Sports

Italy’s attack brilliant, England and France not so much, format is a hit


In any given European club season, it can take weeks or even months to get an accurate read on a given team, its strengths and its weaknesses. At Euro 2020, or any European Championships for that matter, we’re only guaranteed to see each country’s side three times.

In the early stages of a tournament like this, it can be tricky to figure out what we’re seeing and what we’ve learned. As we brace for the third and final matches of the group stages, let’s sort through it. Among the tournament’s favorites, who is playing sustainably well and who is still trying to figure things out?

Which player is most likely to convert a breakout performance into a bigger gig? And why is this tournament’s large knockout stage a good thing?

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Italy’s awesome attacking identity

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Alessandro Del Piero feels everything was perfect about Italy’s performance in their 3-0 win vs. Switzerland.

Even in an age of possession and length-of-the-pitch pressing, there is still room for good old pragmatism in the international game. The lack of practice time, combined with a multi-round, single-elimination tournament, can produce a desire to play lowest-common-denominator ball: defend well, take few risks, hope a talented attacker does something awesome at some point, and advance. It’s working pretty well for France.

Lord knows Italy could do that. In the last 55 years, the home of catenaccio reached the finals of four World Cups and three Euros, winning two of the former and one of the latter, while defending its heart out (and occasionally scoring). That is the stereotype, and they have lived up to it frequently.

Except, that’s not Italian football at this moment. Serie A teams averaged 1.53 goals per match in 2020-21, well more than those in La Liga (1.25) and the Premier League (1.35) and more than even the wide-open Bundesliga (1.52). Among these four leagues, only Bayern Munich averaged more goals than the trio of Atalanta, Inter Milan and Napoli, and each of the top five teams in the table averaged at least 1.95 goals per match. Goals scored correlated more with your point total than goals allowed did.

Twelve of the 26 players on Italy’s Euros squad came from those five teams. Only four played for a team outside of Serie A. Attacking the ball and attacking the goal: the new Italian DNA.

Through two matches at the Euros, Italy has scored more goals (six) than anyone else and has created more chances (27) than everyone but Denmark. Their expected goals (xG) total of 4.34 is lower than only Netherlands. They have bad intentions with the ball and when they don’t have the ball, the midfield harasses you until you give it back. Opponents have finished only 54 possessions in the attacking third, as many as Germany managed against ultra-conservative France in one match last week. Their central defense is, to put it charitably, old — 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci and 36-year-old Giorgio Chiellini are the primary centre-backs, though Chiellini will miss Italy’s third group-stage match with a minor injury — but has only been required to put out a few fires, as opponents have attempted only nine shots, one on goal.

To put all this another way, the Italians have been rampant thus far, walloping Turkey (a popular Euros sleeper pick) and Switzerland (a squad with 18 players from “Big 5” European leagues) by identical 3-0 margins. They are fluid, intense and unbeaten in 29 matches. They are not only playing well, they’re playing a style that suits them perfectly. Storied manager Roberto Mancini has been on the job for more than three years and his familiarity with his personnel — and their familiarity with what is being asked of them — shines through.

A four-match knockout round assures some major randomness in the tournament’s late stages, and after a third group match against Wales with not much on the line for either side, it could only take a single lapse to knock them out of the tournament. But they’re as likely as anyone to make a run.

So far, France and England are playing to their respective strengths

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Chris Coleman lauds the performance of Hungary in their surprise 1-1 draw with France.

England‘s Euros roster includes Tottenham Hotspur‘s Harry Kane, Manchester City‘s Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling, Borussia Dortmund‘s Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham, Aston Villa‘s Jack Grealish, Manchester United‘s Marcus Rashford, Everton‘s Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Arsenal‘s Bukayo Saka. It is maybe the deepest and most exciting collection of attacking talent in the tournament.

