Saturday, June 30, 2012

Invention vs Prevention, Or Simply Execution?

Soccer managers, even the best of them, have a nasty habit of retreating into a strategy of trying not to lose in big matches. The stakes are so high that this becomes a more common tendency than we might think. Who wants to lose embarrassingly to an inferior opponent, or have their historic soccer club/nation bow out of a tournament too early, or not tactically adjust to a team who is more talented than they are? The pressure can force otherwise brilliant soccer minds into playing to make sure that they don't fail while still kind of sort of maybe trying to win the game as long as they don't overexpose themselves. When that happens, you have a recipe for disaster. The tentative, preventative play is rarely a winning strategy and that's what occurred yet again in the 2012 Euro semifinals: two teams tried to prevent themselves from losing and two teams got sent home.

Well, three teams played prevention come to think of it. Both Portugal and Spain played a cagey type of soccer that doesn't exactly work as an advertisement for the game. Portugal were rightly afraid of the Spanish possession game and so they geared their plan of attack around disrupting the tika taka and making sure that Spain never became too comfortable on the ball. Credit where credit is due, Portugal did a better job of this than anyone else I've watched. Their midfield attacked Spain high and refused to allow Xavi, Sergio Busquets, or Xabi Alanso to simply play the ball around and get into a rhythm. The Spanish midfield looked confused and surprised for large stretches of the game and it showed. They often missed passes in the middle third and Gerard Pique compounded problems by often mishitting balls from the back. Portugal was aggressive in their pressure and the Spanish starters never quite adjusted, trying to keep their passing careful and close in order to maintain possession since their normal skills were not shining through.

This aggression, however, was all in the service of prevention. Portugal did an excellent job of knocking the Spanish out of their comfort zone, but they were never able to turn that into anything positive. Cristiano Ronaldo had a couple of chances to put Portugal up in the match, but mishit them both. Indeed, out of 120 minutes of soccer, Portugal only had a total of two shots on goal. The extent to which Portugal was focused on being anti-Spain rather than pro-Portugal was evident after Spain took out Alvaro Negredo and David Silva in exchange for Cesc Fabregas and Jesus Nava. Spain turned their game around after the substitutions and became more direct, starting to finally look like the better team after Portugal had been in the ascendancy for the first hour or so. How to handle that? Between the introduction of Navas and the end of regulation, Portugal received four yellow cards in their attempts to knock Spanish players off the ball, ending with 31 fouls to Spain's 21. Spain retaliated in kind with four yellows over the course of the match (Portugal had five in total) but that served Portugal more than Spain and the game was predominantly clogged and bogged down. Though Spain played better in the overtime periods, everyone watching knew where this was going. And so, in a match characterized by preventative soccer on both sides, eventually someone had to win. It was Spain, thanks to the (frayed) nerves of Bruno Alves and the (steel) nerves of Fabregas.

Germany, though, was an obvious case of preventative play getting the better of a good coach. Joachim Low  has made attacking soccer the new hallmark of the German national team. The wingers are fast and direct, always moving into the open space creating by quick passing. The midfield controls the game, alternating runs forward and keeping the ball forever moving. Mesut Ozil is a force unto himself, dragging defenders this way and that while also putting balls in at angles that no one else can predict or even see. Then the striker up top finishes clinically, taking advantage of the service provided to him as well as his own killer instinct. This is German soccer in the new millennium and it is what we have expected of this dynamic young squad.

But Low didn't play to the swashbuckling strengths of his team. Instead of a talented winger like Thomas Muller or Marco Reus, he started Toni Kroos, a gifted but more conservative option in the midfield. Suddenly Germany was looking to match up with Italy rather than the other way around, Kroos chosen to obviously challenge in the midfield and deny Andrea Pirlo time and space. Where was the high flying side we were used to seeing, the one who had put in four goals on hapless Greece just one round prior? Low turned his team into a preventative one and as a result, Italy got two superb goals from Mario Balotelli and is into the finals instead of many people's pre-tournament favorites.

Hold on, that's not right either. I know I messed up the whole "two teams were preventative and two teams lost" thing earlier but this is a little more egregious. Germany might have come out with a preventative lineup but didn't it still make sense? Kroos would mark Pirlo tightly, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira would take possession away from the less skilled Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio, Lukas Podolski would threaten down the left to keep the Italy fullback on the defense, and Ozil would feed Mario Gomez (and any breaking midfielders) all game long. The tactics make sense. Plus, let's look at the stats here. Germany took 15(8) shots(on goal) to Italy's 10(5) while also winning the corner kick battle 14 to ZERO and holding the ball for 54% of the game. That can hardly be called preventative.

Italy doesn't quite fit the bill as that dynamic, inventive force either, now that you mention it. Sure they got some shots and Balotelli finished beautifully, but their entire midfield is designed around giving Pirlo time and he is the only truly creative element. There are no marauding wingers or fullbacks, just Pirlo feeding open players as well as working the channels. Germany didn't really even play with a right winger, instead letting Ozil drift centrally from that position all game because they weren't in the least afraid of Giorgio Chiellini going forward. That doesn't exactly sound like a team that was a Platonic ideal of total football. What has happened to our easily constructed narrative and the ready made boxes that we put things in?

Simple: execution. There is so much talk these days about positive versus negative soccer, the creative versus the reactive, this style is better than this and blah blah blah. I'm not completely dismissing the debates of course. They fascinate me after all and the whole philosophy of soccer is something I've written about several times. But sometimes we get too busy casting what we see into ideal forms, strategies that are all A, B, or C and not made the least bit impure by dashes of each other, that we don't look at the reality of what we're seeing. So, simply put, this is what we saw: a Portuguese team that tried to disrupt Spain and create goals off of that disruption, but failed to execute because their counters and transition game were never threatening; a Spanish team that tried to play possession soccer and break down the Portuguese defense with fatigue and superior passing, but failed to execute because they were taken out of their quick passing game and never adjusted to what the defense was giving them; a German team that tried to bog down Italy in the middle, limiting their danger going forward, all while relying on their playmakers and shot takers to create goals, but failed to execute because their attackers flubbed what chances they had and the passing was not incisive enough in the final third; and an Italian team that tried to defend superbly, move the ball after taking possession from the Germans, and rely on their talented strikers to finish chances, and executed perfectly in all areas of their gameplan.

This isn't rocket science or a debate on the intricacies of tactical formations. If all things were equal and we saw one strategy win instead of the other then it might be a different debate, but instead there was one team that was clearly better than the others. Portugal could have moved the ball up high and finish chances but didn't. Spain could have worn down the Portuguese and scored tap-in goals but didn't, needing penalties to win instead. Germany could have used Kroos to shut down Pirlo and gotten key contributions from their attacking players but didn't. Only Italy did exactly what it wanted to do, no matter if it was preventative, inventive, creative, or any other theoretical ideal we want to use. Italy won because they were better than the team they played, obviously so. Now all that's left is to see if they can ride that form and if Spain can regain theirs. Here's hoping we get both so that we also get a hell of a final.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Can Anything Stop the Final We All Excpect?

Everybody is waiting for Germany and Spain to play in the final of Euro 2012 so we can finally determine whether this Spanish team will become the first country to win back to back Euros, or if Germany is the new power in international soccer with their endlessly aggressive and creative game. There's only one problem: those teams need to win their semifinal matches to ensure that we actually get this final that everyone assumes is predestined. Do not think for a minute that Italy and Portugal are going to roll over and play nice for everyone else's sake. These matches are going to be battles.

Portugal vs Spain

Spain will possess, Portugal will counter, blah blah blah. You've heard this all before. The question, as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking correctly puts it, is how reactive Portugal chooses to be, how high they press Spain up the field. I was unimpressed with Portugal versus Germany because Portugal sat back in a shell and tried to counter quickly in order to steal a goal from a game where Germany dominated possession. My feelings are partly due to the fact that Portugal didn't look that comfortable sitting back with Germany pressing, but are more (if I'm being honest) because I find that strategy to be boring. I was very excited for Germany vs Portugal and it turned out to be a tame affair with one team possessing and looking to win and the other very obviously thinking it would be great if they could get a point from the match.

Portugal has improved much since then and given their recent success, it would be surprising if manager Paulo Bento didn't try to ride this current level of confidence and give Spain more of an effort. Don't get me wrong: Portugal are trying to win this game, but I would think that the manner in which they try will be different after beating Holland and the Czech Republic soundly. Expect the Portuguese to press Spain higher up the field rather than sitting everyone around the penalty area and parking the bus, with the counters to come quickly down the wings or wherever Cristiano Ronaldo can be found. Spain will do what Spain does: possess the ball, probe the defense, and try to break the opponent open. The only question comes with how they attack and that depends on their choice of striker. Otherwise, the defending champions will be unchanged but still nigh unbeatable.

Can Portugal win this match? Absolutely. Spain has shown that they lack a cutting edge at times and settle for possession too easily. It is not too difficult to see a game that doesn't quite go Spain's way where they can't finish their chances and Portugal grabs a goal on a counter or a superb individual effort, most likely from Ronaldo. But do I feel comfortable predicting it? Nope. 1-0 Spain when all is said and done.

