are the new Germany’ was a popular joke doing the rounds of the online football community after Germany’s semi-final defeat. It is in reference to how Spain had been winning in a mechanical way until the final, without playing particularly thrilling football, traditionally Germany’s forte; while ‘Die Mannschaft’ or ‘the team’ enthralled throughout the tournament but faltered at the semi-final stage yet again, Spain’s bane for decades. Roles were reversed as Germany succumbed to pressure while Spain laid to rest their Italian hoodoo once and for all.
There were several other teams which moved away from their traditional values in this tournament, to varying degrees of success. The Azzurri discarded their traditional approach of defending in numbers and depending on individual brilliance for goals. Cesare Prandelli has tried to follow the Barcelona/Spain model and believed that adopting a defensive approach would be a “waste of two years preparation”. There is little doubt that he succeeded in his aim of restoring Italy’s pride and “bringing the national team closer to the people of Italy again”, two years after the World Cup debacle.
Another manager trying to follow the Barcelona model was Laurent Blanc, but when the time came to test it out against the masters, he chose to trust his error-prone defenders rather than world-class attackers. The Blues parked the bus but failed miserably and lost the match without even putting up a fight. Blanc has been heavily criticized in the national media ever since.
Van Marwijk’s Holland played two destroyers in midfield for the first two matches before deciding to play Van der Vaart in the final game, but the team looked equally disjointed in all three. In the land of football purists that is Netherlands, his almost blasphemous approach has been blamed for the team’s failures, with Ruud Gullit and Johan Cruyff extremely critical of the team’s style of play. Both Blanc and van Marwijk have since left their respective posts.
England however stayed true to tradition with their outdated 4-4-2, long balls (Hart to Carroll was their most common passing combination against Italy) and eventually a quarter-final exit; on penalties.
3. Doing A Chelsea
The past season saw static, well organized teams get the better of more energetic and proactive style of football. Atletico Madrid beat Athletic Bilbao in the Europa Cup final while in the Champions League, Chelsea overcame, first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich, to fly the flag for reactive football. But the Euro Championship saw the technically adept teams overcoming teams that tried to defend deep and counter attack. The recent tide in favor of reactive football, after Chelsea’s Champions League win was reversed, and proactive football proved triumphant.
Scott Parker spoke of how England could “do a Chelsea” before their quarter-final clash but Italy completely dominated the game and were unlucky that the game went into penalties. Ireland were the poorest team in the competition. Greece were the only ones who had any degree of success but they managed to qualify from the easiest group only to be hammered by Germany. France tried to defend deep and in numbers against Spain but were outclassed. The only team to score against Spain was Italy in the opening game in which they attacked throughout the game.
Control was the deciding factor. Del Bosque swapped Fabregas for a genuine no. 9 to have higher possession percentages. Germany were eventually knocked out because despite their technical brilliance, they did not exercise the same level of control on matches.
The semi-finals were contested between the four best sides in the tournament; and there were no surprise performances like Greece 2004 or Russia 2008. Technical superiority overcame dogged defending in this tournament.
4. Club Connect
This may be stating the obvious but the tournament highlighted the advantages of picking players from the same club. As all the teams had barely 2 weeks to prepare, there was little time for the players to develop an understanding. Ultimately, the teams that reached the final had most of their players from the same club.
Except Jordi Alba and David Silva, all the players in Spain’s starting 11 in the final played for Madrid (4) or Barcelona (5) last season. Italy featured 6 players who plied their trade for Juventus in the Serie A. Germany’s semi-final team had 6 players from Bayern Munich. Also, a large number of players in their current national squad have been promoted from the squad that won the U-21 World Cup in 2009 and have plenty of experience playing together.
Conversely, Holland’s team in their last match featured 11 players who all played for different clubs. This was one of the key reasons for the disjointed performance from the Dutch with the lack of understanding between the players apparent in the lack of movement and number of passes going astray. This was perhaps also the reason for the infighting and ego clashes within the squad.
5. Spain Have A Signature Game
Brazil 1970 has the 4-1 World Cup final win over Italy while Puskas’s Hungary has the 6-3 “Twilight of the Gods” win over England at Wembley in 1953. Even great club sides like Real Madrid of late 50’s (7 -3 in the 1960 European Cup final against Frankfurt) and Sacchi’s Milan (4-0 against Barcelona in 1994) have matches that go down in footballing folklore.
Every team needs a memorable, signature match to raise their status from great to legendary. Spain, despite clearly being the most successful side of the modern era lacked that match which defines their legacy; until the final against Italy. The 4-0 hammering, the largest margin of victory ever recorded in this competition has lifted Spain into the pantheon of greatness.
Spain’s hat-trick of major international titles is unparalleled in football’s history. They have not conceded a goal in the knock-out stages since Zidane scored in the 2006 World Cup; 10 clean sheets for Iker Casillas who also became the first player to win 100 international games. In 2010, Spain’s average possession in the tournament was 65.2%, in 2012 this figure was 67.4% until the semi-final. They scored 12 goals in the tournament, twice that of their final opponents and conceded the least.
Their control of games means that they have few enthralling matches. Arsene Wenger felt that Spain now use possession as a defensive weapon rather than to score goals as several others accused them of being boring; before they resoundingly silenced their critics in the final. Spain may not be the most fondly remembered team of all time, but they probably are the greatest.