Fact: If England doesn’t have the best attacking talent, France does — Paris Saint-Germain‘s Kylian Mbappe, Barcelona‘s Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele, Real Madrid‘s Karim Benzema, Bayern’s Kingsley Coman, Chelsea‘s Olivier Giroud, Borussia Monchengladbach‘s Marcus Thuram, Monaco‘s Wissam Ben Yedder, plus Manchester United’s Paul Pogba in midfield.

And yet, England and France have combined to put eight shots on goal in four matches thus far. Opponents: also eight.

It’s not that Didier Deschamps and Gareth Southgate are doing anything wrong, exactly. Neither Deschamps’ France nor Southgate’s England have lost a match, and both are almost mathematically certain to advance to the round of 16. When you’re overrun with talent like these two squads are, you don’t have to show your entire hand in the group stage. (You also have to make hard decisions about who will and won’t see the pitch since you obviously can’t give every attacker 90 minutes.) France did win the World Cup three years ago with Deschamps at the helm, after all.

But.

We’re learning quite a bit about the concept of margin for error at the Euros. Mancini’s Italy have put 11 shots on goal to their opponents’ one. Belgium and Netherlands have each allowed six — semi-alarming — but have created nine and 11, respectively. But unlike Italy, neither France nor England are playing in ways that allow their biggest matchup advantages to give them, well, advantages.

England managed fewer shots on goal than Scotland in Friday’s scoreless draw. France did attempt 15 shots against Hungary in Saturday’s 1-1 draw, but only four found their target, and their only goal was not the product of wonderful buildup and incisive play. It was a Route One bomb from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris that found Mbappe and eventually made its way into the net via Griezmann’s boot.

Again, things are technically fine, but even if both squads play their way into the tournament and slowly find their attacking form, something particularly egregious has stood out: in a year in which so many guys have played the most minutes of their respective careers, having five substitutions to work with can be vital and provide the deepest teams with additional advantages. In France’s win over Germany, Deschamps inserted two subs (for Dembele and midfielder Corentin Tolisso) for a combined two minutes. Against Hungary, he did sub Dembele in for a solid 30-minute shift, but three other subs (Giroud, Tolisso, Thomas Lemar) played 31 minutes combined.

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Archie Rhind-Tutt is in disbelief over Jadon Sancho not yet featuring for England at Euro 2020.

Southgate has been even more conservative and frustrating in his substitutions. He made only three changes for a combined 28 minutes of action against Croatia, and only two subs for 43 minutes in the Scotland stalemate. Grealish has played 27 minutes, Bellingham just eight. Sancho, one of the most genuinely exciting and creative players in the world, has yet to see the pitch. Dual defensive midfielders Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips have played every minute thus far, and England indeed have yet to allow a goal. But they’ve also scored only one.

Southgate is both depleting his first-choice players’ gas tanks and almost openly avoiding creativity in attack. Neither of those things are good.

Every front-runner has way more questions at the back than the front

What makes the varied approaches from Italy, France and England so particularly interesting is that, aside from perhaps Spain, each of the tournament’s eight primary favorites are far deeper and more stable in the attacking positions than in defense.

Italy is riding Bonucci and Chiellini as far as possible at centre-back. Belgium is still leaning on 34-year-old Jan Vertonghen and 32-year-old Toby Alderweireld. Germany had to ask 32-year-old Mats Hummels to come back from “exile” to stabilize the back (with mixed results). Portugal still needs Pepe, 38, next to Ruben Dias (and is playing without star full-back Joao Cancelo, who tested positive for COVID-19 and had to withdraw from the squad).

The Netherlands still need 31-year-old Daley Blind. England can’t get all of its attackers some playing time (and isn’t really trying), while playing Tyrone Mings and John Stones in the back as Harry Maguire works his way back to full fitness. Meanwhile, France has the solid (though unspectacular) Presnel Kimpembe and Raphael Varane.

Compared to the attacking talent virtually all of these teams boast, defense is a relative weakness, a fact that was certainly backed up repeatedly in Germany’s 4-2 win over Portugal on Saturday.