Germany vs Italy

Everywhere I look, people are talking about Portugal vs Spain and I get that of course, it's going to be a great match. But honestly, I'm more looking forward to Germany vs Italy. I feel like I know what's going to happen with the Iberian match up whereas I have no clue how Thursday's game will play out. I should clarify: I think that Germany will win but the style of play seems impossible to determine. Germany are the better team and should possess more and get their chances, but Italy are no slouches and Andrea Pirlo can dictate games with his play. The forward combination of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli is the picture you see in the dictionary next to unpredictable and Antonio Di Natale is a creative asset, should Cesare Prandelli decide to use him.

In addition to the uncertainty over the Italians' approach, we also have to take our guesses over what Joachim Low's starting lineup will be for Germany. Sitting Lukas Podolski, Thomas Muller, and Mario Gomez against Greece was a surprise and there's no guarantee that was a one-time thing to give players rest. Marco Reus was impressive in the quarterfinal match and Miroslav Klose was certainly effective. Regardless of who starts, we can expect impressive ball control and attacks coming from all over the field, which is what makes Germany so much fun to watch and why I picked them to win at the start of the tournament.

Though I made a big deal about how these games were far from decided, I can't bring myself to pick against my my pre-tournament favorites or the defending champions. The fact is the Spain and Germany have been the two best teams in this tournament and I would love to see them settle everything on Sunday in the championship game. Germany beats Italy 3-1 and we all get the match we want to see.

England and Spain: Different Kinds of Boring

Winning in soccer can be accomplished a variety of different ways with a multitude of strategies seeing the light of a playing field, everything from the traditional two banks of four defending behind the ball to formations that eschew the traditional axiom that maybe it's good to have a striker who can score goals on the pitch. This should come as no surprise to you, the reader, as it is all over soccer at a variety of levels and it's also something I've written about a couple of times on this very blog. One thing that isn't talked about as much, however, is what exactly makes for a boring game. There are accusations of course: teams playing negatively, players not looking to attack, entire squads accused of parking automobiles on playing areas, and so on. But these strategies or inclinations do not automatically result in boring viewing experiences. If one team plays negatively, the other might be encouraged to play positively; if players on one team do not look to attack, players on the other may look to break out when they obtain the ball; if teams decide to park the bus and defend for 90 (or more) minutes, we may be treated to the moments of brilliance that are required to break them down. It would not be unreasonable though to cite certain types of soccer as more prone to create boring games. The rub here is that you can't use this assessment as a commentary on the quality of soccer being played: take the examples of England and Spain.

England is your traditional boring, negative team. They are purely reactionary, happy to cede the midfield to their opponents if they are over-matched and play the counter off of whatever the other team does. They put at least eight men behind the ball at all times and their strikers are used as escape valves when the defense needs a break from disrupting the opponent. I compared their strategy to that of Chelsea's during their improbable Champions League run (please read that post for the aforementioned comparison rather than all of the inaccuracy that is also present) but it's not quite the same. Despite their negative nature, Chelsea was brilliant on the counter and creative enough in midfield to retain the ball once they won it back from the team they were defending against. England can't do that. Steven Gerrard has played well on the attack and Scott Parker has thrown himself in front of seemingly every shot the opposition has taken, but they (and the others) cannot string together passes when facing a superior side. Wayne Rooney has been rusty since returning and though Danny Welbeck had one of the goals of the tournament, he has otherwise been ineffective. When you add all of this up, you get... not much. You get one-sided games. You get bored.

Now, this does not mean that every game that England plays is boring. The England vs Italy quarterfinal was fantastic viewing for the first ninety or so minutes. In fact, England tried to actually hold possession for the first half an hour or so and it was gripping stuff. Daniele De Rossi hit the post and Glen Johnson forced a reaction save from Gianluigi Buffon all within the first five minutes. But after England tricked us all into thinking that they were going to compete in this match, they sat back in their shell and tried to win in penalties from the 31st minute on. Again, that doesn't mean the match was boring. It wasn't. Italy pressed and pressed and almost scored entirely too many times, and England was probably decent on a counter or two somewhere in there, but the overtime period is where England's "style" (I refuse to use that word without quotes when referring to this England team) really stuck out and it happened because Italy finally tired out. Italy tried to win this match in regulation and they probably should have. A couple of better used inches anywhere on the field and Italy might have had five goals instead of none. In the overtime period though, they didn't bring the same energy, the same intensity that they had exuded for 90 minutes. That was when everyone realized that it was Italy that was propping this game up, Italy that was making it exciting and watchable. England wasn't an active participant so much as the straight man in a two person comedy bit. But rather than using understated comedic timing, England was playing long balls up to a bizarrely coiffed Rooney and retreating to absorb the latest Italy advance. They made their attempt for a boring, grind it out match and Italy, after struggling valiantly against the inevitable for so long, finally conceded to boredom in overtime. Their heroics were appreciated by this fan at the very least.

Spain is a different animal altogether. Spain isn't boring because they are negative or reactive or under skilled. They are boring (at times) because they are just so good and so controlling. That more than anything is what defines this Spain squad. The tika taka passing and limitless ball control give Spain an iron grip on a match and the excitement in their games comes from what their opponent wants to give them. This seems contrary at first blush. If Spain is dictating terms for the match and always has the ball, why does the opponent determine how exciting the game is? It comes from this simple truth: Spain thinks it can beat you. Whoever you are, Spain is confident in their ability to persevere over the course of a 90 (or 120) minute match. How they beat you is entirely up to you. Do you want to pressure Spain up high and play an aggressive back line? Spain will beat you by getting runners into space behind the defenders and creating breakaways on the goalie. Do you want to sit in a defensive shell and dare Spain to beat you? Spain will beat you, but this time by knocking the ball around for the entirety of the game, constantly probing to test the weak spots of the defense and eventually deciding to exploit them. Spain does not care. Spain will let you choose your doom.

France chose the slow death in their quarterfinal match and the viewing public was poorer for it. The strategy was evident from before the match even started, when France's starting lineup showed two fullbacks (Anthony Reveillere and Mathieu Debuchy) on the right side of the field and one of the main creative talents (Samir Nasri) on the bench. Now, there may have been other reasons for this. Nasri has proven to be a bit of an ass and manager Laurent Blanc might have thought his team would best served with his young hothead waiting in reserve. Regardless of the logic though, it made the French less dynamic from the get go and the message was clear: we need to adjust our play style in order to beat Spain. Not the other way around. Unfortunately for France, Spain broke them down in the 19th minute rather than the 83rd or so thanks to Xabi Alanso's perfectly placed header, so the French needed to adjust their game and find a way to win that wasn't "hold on for penalties and hope Hugo Lloris is better than Iker Casillas." But they didn't. France was never positive, even when down 1-0, and was never creative enough to manufacture chances that might tie the match back up. What is Spain's obligation in such a situation? They tried to score again, but not desperately. They showed flair, but not so much that it would get them in trouble. Anyone watching that game for more than two minutes would have been struck by a feeling of inevitability, that there was no chance France would persevere in this match and that Spain was always going to win; it was just a matter of the clock running out. With their position so obviously assured, what reason did Spain have to be dynamic?

Thankfully we don't have to watch England anymore in this tournament. Their desireless style of play was not rewarded in penalties due to the inaccuracy of their Ashleys. Spain will be playing again however, and this time it is on Portugal to give them the challenge they desire. Spain will be Spain regardless of who they are playing against. How close to perfection they come is up to their opponent. It falls upon Portugal to inspire.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fair is Fair

Germany did what everyone expected they would on Friday, beating an inferior Greek side 4-2, in the process showing why they are one of the favorites to win the tournament. However, the Germans did miss many chances early in the match and even allowed an equalizer to Greece ten minutes into the second half before truly taking over and putting the game out of reach. Though I think that Germany was more impressive than the Portugal side that I partially criticized in my last post, I also realize that there were holes in this performance just like there was in that of the Portuguese. Therefore, while I still believe that Germany is definitely the superior team, I would like to break down Germany a little more than just saying "they're good" and look at where they need improvement as well. After all, Portugal advanced without allowing a goal and were also the dominant team in their match. Perhaps things are closer than I would like to initially admit.

The Good

They scored. More than anything, I was critical of Portugal for dominating a less-skilled opponent but only managing one goal, a goal that did not come until the 79th minute. Germany did not have that problem as they scored first in the 39th on a piece of brilliance by Philipp Lahm, then three times in the second half within fifteen minutes, seemingly insulted by Greece's equalizer. Lahm, Sami Khedira, and Marco Reus all had exceptional individual efforts while Miroslav Klose made the most of an inch-perfect cross from Mesut Ozil to head in what seems like his 873rd goal in a German shirt. More than that, Germany's possession game was all-encompassing, not only holding the ball for 66% of the match but also creating dangerous chances all over the field, constantly pressuring the Greek defense and, unlike Spain, making aggressive runs at goal. The shots(on goal) numbers of 24(14) vs 9(5) bear this out and to be honest, Greece was lucky to make it out of the first half only down one.

Aside from the dominant possession and shots stats, Germany passed the eye test again and again. Ozil was brilliant in this match, making smart runs all over the defensive third and playing a part in every goal. Khedira's late runs into the area often caught Greek defenders off guard and his goal was a perfect example of surprising a defender that didn't expect him to be where he was, much like Cristiano Ronaldo's goal against the Czech Republic. Even Manuel Neuer looked good when called upon (which was rare), clearing away one good ball over the top and getting a good piece of the ball on the goal when most other keepers would have been left floundering.

What was particularly striking about Germany was the realization that, like Spain, they have an embarrassment of riches all over the field. Manager Joachim Low left Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski, and Mario Gomez on the bench and instead gave starts to Klose, Reus, and Andre Schurrle. Only Schurrle could be judged to have had a sub-par game due to his inaccurate passing and Low now has the choice of which players to utilize in his attack against the winner of England vs Italy, a decision that, while difficult, is hardly worthy of pity or sympathy. With even the wave of substitutes contributing and scoring goals, what exactly could Germany have done wrong?

The Bad

To start, they could have finished better. That sounds borderline crazy to say about a team that put in four goals, but they could have scored all four of their goals in the first half and never had their momentary scare later in the match. Reus missed golden opportunities early, Schurrle whipped several shots wide of the post, and even the impressive Ozil bungled a chance or two. These were the type of opportunities that you would see go wanting and exclaim "surely that must have been a goal!" Lahm's strike in the 39th minute was impressive, but it also papered over an ugly truth: Greece almost entered the second half of this game with a 0-0 draw, the exact result that they would want from the first 45 minutes. Too often the German attackers let Greek defenders off the hook and as we saw from Greece's counter in the 55th, you keep teams in a match at your own peril.

Speaking of the counter, I'm sure Portuguese fans will be all too happy to point out that their team did not allow the Czechs to possess the ball hardly at all in the second half, let alone give up a goal on a well put together counterattack. To Germany's credit, it really was a good counter. The ball forward for Dimitris Salpingidis was perfectly weighted and the cross that found the foot of Georgios Samaras was a thing of beauty. No matter how well executed it was, however, Germany allowed it to happen. They let Greece stay in the game with only a one goal lead and then let in an equalizer to put pressure on their backs once again. As it turned out, the Greeks' goal only served to wake the Germans up and they put in three quick goals afterward. But against England or Italy, they may not be able to make those mistakes. Both of their potential opponents in the semifinals are better defensively than Greece, better on the attack, and just better all around. That 1-1 scoreline may last much longer than the Germans would want and once you get into overtime or penalties, anything can happen.

One last note: Bastian Schweinsteiger has to be better. I personally think he's one of the best ten or so players in the world right now, but he was poor in this match. He turned the ball over numerous times, couldn't get into the flow of the attack, and never looked like the lynchpin he was in previous matches like the victory over Holland. My first instinct was the perhaps he was suffering from a lack of pressure due to Greece sitting so deep, but he used that time and space to rip the Dutch open again and again, so it seems that he just had a poor day. That may be fine for a game like this where Germany was always on the attack and always likely to win, but when the sides are more equal, he will need to be an important player once again.

No matter how impressive this win seemed for Germany, they can still be better. Perhaps they were only playing at 90% due to the quality of their opponent (quick note: I keep saying the Germans were superior to the Greek team and while I believe that's true, that's not meant as disrespect to Greece; they did great work to get out of Group A and it looked for a while like they might stay in this match, but the German team was just too talented), but they also need to prove they can tap that last 10% when it is needed. I still believe them to be a more complete team than Portugal, but now that both teams are into the semifinals, that comparison won't matter unless both teams win their next game. If that happens, well, we can revisit just who is the better squad.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Portugal's Dominance(?)

Out of the Group of Death and into the semifinals. On Thursday, Portugal showed just how good they can be, dominating the Czech Republic on the way to a 1-0 win that should prove many of their doubters wrong... or should it? Portugal were certainly the better team in the second half and were by no means beaten in the first half, but this was one of those matches torn between being destined for overtime and destined to go to the better side with a late goal. As it turned out it was the latter instead of the former, but it wasn't until the 79th minute that Cristiano Ronaldo headed home the goal that would proper Portugal forward. I know, I know, this sounds like endless nitpicking of a Portugal side that has won three out of its four games, the only loss being to a German team that many picked to win the tournament. And yes, there is definitely something to be said for letting the results speak for themselves: no matter how you want to break it down, Portugal are in the semifinals against the winner of France vs Spain. However, just because Portugal are through and have played well does not mean they are without their flaws. Let's take a look at both sides of this team and see what we can come up with.

The Good

In the second half, the Portuguese players came storming out from the get-go, with Raul Meireles crossing to a free Hugo Almeida and the substitute striker blazing the header high over the bar. It was, as play-by-play announcer Adrian Healey said, a "statement of intent." From that moment until the rest of the game, Portugal were the better team. They had some chances in the first half, such as Ronaldo's lovely chest first touch into a turn and shoot that ricocheted off the near post, but the second half was truly where they came alive. The stats bear this out as well: 20(5) to 2(0) shots (on goal), 11 to 6 in corners, and 56% of the possession. These are all the full game numbers too, so you can imagine what the second half by itself would have been. As early as the 51st minute, I noted "Portugal starting to look like the better team who are eventually going to win" and play bore that out. 

Ronaldo looked dangerous everywhere he went and it looks like he has put together how to play within this system for his country. His header to win the game was a prime example of his excellent movement: as Joao Moutinho hits his cross, Czech fullback Gebre Selassie went to box out the man he was marking, only to feel that he wasn't there. Ronaldo has drifted back away from the ball a bit and as he realized where the cross would be hit to, he stepped around a puzzled Selassie and struck his header well past Petr Cech. Portugal went with this strategy of crossing the ball into the box in the second half as they were generally finding success on the wings. Some of the play inevitably came through the middle, but it was more on turnovers or scrambles for possession after an errant pass or clear. The attack was so consistent that the Czechs could not hold the ball long enough to relieve pressure, settling to belt the ball up field in order to reorganize the defense before the next attack, like soldiers on an ancient battlefield constantly reforming the lines. The Portuguese dominated play in the second and got their game winner. What more could you want?

The Bad

Look, this sounds dismissive to say, but I'll say it anyway: it's the Czechs. That doesn't mean that everything Portugal did was for naught and it doesn't mean that the Czechs are an awful team. It just means that this isn't an elite team that Portugal just beat and we need to keep that in mind when talking about their upside or ability to beat better opponents. The Czech Republic basically ceded the midfield to the Portuguese in the second half without a fight and there is no other team left in the tournament, save England, that will do that again. All of that possession and attacking play is all well and good, but they can't play that style against anyone else that's left, especially Spain if that's who they end up playing in the next round. The obvious response is that they can play defense and counter, and I'm not 100% sure on that. First, their defense wasn't really tested in this match. Pepe stepped forward well to head the ball away from danger on several occasions, but save Petr Jiracek making his runs up the field, the Czechs didn't apply any pressure and force Portugal to step up. So who truly knows if they can soak up pressure for most of a match while still dashing forward on the counter?

The mention of the counter brings up another overall problem: where does the finishing come from? Ronaldo, of course, and he has been menacing all tournament long. Perhaps they can rely on him for the offense going forward. But if they can't, who? Almeida showed no lust for the limelight based on his second half performance, Meireles (who I think is a fantastic player) was skying every ball over the goal, and Nani is more of a winger to provide than a pure goal scorer. Any one of these players can step up and bury a goal, but there is no consistency. You can always point to players who might score. You can't always find player that you trust to find a way to score. It took until the 79th minute of this game, a game against a not so fantastic team that tried to purely defend for the last 45 minutes and wasn't the best in the world at it. The possession was impressive, but this was exactly what it looked like: a superior team waiting to eventually pull ahead of an inferior opponent.

Portugal could still win this whole tournament and I don't want to give the impression that I think that impossible. They only have two games left and could certainly win both of them, regardless of opposition, to take how the title. But while this performance must reassure fans of the team, it does not mean that things will be the same going forward. They will still have to earn what they get and they will most likely have to do it in a very different way, beating teams who, on paper, are the better of the two. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Forecasting the Quarterfinals

We have seen the end of group play at the 2012 European Championships and most of the teams that remain are traditional powerhouses (or at least perceived powerhouses; looking at you, England): Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, England, and France. Joining them are the outsiders: the Czech Republic and Greece. It is worth noting here that although these two countries aren't put into the classic top tier of European soccer, Greece won this tournament in 2004 and the Czechs were knocked out by that Greek squad in the semifinals in 2004. While perhaps not perennial powerhouses, the teams from Group A are not brand new to this kind of prestige and pressure. That being said, they have a tall task ahead, matched up with the survivors of the Group of Death.