In the second of Group F’s three heavyweight-vs-heavyweight matchups, Germany played on the front foot (as Germany is generally wont to do), and while Portugal did pull off some promising counter-attacking opportunities, they also had some long runs of possession in attack. Portugal went ahead by countering against Germany’s high and unsteady back line, then Germany surged ahead by constantly pulling the Portugal defense from side to side and sending stressful balls into the box. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Diogo Jota combined for two goals and two assists, while Germany’s Robin Gosens and Kai Havertz combined for two and three. This was open, mostly optimistic ball, and it produced a high level of entertainment.

Aesthetically, this was so much more fun to watch than, say, England vs. Scotland, but which style is right for success? Who’s more likely to advance deep into the tournament: an aggressive team like Italy, Germany, Belgium or Netherlands, playing to their respective strengths, but exposing their obvious weaknesses? Or a drastically conservative team like France or England, dampening their strengths and limiting their margin for error in the name of protecting their defense?

Historically, you could say the latter is still the way to go, especially in a single-elimination knockout stage, but Germany reminded us on Saturday that they are dangerous enough to slice any defense open.

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Sami Khedira feels Germany must improve further if they are to go far at Euro 2020.

A check on the underdogs and hipster pick

Heading into the tournament, it was basically the top eight and everyone else — France, England, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Netherlands all had betting odds between +450 (equivalent to 18%) and +1200 (8%) per Caesars, and everyone else was at +2800 (3%) or higher. Not surprisingly, not much has changed. Per SPI, the eight favorites currently have a combined 78% chance of lifting the trophy. But that still leaves a few others with a fighting chance. The current top five dark horses outside of these eight:

Austria (4.7%): My hipster pick before the tournament https://www.espn.com/soccer/uefa-european-championship/story/4401323/euro-2020-preview-picksscouting-reportsmust-see-gamesbiggest-upset-teams-and-much-more, Das Team has absolutely looked the part in one match (an easy 3-1 win over North Macedonia) and has gotten ripped to shreds in another (a 2-0 loss to Netherlands that, with the quality chances the Dutch were creating, could have been much worse). They are likely to qualify for the knockout rounds, and while they are unlikely to win four in a row from there, hey, that’s what makes them a dark horse.

Denmark (4.5%): In their first two matches, the Danes have attempted 43 shots to their opponents’ seven, and while plenty of shots have been low-quality, they’ve still created 3.86 xG to opponents’ 1.33. And they’ve lost twice. That’s bad luck, but if they beat Russia, they will still be well-positioned to advance, and if expected goals turn into actual goals, this popular pre-tournament dark horse pick could still make a run.

Switzerland (3.2%): They significantly outplayed Wales, dominating the ball, taking 18 shots to Wales’ nine and generating 1.79 xG while allowing 0.51. The 1-1 draw was not justice. Their 3-0 loss to Italy? Justice. So put them in the same category as Austria — high upside, low downside.

Sweden (1.9%): You’ve gotta give them this: the Swedes have an identity. They want nothing to do with the ball — they had 16% possession against Spain and 42% against Slovakia. They just want to defend in an old-school 4-4-2, quickly get the ball the hell out of their end and hope that either Real Sociedad‘s Alexander Isak, RB Leipzig‘s Emil Forsberg or Krasnodar‘s Marcus Berg makes great use of limited attacking opportunities. It’s working so far.

Ukraine (1.6%): Predictably, Ukraine applied far more pressure and controlled far more of the ball in their 2-1 win over North Macedonia than their 3-2 loss to Netherlands. But in both matches, they stretched opponents from sideline to sideline, created high-quality (if sometimes rare) scoring opportunities and, through Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk, convert those chances at a high rate. There are worse recipes than that!

Meet future Premier League striker, Roman Yaremchuk

As a general rule, “post crazy scoring numbers in a lesser league and play well for club and country in European competitions” is a slam-dunk combination for getting yourself noticed. It might not guarantee you thrive in a top league, but it puts you on the fast track to getting there.