For my part, I have done awfully with predictions thus far, getting only three of eight quarterfinalists correct. I stand by my Group A picks as anything could easily have happened there, I regret switching off of Italy and Ukraine at the last minute, I'm not terribly surprised by England, and I still can't quite believe how fully the Dutch collapsed on me. Still, past failure has never kept anyone from offering new predictions, so here we are again.

Czech Republic vs Portugal

It should come as no surprise that I don't give the teams from Group A much of a chance against the teams from Group B, but I'm afraid I'm not willing to sacrifice predictability for being wrong. The Czech Republic was embarrassed against Russia, lucky and conservative against Greece, and passable against a Poland team that seemed to give up after 25 minutes. While it was good enough to win them Group A, I'm afraid it just won't be enough against Portugal. Both teams are conservative defensively and look to pounce on the break, but Portugal have more weapons, more players that can change a match. That list of course starts with Cristiano Ronaldo, but Nani or Raul Meireles can decide to step up for a match, and if the striker(s) get going then who knows? Despite my preference for Portugal, this will not be a walkover. Portugal have weapons but they also have weaknesses, including the Pepe/Bruno Alves combination in the center of defense. Both teams may be conservative, but they are far from airtight, so I believe this will be a one goal win for Portugal, but with both teams getting on the board.

Portugal 2-1

Germany vs Greece

Disregard the Greeks at your own peril, I know, but I don't see them standing up to a team that is not only vastly superior to them on offense, but vastly superior to them on defense. Greece made it through Group A with a surprising win over Russia, but it was a Russia team that missed their chances more than had them stopped by a stout Greek defense. The Czechs put in two early goals on them and Poland scored as well, so even though three goals conceded through three games is impressive, it is also a bit misleading. Germany pulled out a 1-0 victory over a Portuguese team determined to park the bus, then flat out embarrassed an over-reaching Dutch team before putting the Danes to bed in the final match of the group. This sounds like a dangerous thing to say, but Germany is simply too good for Greece. Germany will dominate possession and if Greece scores, they will be lucky to. Germany should win this game comfortably with a goal in the first half hour and then another one to seal it in the second half.

Germany 2-0

Spain vs France

I want to believe that this match will be interesting. I really do. I just have a very hard time convincing myself. The logic behind this will is such: I like this French team. They have talent that I appreciate even if I don't particularly like (Samir Nasri, you know who you are) and I think that when they play their game they are an entertaining team. "Playing their game" consists of controlling the ball in midfield, looking to play Karim Benzema in behind the defense, and marauding down the flanks with Gael Clichey and Mathieu Debuchy. But this style of game requires having the ball at their feet, and the Spanish will simply not allow this to happen. You can grab some possession from Spain, but they will control it whether you like it or not. The only team in this tournament that can contend with them on that front is Germany, and even then I think Germany would allow them to have their possession, then press and hope to make something on the transition. France doesn't have the technical ability to keep up with Spain in the midfield and their group games have proven that they don't quite have elite level finishing to score the kind of goals against the run of play that they will need. Don't get me wrong, Benzema is an excellent striker and everyone from Nasri to Franck Ribery to Yohan Cabaye can score. But they cannot dependably score and that is why I cannot pick the French to win. I believe that they have enough ability to scrape one back when Spain has already won the match, but though it wouldn't floor me if they won, it would still certainly surprise me.

Spain 2-1

England vs Italy

This match will either be the best or the worst of the bunch. Italy proved that they can break down a defense against both Spain and Croatia, but they also conceded in those games, leaving them with only draws to show for it. This is a different type of defense they're dealing with, however, one that will sit back deep and try to eliminate the inventiveness of Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale simply by not caring what they do from 25 yards or more out. England has a chance to counter well in this game as well as use smart holdup play from Wayne Rooney or whichever big bodied striker that they use to complement him. If we get a good game, it will be because Italy get an early goal and force England to use some aggression, make some positive subs, and actually look to get up the field. We will see a bad game if Italy fails to score and especially if England manages to pull one themselves. Both teams managed to score in each of their group stage matches so the timing of those goals will prove to be the most important factor. I say we make it all the way to penalties, but at 1-1 apiece instead of scoreless. In the shootout? Italy, of course.

Italy 1-1 (penalties)

I made predictions at the beginning of the bracket and those have gone horribly wrong (Germany over France, Netherlands over Spain, Germany over Netherlands), so here are the quick shots now that we have the elimination round actually determined.:

Spain over Portugal
Germany over Italy

Germany over Spain

That would be the final we all thought we would get, so something tells me that it will elude us somehow, but I can't find the way in which it happens. Still, this should be a highly entertaining single elimination tournament from here on out and I am definitely looking forward to it. Hope all of you are as well.

Group D Goes Out With a Whimper

Group D's clusterfuck capacity was reduced last week when Sweden was eliminated from contention, but that doesn't mean that there was no opportunity for absurdity or surprise on Tuesday, the last day of group matches in the tournament. Sweden did their job in mixing things up, beating France 2-0 on the strength of ZLATAN Ibrahimovic's phenomenal goal, but their way too late resurgence was all for naught as England bored Ukraine into submission with a 1-0 win of their own to win the group. Ukraine was on the outside looking in as they needed to win against England to make it into the quarterfinals, and while they played a high octane and exciting game, their finishing in front of goal was lacking and now there is no host country in the elimination rounds. The conservative nature of England and France are the real stories here, and although the attitude makes sense for both, it was unfortunate to see the "big" nations play cautious, timid soccer and be rewarded for it.

England vs Ukraine

Ladies and gentlemen, this is England. This is what this team does. Let us dispel all illusions of the Three Lions as an attacking team, a possession team, or an exciting team. They are going to grind defensively, sit deep, and clog the box to keep all chances for the opposition to the outside, and then they're going to try to nick a goal on a counter or one of their rare forays forward. And trust me, they're happy going to penalties too if that's what it comes down to.

This may sound like a critical analysis, but it is only insofar as I have my preferences for styles that I like to watch. The reality is that this is the style that England should play because they are ill suited to play any other way. Their strength is most assuredly in the back and at the front, not in the middle. John Terry and Joleon Lescott lack for pace, but they are smart positionally and very good in the air. Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are solid on the wings and Joe Hart is one of the best goalkeepers in the game. It may be frustrating to see them drop so deep and allow teams to cross balls in or take shots from distance, but pressing higher up the field would open space up behind them and risk exposing Terry and Lescott. Besides, if the defenders aren't closing out hard on shots from distance, they can still shade the attacker a particular way so that Hart has a good look at the shot. It really is the best way for them to defend.

Up front is where the other part of this strategy comes into place. Wayne Rooney is a world class striker (the only real world class player England has besides Hart) and Danny Welbeck has proven himself to be a strong force as well, good at hold up play and on the break. These are forwards that can steal a result for England, as Rooney did against Ukraine and Welbeck did against France. The other aspect of the attack is the quick counter coming from defense, and though Roy Hodgson's starting lineup lacks for pace (Ashley Young is quick but James Milner is a plodding, defensive choice), he can bring in Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain if he feels the opponent is tiring or if England just needs a goal. Criticize it if you want, but this is how England are going to win, similar to Chelsea's run through the Champions League, though you could argue that while Chelsea was stronger in the midfield, England is stronger at the back and front. As much mockery as England has endured, a win against Italy is far from absurd to think of, and then it's only two single elimination games. Who knows what could happen?

France vs Sweden

France's cautious performance, on the other hand, was a little more out of character. You can understand why they played the way they did: the likelihood of them being bounced from the tournament was so low (if I'm correct, the only way would have been for Ukraine to beat or draw England and Sweden to beat France so badly as to make up the three goal gap in goal differential between France and Ukraine) that it was worth it for them to not take any real chances and just play to not lose badly. However, even if you're going to play cautious, there is a way to play cautious and still look to score on the break. Kind of how England plays in general. But France looked off during this entire match and though it took that ZLATAN wonder strike that I linked above to beat them, you never got the feeling that France were looking to win, just run out the ninety minutes.

That's all well and good if you're just trying to make the next round, but now look who they're playing in the quarterfinals: Spain, the defending European and World Cup Champions. France is a team that relies on possession through the midfield and aggressive wing play with Karim Benzema testing the back line with clever runs. Where they're weak is at the back as Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami are good enough but still unreliable. Given these pros and cons, I can't think of a worse matchup for France than a Spanish team that will easily out possess them in midfield, constantly press and probe the center of that defense, and deny service to Benzema, which will most likely drive the forward further deeper into midfield, diminishing the chance of a France breakout. If France had played conservatively on defense while actively looking for the counter, you could understand and forgive them if they lost out to a great goal. But they were running out play more than they were running and it may well cost them in the quarterfinals.

That's it for the group stages everyone. Though there are no matches today, I will be putting together a predictions piece so look for that later on Wednesday or before the match starts on Thursday.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Group C is For Chalk

Even though Ireland had been eliminated after their 4-0 loss to Spain, Croatia was still in a position to disrupt the "yeah yeah, of course" progression of Spain and Italy into the quarterfinals. The Croats opened up impressively by dominating the Irish and then adjusted well to the Italian attack in their second match to secure a 1-1 draw with the Azzurri. Going into Monday's matches, a 0-0 draw with Spain would be enough only if Italy drew or lost their match with Ireland, a completely ridiculous circumstance considering that Croatia entered the day with a +2 differential while Italy was dead even.

Sidebar: I hate to keep complaining about the tiebreaker rules, but how does this make any sense? The first tiebreaker with three teams involved is "highest number of points obtained among the teams in question." That's a wash (assuming a Croatia vs Spain draw and an Italy win over Ireland) as all the teams would have won two points from those matches. The next tiebreaker is also a wash because "superior goal difference in the matches among the teams in question" wouldn't get us anywhere due to all the matches being draws. The third tiebreaker would then be the first to come into play because it is "higher number of goals scored in the matches among the teams in question." This is all very confusing so let me try to break it down as best I can. The Italy vs Spain match was a 1-1 draw and the Croatia vs Italy match was a 1-1 draw. If Croatia drew Spain 0-0, then Italy and Spain would move on, Italy because they would have two goals from the games involving all three teams and Spain because they would have an overall differential of +4 (overall goal differential being the fourth tiebreaker) to Croatia's +2. If Croatia drew Spain 1-1, then Spain would move on (all teams have two goals from games involving all three but Spain has a +4 differential) and it would come down to how many goals Italy could score against Ireland to boost their differential. If Spain and Croatia drew 2-2 (or any higher draw) then Spain and Croatia would automatically go through as they would have scored three goals from games involving the three tied teams while Italy would have only scored two. Do you see how ridiculous this is, how absurd and fluxy this these rules are? Compare that to this simple rule: overall goal differential. Croatia enters the day with 4 points and  +2, Italy enters the day with 2 points and 0.  If Croatia draws with Spain, then Italy have to score more than two goals against the Irish to advance. Simple, right? So why is UEFA beating us over the head with these head-to-head matchups?

Regardless of tiebreaking procedures, this is the spot Croatia found themselves in. They would have to hold the defending champions to a draw until Italy put a goal in on Ireland (and let's be honest, we all knew it would happen), at which point they would have to find a higher gear and score on the defending Euro and World Cup champions. A tall task for sure, but if they could find a way then they would guarantee their safety into the next round. Selectivity would be important, however, as pushing completely into the attack to get that goal would give a supremely talented Spanish side too many opportunities to rip them apart.

The games started as everyone knew they would: Italy attacked Ireland since Italy had to have a win, and Spain played possession soccer because a draw was good enough for them to move on. The only negative thing a draw might do for Spain would be to drop them into second place instead of winning the group, but do you think the defending champions really care if they play France, England, or Ukraine? Spain was perfectly content to sit in their comfort zone and try to get a goal, but not over extend themselves in doing so. For a while, this was fine for Croatia as well. Until the Italians scored, Croatia was into the next round. It made all the sense in the world for them to absorb the Spanish pressure without letting them have dangerous possession and try to do damage on the counter. To be fair to points of view that are not my own, goal differential as the first tie breaker would not have made the Croatia vs Spain match any more exciting as Italy would need to be winning by two goals before the teams in the other game started to care.

Everything changed when Italy scored their first goal. Now the Italians were going through and Croatia was on the outside. But let's also not forget where the Spaniards stood in all of this. The 0-0 draw was fine, but a goal by Croatia would send them out of the tournament, an unthinkable place for such a highly talented team. After halftime went by 0-0, both teams decided to make changes to better their chances of scoring. Vincent del Bosque brought on Jesus Navas for Spain, taking off Fernando Torres would had been relatively ineffectual as the game progressed, mostly due to a lack of service in my humble opinion. Navas is one of those players that Spain might want starting these games instead as he keeps the field wide and always makes positive, attacking runs that ask questions of the backline. Del Bosque's strategy is normally for Spain to probe with their possession style for the first sixty minutes or so and tire out the defense, so it makes sense to bring Navas on as a sub. But it also limits their ability to get out of early leads, something you would think would be ideal for Spain due to their possession style and ability to burn teams on the transition to offense. Regardless, his strategy is his own and Navas made all the difference in the world from early on, making those dangerous runs and opening up space for the players who like to have the ball at their feet. Slaven Bilic of Croatia decided to be aggressive early with his squad, putting on striker Nikica Jelavic (who was only not starting due to flu symptoms) and attack minded midfielder Ivan Perisic with just less than half an hour to go in the match. Though the introduction of Cesc Fabregas proved important to Spain, this earlier period of substitutions was the obvious "let's go win the game" portion of the match.

For Croatia and for Spain, it all came down to the chances they had in front of goal. Croatia had missed their best chance in the 59th, when Luka Modric's gorgeous outside of the foot cross was headed too close to Iker Casillas by Ivan Rakitic. Time went on and though Croatia looked unlikely to score, it was still nerve-wracking stuff for Spanish fans who knew a fluke goal would knock them out. Spain puts minds at ease in the 88th however, when Fabregas flicked a ball over the top for Andres Iniesta, who smartly squared for Navas in front of an open goal. I've seen some commentary buzz about how either Iniesta or Navas were offsides on their respective passes, but that is simply not true. Spain scored a smart goal to put the game out of reach and Croatia was left on the outside.

It is unfortunate for Croatia because trying to keep Spain scoreless is a very difficult task. It is even more unfortunate that they were playing in a system where one goal gave Italy the advantage rather than two goals bringing things back to even. If Italy had needed to score two goals from the outset, they may have been more reckless getting forward and we saw what happened to Holland. Granted Ireland is far from Portugal, but the game is different under those circumstances. Still, Croatia has nothing to be ashamed of and though they are gone from this tournament, they are certainly not forgotten. Now Italy and Spain move through into the quarterfinals where they will meet the survivors of a particularly strange Group D. Group A's surprises and Holland's exit have thrown us for a loop, but with Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Spain all through, chalk is alive and well in this tournament. England and France are certainly hoping that stays the case, at least for tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow, tune back then for my breakdown of what happens with Group D, and be ready for a separate post analyzing the quarterfinals and who has the best road to the title.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Holland: Dead and Buried

Group B, this tournament's Group of Death, ended up looking fairly straightforward considering the standings at the end:

Germany - 9 Points
Portugal - 6 Points
Denmark - 3 Points
Holland - 0 Points

Germany, clearly the group's best team, won all their games. Portugal won their games that weren't against Germany, and someone had to win in the Denmark vs Holland clash. Makes sense, right? Well, it actually wasn't as simple as all of that. Germany was indeed the group's best team, and maybe the tournament's best team (we'll see if that's proven true in the elimination rounds), but the rest is more of a muddled mess than it appears from the points. Portugal may be clear with six points but it's hard to say that they were the obvious choice for second best. Their game against Germany was close, but the Germans were always better and Portugal needed a little luck to get a result, luck that never came. Against Denmark, Portugal may have been slightly better but they also let Denmark hang around too much and were lucky to have a win. Were it not for Varela's late out-of-nowhere equalizer, Portugal would have been sitting on one point while Denmark was on three. All of a sudden, Denmark and Germany are playing a very cautious, low key game as both would go through on a draw, while Portugal is playing a Holland squad that has already been eliminated and doesn't have to throw wave after wave of attack forward to try to win by two or more goals. In other words, that one late goal changed everything. Portugal lost to Germany, barely beat Denmark, and beat a desperately open Holland. It is impressive to make it out of the group and I don't want to downplay that to too large of a degree. But at this point, it's hard to see Portugal as anything more than a team that made it out of the group, certainly not an odds on favorite to win the tournament.

The real story from all of this, however, is obviously the Dutch crashing out of Euro 2012 without registering a single point. From third favorites (behind Spain and Germany) to out of the tournament, it is hard to think of a more disappointing finish in recent history. The questions becomes; what went wrong? Is this Dutch team really as bad as their record shows? How can that be given that they were in the final game of the World Cup just two years ago? Unsurprisingly, the answer is complicated.

To start, the players did not perform. Plain and simple. Arjen Robben continued his Champions League final form of nothing connecting properly and he had his worst match against Portugal on Sunday. Wesley Sneijder was brilliant against Denmark, but then disappeared in the games against Germany and Portugal. Robin Van Persie scored a potentially crucial goal against Germany, but his failure in front of goal against Denmark may well be what cost his team a chance to move on. Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong were used to lock down the midfield, but they proved unable to execute. The list could go on and on, but the point remains the same: the players that were chosen did not do the jobs that they were supposed to.

How much of the failure by the players is failure by the coach, though? Bert Van Marwijk took essentially the same squad from the 2010 World Cup, so it is hard to fault him on that front. It is easier to fault him on his use and motivation of these players as they were clearly not playing together as a team but rather as individuals thrust into a general structure. Sneijder needed to be a playmaker but was too frequently absent, Robben needed to be a threat down the right but instead turned into a black hole, Ibrahim Afellay needed to provide width but never seemed to be in the matches, and so on. If these players had particular roles that they were intended to fill, it was not obvious to anyone watching the matches. Perhaps these players were always going to be uncoachable regardless of who was trying to lead them. But given their talent and even given recent Dutch success, that does not appear to be true.