Check, check and check for Ukraine’s Roman Yaremchuk, then.

– Post crazy numbers in a lesser league: After scoring 17 times at about 0.32 goals per 90 minutes in his first two seasons at Belgium’s Gent, Yaremchuk improved to 10 goals in 18 matches in 2019-20 (0.60 per 90), then 17 in 28 in 2020-21 (0.64). He also posted a career-high six assists.

– Play well for club in Europe: In seven Champions League and Europa League matches last year, he scored twice (0.37 per 90) with six chances created (1.11 per 90). Not spectacular, but solid.

– Play well for country in Europe: Big time. Over the past two years, he has scored for Ukraine in World Cup qualification, Euros qualification and the UEFA Nations League, and he’s now scored twice in the Euros. First, he sent in a game-tying header on a set-piece late against Netherlands; then, he made a perfectly-timed run into space against North Macedonia before slotting the ball home nicely for the game-clinching score.

The result? Premier League transfer rumors! West Ham United, which already employs Yaremchuk’s veteran countryman, Andriy Yarmolenko, is evidently taking a long look. That makes perfect sense. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index gives Ukraine a 95% chance of reaching the round of 16, so Yaremchuk’s showcase could last a little longer, too. Another couple of goals, and even more clubs could get involved.

(Note: a similar run of form can bump you from a solid European club to an even bigger one, as the Czech Republic‘s Patrik Schick might soon learn. He scored nine goals in his first season with Bayer Leverkusen, and he’s already scored three times — including a 50-yard wonder goal against Scotland — at the Euros. That has “big-club panic bid” written all over it.)

It’s cool to see Gareth Bale’s Old Man Game

Gareth Bale confirmed his status as one of the world’s best players on Nov. 2, 2010. Playing for Tottenham against Inter Milan in the Champions League, he ran around, past and through Maicon, one of the world’s best right-backs at the time, on the way to a hat-trick. His combination of physical prowess and technical skill was jarring. He had slowly transformed from full-back to attacker, and he would score 26 goals for Spurs in 2012-13 before moving on to Real Madrid for nearly €100 million.

Even with a steady stream of injuries, he scored at least 17 goals in all competitions four times for the “super club” and contributed to three Champions League title runs.

Sadly, injuries have caught up to him. Nearly 11 years since his dissection of Maicon, he’s lost much of the pace that once defined him. He fell out of favor in Madrid, barely playing 1,000 league minutes in 2019-20; he got loaned back to Spurs this season, but played only 923 minutes.

In those 923 minutes, however, he scored 11 goals and created 21 chances. On a per-minute basis, he averaged 1.27 goals and assists per 90 for Spurs. He had averaged only 0.77 during his dynamic 2012-13 season! And in 180 minutes in the Euros, Bale has already contributed two assists among five chances created. His second was about as gorgeous as you’ll see.

Bale’s 1.32 expected assists (xA) in the tournament are second to only Sweden’s Alexander Isak. He still has all of his technical skill, and he has replaced pace with a crafty, all-encompassing Old Man Game. He can, and will, still trick you, wrong-foot you and lob a perfectly weighted pass over you.

We have no idea what Bale’s future holds. He has a year left on his Real Madrid contract, but he hasn’t been in their plans for a while. Spurs at one point expressed interest in bringing him back to London permanently, but they’re too busy cycling through 100 managerial candidates to form a transfer plan. For all we know, Bale could retire to a life of golf. My own personal, aesthetic request is that he land on a team that doesn’t press much, plays a more reactive style, plants him in a more central attacking role and allows him to become a master facilitator. When he’s healthy, anyway.

Tiki-taka isn’t Spain’s problem: opposing goalkeepers are

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Tim Howard and Julie Foudy discuss the ramifications of the 1-1 draw between Spain and Poland in Group E at Euro 2020.

ESPN’s Soccer Power Index thinks very highly of Spain at the moment, giving it a 90.3 rating — the highest of anyone in Europe. The rationale for this isn’t hard to suss out: they’ve only lost once since the start of 2019, and they possess the ball well, which from a general standpoint typically correlates well with winning matches.

Their plodding possession, however, means they alternate between two different types of results: big wins (usually against the Lithuanias and Kosovos of the world, though sometimes also Germany) and plodding draws against teams capable of staying organized and tight defensively. In their 15 matches since the start of 2020, they’ve scored zero or one goals 10 times, and eight have ended in 0-0 or 1-1 draws. All the possession in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t create dangerous situations, and that has slowed them down dramatically in the Euros thus far.

In draws against Sweden (0-0) and Poland (1-1), the Spanish have posted obscene possession numbers: they’re the only team with over 60% through two matches, and they’re at 80.1%. They’re completing 89% of their passes, and you can’t simply accuse them of knocking the ball around at midfield. They’ve attempted 29 shots (fourth in the tournament) worth 5.7 xG (first). Granted, of that 5.7 xG, 1.1 was created in a single exchange against Poland: Gerard Moreno‘s penalty miss (0.77 xG) and Alvaro Morata‘s biffed rebound attempt (0.36). But if you remove that exchange entirely, still rank third in xG created.

So why are they stuck on one goal? For starters, most of their looks on goal are coming in traffic. Twenty of their 29 shots have come under what StatsPerform defines as “moderate to high pressure.” That’s the price of playing against packed-in defenses. Most of the most dangerous attacks combine possession with aggression in a way that the Spanish team simply doesn’t.

They have also simply been a victim of great goalkeeping. They had five shots on goal against Poland, worth 2.1 xGOT (expected goals for shots on target), and Poland’s Wojciech Szczesny saved four of them. They had five shots on goal against Sweden, worth 1.4 xGOT, and Sweden’s Robin Olsen saved all five.

The xGOT concept is intended to measure the quality of shots teams put on goal and quantify what a goalkeeper is truly keeping out of his own net. Spain’s quality has been pretty high; they haven’t been aimless in possession so much as they’ve been stonewalled. The longer they can advance through this tournament — and SPI still gives them an X% chance of advancing to the round of 16 — the more likely those balls will start finding the net.

Let’s be honest: this is a good tournament format

I’ve seen a decent amount of teeth-gnashing when it comes to Euros format, in which a 36-match group stage only eliminates eight teams before the four-round, 16-team knockout round takes over. Without higher stakes, more group stage matches could lack intensity and with such a low bar for even third-place teams to qualify from a given group — four will advance from six groups — teams could be happy to play for draws.

Conceptually, all of this is true, but in 24 matches thus far, we’ve seen only two nil-nil draws (England-Scotland and Spain-Sweden), and in Spain-Sweden, Spain attempted 17 shots and generated 2.0 xG. They were most certainly not playing for a draw.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen our share of shock results. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the four biggest betting favorites of the tournament — France (-350) against Hungary, England (-320) against Scotland, Denmark (-310) against Finland and Spain (-300) against Sweden — have failed to win, instead generating one win and three draws. We have seen plenty of tension and surprises, and while the third leg of the group stage will feature a few lower-stakes matches with favorites having a chance to rest favorites, only one team (North Macedonia) has been officially eliminated. Almost everyone has something to play for.

The format has been a plus so far, and that’s before we get to the aesthetic value: with more teams playing four matches instead of three, we get more complete stories for a lot of teams and players beyond the normal favorites. We’ll likely get a little more of Yaremchuk and Isak, of Ukraine’s creativity and Austria’s nonstop enigmatic play and Bale’s old-man game. Slovakia has solid odds of continuing a surprising run. There are more stories to follow and more players to get to know, and if it means the group stage as a whole has lower stakes, that’s a fair trade in my book.





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