Whoever is to blame, expect massive shake ups going forward. It is hard to envision a future where Van Marwijk is still leading the Dutch team and, at 34 years old, it's hard to see Van Bommel remaining as captain in the future. Who comes in to coach the team and who is chosen to be captain will have a great influence on what the Dutch become in the future. The present, however, is lost to them. Congratulations to Germany and Portugal for moving on to the quarterfinals. Check back here tomorrow for a breakdown of Group C's qualifiers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Well That Was Unexpected/Disappointing

Wow. Even up to the very end, you make things interesting don't you Group A? I think I'm more confused than I am surprised or upset after watching the final matches today, like what happened doesn't really make that much sense. Going into the final round, the standings were like so:

Russia - 4 Points
Czech Republic - 3 Points
Poland - 2 Points
Greece - 1 Point

The tiebreaker that Euro 2012 is using is a little different than pretty much any other major tournament. Normally if two teams are tied on points, to see who moves on to the elimination rounds the first tiebreaker used is goal differential. However, this year's Euro decided to use head-to-head matchups between the two tied teams as  the first tiebreaker instead, which changes the dynamic of things. For example, Russia had a goal differential of +3 heading into their match with Greece, a team that had a differential of -1. In any other tournament, that meant that Russia would have to lose by two goals to Greece to be in a compromising position for moving on to the next round (both teams would then have a differential of +1). In this tournament, however, if Russia lost in any way, shape, or form to Greece then both teams would have 4 points and Greece would hold the tiebreaker since they won the head-to-head matchup. This is the simple version of the tiebreakers though. I don't even fully understand what happens if three teams are all tied and how the tiebreakers work then, so I hope we don't have that situation at all (although we could easily with Group B). If it does happen, I suppose I'll have to learn it. All for you fine people.

Personally, I prefer goal differential as a system by far. This isn't college football where all the powerhouse teams are spending the first couple of weeks beating up on random lower tier teams as warm-ups for their "real" games, so no one is truly sure how good all these teams are. This is a situation where every team in the group plays everyone else. You all have the same opponents so when you are compared on goal differential, it's like to like. Worried that because Brazil beat North Korea 5-0 they'll have a leg up on you in differential? Then you go out at beat North Korea 5-0 as well to negate their advantage. If you only win 1-0 then that's your fault. Brazil was more impressive and therefore deserves to have said leg up. Goal differential helps to explain teams that are in form, that are firing on all cylinders and being dominant in their wins. Head-to-head overemphasizes one match out of three (or one out of six if this was used in Champions League play) which doesn't make sense to me considering that every team plays the same three games. You have your chances and if you don't take care of business, you shouldn't be lucky enough to go through just because the one team you beat happens to be tied with you.

In case it's not painfully obvious from what was said so far, I think Russia got the short end of the stick here. I wouldn't say that they got jobbed or cheated because they knew the tiebreaker rules going into the tournament and they knew that if they lost to Greece in the last match, they would likely not be going through to the quarterfinals. So, that's still on them and I'm not crying foul. But this is what I mean about the use of "disappointing" in the title of this post. Russia was by far the most impressive team in this group. They came out the first game and dominated the Czech Republic, scoring four goals and looking like a team that was completely in control of their destiny. Their draw against Poland was one of the most entertaining matches in this entire tournament. For them to then lose 1-0 against a fairly boring and unimpressive Greece team and have that loss be what keeps them out of the quarterfinals due to tiebreakers... that really is unfortunate. Credit to Greece, don't get me wrong. They knew what they needed to do and they did it. But the basic "eye test" that everyone talks about in sports is one that Russia passed while Greece did not. In the end though, this isn't about who looks pretty but who gets the job done, and that's why Greece is in the quarterfinals.

Joining Greece in the elimination rounds is the Czech Republic thanks to their 1-0 over a Poland team that started strong but faded into nothing incredibly fast. This is another case of disappointing but deserved for me. I really liked this Poland team and thought that when they were on their game, they played inventively and creatively. But. BUT. They completely disappeared after the first 25 minutes or so against the Czechs and have no one to blame but themselves. You can't progress through the Euros being a half an hour per game form team. That's just not how it goes. Credit instead goes to the Czech Republic for being blown out of the stadium against Russia, but then finding a way to break down the Greeks early to put them in an uncomfortable position, and finally weathering the early Polish storm before taking complete control of that game and closing it down. Kudos.

So, Czech Republic are the group winners with Greece coming in second place. The Czechs await the second place finisher from Group B (which could be anyone but probably not the Germans) while Greece awaits the winner of Group B (probably the Germans, just not the Dutch). Both Group A teams will be underdogs regardless of who they face, but both have proven that they can get it done even when they aren't expected to. Check back here tomorrow to find out how those Group B matchups shake out.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

My Poor, Poor Predictions

Back in my predictions post that I wrote just before the Euros started, I made some last minute changes to my picks because I second guessed myself when push came to shove and I panicked. I'm not proud of this, but it happened and the best that can be done is to own up to it. Occasionally, these types of last minute changes are good. You finally talk yourself into that underdog who might put it all together to make a run, or maybe you decide to give that team of aging veterans the benefit of the doubt due to the years of experience, and it pays off huge as they prove the doubters wrong and put it all together on a triumphant run. Other times, you switch two picks at the last minute and your new choices turn out to be the only two teams that have been mathematically eliminated from progressing after just the second round of games have been completed. Yes, I did decide to pick Ireland and Sweden as upset picks, casting aside a much more exciting (and homophobic) than I anticipated Italian team as well as a food poisoned but still feisty Ukraine. Granted my "Holland in the finals" pick isn't looking sparkling right now either, but at least that was born of conviction and belief, unlike the last minute substitutions that were made. But this is what can happen in soccer. It is by nature an unpredictable and chaotic sport, so there's only so much I can complain about. You've heard my "woe is me" tale and my mea culpa, so perhaps we should just move on to Group D action.

France vs Ukraine

France had an interesting test against one of the home sides in this tournament in Ukraine, and I don't believe it is out of line to say that they not only passed, but did so well enough to make themselves the odds on favorites to win Group D. Against England, France were the better team, holding most of the possession, but were not incisive enough. Though it's the first game and though it's against a long standing rival like England, it would have been nice to see them really make an effort to take the win (since it truly was there for the taking) rather than make sure they didn't lose. For the first half an hour or so against Ukraine, it didn't look like they had shrugged off their case of the Spains. They were still a little too comfortable simply to have possession and weren't looking dangerous in the attacking third. Later in the first half they started to push forward more and had some chances, but with the score 0-0 at halftime it looked like this could be one of those games where a team controls the ball without putting it in and then loses on a goal against the run of play. Perhaps Ukraine had the same impression because they came out more aggressive at the start of the second half and really worked themselves into the game, taking away more of France's possession and beginning to look dangerous. Maybe this was what undid Ukraine or maybe France finally put in the type of chance they'd had earlier in the match, but Jeremy Menez scored the first goal for France by cutting inside and then megging the defender to score at the near post. Just minutes later it was Johan Cabaye making it 2-0 with a low strike that just made it under both the defender's foot and the keeper's hand. From there on out it was smooth sailing for the French as they jumped to the top of the Group D standings and control their destiny for the quarterfinals.

It is easy to call France the best team in Group D after winning one game and leading the group, but it has more to do with their form than their standing. France is good on the ball, has the speed to counter if they cannot hold possession, and has the finishing to score goals with limited chances. Against Sweden, they should again dominate possession so their versatility isn't as important, but if they advance to the quarterfinals they will most likely play Italy or Spain and then they would be playing without the ball much more. When it comes to goal scoring and countering with speed, I don't think this is a problem. Where they do have a weakness, however, is at the back. It hasn't been notably bad so far, but I don't know that I would trust Phillippe Mexes and Adil Rami to hold up for an entire match against sustained pressure. The good news is that Yann M'Vila looks to be fit again, coming on as a sub against Ukraine. Perhaps that stability in the defensive midfield will be what they need to go far in this tournament, but first they have to do their job and finish off the Swedes.

England vs Sweden

Speaking of finishing of the Swedes... wow, what a crazy game. Not exactly a stellar defensive affair so please don't try to convince me of England's gritty performance, but there was some fantastic finishing to appreciate. The game was generally an open one and rather than a boring middle third battle with sloppy passing to drag down the talent level, it was a sloppy game all over which led to a good many chances or exciting half chances. Both teams enjoyed periods of the game when they were in the ascendancy but it was England that came through in the end thanks in large part to the introduction of Theo Walcott. The game was broken up by who had the upper hand and it basically went like so:

Minute 1-20: Complete free for all, no idea who is "better" right now. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who is always mentioned in my notes as ZLATAN, perhaps with additional exclamation points) is trying to take charge and isn't getting a whole lot of help from Johan Elmander, Rasmus Elm, or really anyone.

21-45: Andy Carroll with a brilliant header off of a cross whipped in by Steven Gerrard and England are firmly in control. The goal has given them life and they're the more dangerous team.

46-60: This was alllllllll Sweden. First they get the goal from Olof Mellberg off of a scramble following a free kick by ZLATAN, then they get an own goal by Glen Johnson (which is really unfair as Joe Hart saved Mellberg's shot directly into Johnson; not much he could do) to take a 2-1 lead. While the England goal gave them life, the Sweden goal(s) gave them belief. Such the more dangerous team during this stretch.

61-90: THEO WALCOTT CHANGED EVERYTHING!! Yes that sounds more like British tabloid headlines than actual reporting, but it's true. His pace was the difference maker in the second half and he epitomized the "impact sub" role. His goal wasn't emblematic of the way he plays as it was a shot from the top of the box following a free kick scramble, but the game winner certainly was. Theo received the ball on the edge of the box, split the two defenders who were trying to close him down in order to get to the endline,  then got a cross back in front of goal. Here's the bit of magic. The ball was slightly behind Danny Welbeck so he turned his back to goal and picked the cross out of the air with a backheel. I can't emphasize this enough. Just watch. It was an absolutely brilliant finish and now it sets up England for a showdown with Ukraine to see who moves on.

With two rounds in, Group D looks like this:

France - 4 Points
England - 4 Points
Ukraine - 3 Points
Sweden - 0 Points

France are all but clear to go through as Sweden would need to beat them pretty badly for the French to fall behind Ukraine or England on the goal differential tiebreaker, but they will be well advised to actually show up for the match and stomp Sweden, both for momentum and avoiding playing Spain in the next round. England vs Ukraine should be a very interesting match. England are nowhere near as defensively sound as some want to think and Ukraine can be quite dangerous in their attacking end. As good as Welbeck and Carroll were at finishing against Sweden, I don't think it will happen again. Though England only need a draw, I think Ukraine finds a way to steal a win, even on a one time counter. Either way, the last day of the group should be very, very interesting. Check back tomorrow for analysis on a (hopefully) crazy last day of Group A.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Slight Difference in Competitiveness

It would disingenuous to say that this came as a surprise. In the first "round" of Group C matches, Italy and Spain played to a tight 1-1 draw while Croatia dispatched Ireland with surprising (to me, at least) ease. With Spain lined up to play Ireland and Italy setting their sights on Croatia, I don't think any of us were confused over what would be the more competitive game. As much as we wondered aloud how it might play out if Ireland was able to retain its defensive shape and crowd the box, we always knew what was going to happen here. We might not have known the extent to which Spain would dominate and what the specific storyline would be (more on that later), but Spain over Ireland was almost a foregone conclusion. The wild card was Croatia vs Italy, a match pitting a strong under-the-radar team with a perennial powerhouse. Italy had already stolen a point from Spain and Croatia had done their job in beating Ireland. A win for the Croats would put them into the quarterfinals while a win for Italy would all but punch their ticket at the expense of the game number two rivals. So, how would it play out?

Croatia vs Italy

For a while, this looked like Italy would strike a blow for the old guard. While the game started out as a midfield battle that was yet to be settled, Italy took control over the course of the first half and became the odds on favorite to open the scoring. Mario Balotelli was firing from long range (closely too, though he didn't force Stipe Pletikosa into any extraordinary saves), Antonio Cassano was making creative runs to free himself and others in the attacking third, and Andrea Pirlo was controlling the match with his passing. Pirlo specifically was the story of the first half as he was given all sorts of space in which to operate. His passing was immaculate as always and his free kick goal in the 39th minute felt like the accumulation of Italian effort rather than a one-off special teams type of situation. It was a beautiful goal that appeared to set Italy down the path to victory.

However, no one informed Croatia of this fatalism and the second half turned out to be a different story entirely. Luka Modric pressed further up the field and this did two important things: it pushed him into the attack more rather than leaving him sitting back as the string-puller and it got him right on top of Pirlo. Not coincidentally, Pirlo's influence was greatly diminished and it was Croatia who was dictating play instead, working the ball well in possession as well as dashing forward after turnovers. The goal was a nice one, coming off a deep cross from Ivan Stinic on the left flank. Striker Mario Mandzukic brought it down nicely (I thought this was a mistake at first because it didn't seem he'd have time to finish if it wasn't a one touch, but that's why he has three goals in the Euros) and finished off the near post to beat Gianluigi Buffon and bring Croatia level. As play-by-play announcer Derek Rae said as the game continued after the goal, Croatia would be happy with a point from the match but they were always the more likely to score. Slaven Bilic has made great decisions as manager and though a win would have played them through, Croatia has to be proud of where they sit in the group. They will still have to finish strong against Spain, however, and that may prove to be quite difficult.

Ireland vs Spain

Let's talk about Fernando Torres, shall we? To get this out of the way, he's not the Fernando Torres he was during his days in Liverpool. Then he was a world class striker, now he's not. At least not presently. That doesn't mean he has lost that ability completely, but he's no longer in form. Case of the yips, lost in a different system, lack of confidence, whatever you want to say. All of that being said, he's been so consistently dogged in the press for not being THAT Fernando Torres we forget that he's still, well, Fernando Torres. Even when he was struggling to find playing time at Chelsea as well as struggling to find his scoring touch, he was still an important player. His movement was outstanding, he work on the wing was valuable, and he was contributing even if he wasn't exactly himself. Let's also not forget that Chelsea went much more defensive under Roberto Di Matteo and Torres was often left out of the side in favor of a bigger target man whose hold up play was better (Didier Drogba). That's not an insult to insult to Torres, but a matter of picking a player for a system. The point I mean to prove with all of this is that while Torres hasn't been Torres, it isn't like he's forgotten how to play soccer. You can understand why he'd be happy to prove himself once given the duty of starting at striker for Spain.

He certainly made the most of his opportunity, scoring twice and generally looking like the world beater he once was, terrorizing defenses and threatening to do more damage every time he touched the ball. This is the kind of thing that we (and I use that inclusive pronoun with a certain amount of hopefulness) as soccer commentators have to be wary of when writing players off or targeting them with our snark. There is the high potential that, guess what, they're still professional soccer players and they can prove us wrong. And hey, that's part of writing about sports. You're never going to be correct 100% of the time and on occasion, you're going to be very wrong. Hell, I picked Ireland to surprise people and come out of Group C and they're the first team to be eliminated. But even if this is an eventuality, we can still do better than ignoring when we have our wrongness thrown back in our face. Torres did that to a lot of people yesterday and I hope they'll have the decency to admit it.

One more thing: I said previously on this blog that I didn't think Spain had the stamina to make it all the way through this tournament. Too many games over the last four years, too much pressure, too many variables. But with an in form Torres bringing that energy back to the squad? Damn. I'm not sure anymore.

Here's how we stand after two rounds in Group C

Spain - 4 Points
Croatia - 4 Points
Italy - 2 Points
Ireland - 0 Points (eliminated)

While it looks like Spain and Croatia are in the driver's seat, they play each other in the last round while Italy gets to try to advance with a match against Ireland. Truly, anything can still happen and as Michael Cox of Zonal Marking said, we could realistically see a 5-5-5-0 group with goal differential meaning the world. I hate to say it Croatia fans, but I don't see that happening and I see you suffering for it. Spain has all the momentum and reason to put everything into their last match to grab the win and the group. Italy should beat Ireland that that would be enough to put them through. I really am sorry as I've liked watching Croatia in this tournament, but hey, who knows? I could easily be proven wrong.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Group of Death Has Killed Holland (Kind Of)

I am irritated at this moment and Holland is to blame. It's not only the betting aspect as I kind of had predicted a Germany vs Holland final. It's also not because I feel bad for Robin Van Persie, captain of my favorite soccer team. I mean, I do wish him the best and would rather his team wasn't suffering so, but the team is to blame and that's why I'm annoyed. It is very frustrating to watch a team as talented as Holland lose their shit so easily. I'll break down the specifics of the Germany match later in this post, but here are a couple of reasons it's easy to get mad at the Dutch right now:

-Nigel De Jong is on the field.

Seriously? You have Dirk Kuyt, Rafael Van der Vaart, and Kevin Stootman on the bench because this karate kick specialist needs to be on the pitch? Shenanigans. De Jong isn't a first choice back as his club (granted, Manchester City is a bit of an all-star club), so why the hell is he starting in a major international tournament? Against Germany, I guess I get it. They're too good on the ball, you need someone to stay at home and clog the middle, blah blah blah. But he isn't particularly pacy, he isn't particularly clever, and his only real attribute is to add some steel. Call me crazy, but I'd rather see some talent.

-They have no fight

At no time during either the Denmark game or the Germany game did you think "oh man, Holland is coming for them, they better watch out." You had no belief as a fan because they had no belief as players. Heads down, not closing out defenders, not tracking back after the pass skips them, all kinds of very basic psychological signs. You just want to shake them and say "you have all the talent in the world! You can still win this! Why are you giving up?!?"

-It's still all there for them

This is probably the most infuriating part. You can't give up on them because they can still easily make the quarterfinals. Well, "easily" might be over-selling it, but it certainly is easy relative to the fact that they don't have a point yet. First, Germany needs to beat Denmark. Not to knock Denmark, but Germany looks like the best team in the world right now, so that's probably going to happen anyway. Then the Dutch need to beat Portugal by two goals.  That's it. To be honest, it might even just be one goal in case the tie-breaker after goal differential is head-to-head performance, but let's say it's two just to be safe. So after losing to the Danes and getting embarrassed for the majority of the match by the Germans, you're telling me that Van Persie, Huntelaar, Sneijder, Robben, Van der Vaart, and company just need to win by two goals in the final game? Oh Holland, why can't I quit you?

Denmark vs Portugal

This is one of those matches that made me happy to hate Cristiano Ronaldo. First of all, he had nothing to do with any of the goals, which is awesome. Second, he completely blew two breakaway chances in front of goal, and I swear I heard some fans chanting "Messi! Messi! Messi!" after the second miss. Hilarious. But in a very Ronaldoesque way, he still got what he wanted in the end: a win. But the joke's on him as a Portuguese win lets me keep hope alive for Holland, so he can't keep me down.

Enough about Ronaldo. This was one of those games where Portugal controlled things, but they didn't control things. For those of you grinding your teeth at that inane statement, let me explain. The goal by Pepe came before a half an hour was gone in the game and Postiga followed it up with one of his own before the half. Even though Nicklas Bendtner pulled one back shy of the break, Portugal was always more dangerous, always more likely to score, and always ahead. Except it never really felt like they were going to put the game away, never felt like everything had been written. They had chances, but they didn't dominate. They held the Danes to half chances, but didn't lock them down. The match felt like one sloppy passing mess in the middle third and Portugal just happened to be leading through most of it. Bendtner's second goal was a shock and in reality should have sealed the draw for Denmark as Portugal had come off the front foot and didn't look a threat (by the way, keep scoring them Nicklas; drive your transfer fee up even higher). But Varela had some luck after whiffing on one shot and struck the ball perfectly to push Portugal through. It's the kind of game where you wouldn't have hated if either team won by one or if it was a draw. All of that made sense. It was just a shame that someone had to win when you compared it to the performance Germany put on.

Germany vs Holland

Wow. And I do mean, wow. So Germany's the best team in the world, right? I understand that Spain is the defending Euro and World Cup champion. Totally get that and respect that, and respect them. Hell, I like that Spanish team a lot. But Germany... damn, they exude confidence and inevitability. When Spain struggled to find their attacking stride against Italy, you understood why but you still felt discouraged to a degree. You wondered why they couldn't put it together and dominate like you knew they could. Well, that's what Germany did. The two Mario Gomez goals of course made it easy to sit there all calm and cool since a two goal cushion makes your mistakes that much smaller. But even after Van Persie scored on that smash of a shot (a right footed shot!), the tide turned for about all of five minutes. One minute the Dutch were pressing for that second goal, looking a little dangerous for the first time all game, then the Germans were working the ball up the field, running down the clock, holding possession, and basically thumbing their nose at any Holland player foolish enough to try to take it away. Order had been restored and it quickly became obvious that Germany was always going to win this game, the exact opposite feeling from what you get watching Portugal. Like a force of nature, or maybe more the hand of fate, the Germans arrived, recreated the scene according to their desires, and then left victorious, leaving destruction in their wake (destruction in this case taking the form of Arjen Robben's head, both interior and exterior). It's amazing to watch and it's everyone that has it, none moreso than Bastian Schweinsteiger. Every time he received a pass, Schweinsteiger was able to consider his options for a calm second before freeing players for goals or just making the next logical connection. It was mechanical while still seeming artistic, like watching Roger Federer play at Wimbledon. And if that is the kind of comparison we're making, the rest of Europe had better watch out for what is coming their way.

So after two rounds of games, Group B looks like this:

Germany - 6 Points
Portugal - 3 Points
Denmark - 3 Points
Holland - 0

Germany isn't technically through yet, but they would need to lose to Denmark and have Portugal beat Holland by two goals or more, so expect them to come out determined and focused to put away the Danes and leave nothing up to chance. Then, it's down to Portugal or Holland to see who can step up and take second place. Odds are the Portuguese start out conservatively because Holland has to come out flying. Plus the Portuguese can wait to see if the Germans take the lead as expected and the decide whether or not they need to play for a draw or go for the win. Portugal still doesn't impress me that much so I think that Holland is able to nick a goal early and then grab another one somewhere along the way, propelling them through to the quarterfinals. Unlikely, I know, but I do love me some prop bets... Anyway, I'll be back tomorrow to break down the newest Group C matches so come on back.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I Rather Like This Group A

Before the European Championships started, I was most pessimistic about Group A. The "big dog" of the group was Poland due to being one of the home countries and the biggest dog by virtue of pedigree was a Russian team that could not realistically be considered among the top squads in Europe. Throw in a relatively bland, defensive team in Greece and a declining Czech Republic and you had not just a group of average talent, but a group that carried with it a high potential to be boring. Well, I'm sorry Group A. I misjudged you. Truth be told, I've had more fun watching Group A matches than any other group thus far (though to be fair, Group C hasn't played yet and England has put it to a vote as to whether or not they'll continue being the dullest team in the tournament, so that might turn around). It sounds crazy to say, especially considering all the talent in The Group of Death, but each Group A match has had a highly entertaining element to it. Greece vs Poland was inexplicable because each team decided to show up in their own chosen half and both were exciting when they were on point; Czech Republic vs Russia was dynamic because Russia decided to be dynamic; and yesterday, Czech Republic vs Greece was entertaining due to the early excitement while Poland vs Russia was enthralling because it was a fantastic all around match. It's hard to make a neutral care sometimes, even a neutral with solid soccer knowledge, because he or she lacks a familiarity with the players as well as any real rooting interest. I was there, but Group A has made me care because all the countries have been so enjoyable to watch, and I truly thank them for it.

Czech Republic vs Greece

This game started out with an absolute bang as the Czech Republic scored two goals within the first six minutes. Petr Jiracek ran onto a through ball and shot left of Greek keeper Kostas Chalkias (who did not have a fantastic match in the whole 21 minutes he played before being swapped out due to injury). The crowd immediately came to life because this was what the Czech Republic needed, not only for this game but to stay in the tournament as well. Things only got better because three minutes later Chalkias made a mess of a cross and Vaclav Pilar did just enough to get some part of his body on the ball so that it wound up in the back of the net. Full disclosure: I went to a book signing immediately after work and then a concert after the book signing, so I didn't start watching this match on DVR until 11:45pm or so and I was worried sick. Not because of the time exactly or because I was nervous of the result. I was scared that I was going to fall asleep because before the entire tournament started, this was the match I had pegged to be the most boring. And you know what... it kind of was after that first flurry. The two goals to start the match kept me awake and in it, but then the Greeks started to take the air out of the ball a bit, play it around, and slowly work their way into the game. Even exerting a modicum of control wouldn't have mattered as the Czechs played soundly, not letting Greece see much in the way of chances. Thankfully Petr Cech gifted Theofanis Gekas a goal as the start of the second so that the game always had a bit of an edge to it, but it also still didn't. The Czech Republic got the win and put themselves firmly back into the Group A competition.

Poland vs Russia.

I feel bad for talking about how much I love Group A now and then dogging the first of Tuesday's matches, so I'll make the following bold declaration: Poland vs Russia has been my favorite match of the tournament thus far. Now, I don't necessarily mean that it was the most skilled match. Thus far that has to go to Spain vs Italy. And it didn't quite have the "holy shit, what?" factor that Sweden vs Ukraine did. Instead, this match was simply fun. Fun to watch for a neutral because it's Poland vs Russia. This might surprise you, but there's just a little bit of history there. The crowd was phenomenal for both sides and that made for a great atmosphere. Also fun because the style of play was great. I understand that Poland played back a bit for the first half to try to stop Russia's speed on the counter, but Russia still tried and Poland didn't play negatively in my book, just more cautiously than they might have in other cases. The Russian goal by Alan Dzagoev (third in the tournament already) was incredibly helpful though as it forced Poland to be more aggressive in the second half. That was when the game truly came to life. Poland pressed forward, Russia countered once they won the ball, Poland stole possession and countered the counter, and it was just so much fun to watch. Everyone was making runs, everyone was sliding in on tackles, everyone was a danger to score, and then holy shit did Jakub Blaszczykowski score. Kuba cut in from the right side of the box and unleashed a furious drive with his left foot, curling in the back post past the keeper's outstretched arms. The Silva-to-Fabregas goal might have been the prettiest so far, but this is my pick for individual effort as of this moment. The equalizer came just shy of the hour mark and the frenetic pace continued gamely for another 20 minutes or so before both teams started to get tired and realized that perhaps a point wasn't the worst thing in the world. Still, hats off to both teams for an entertaining game, one that has me a believer in Group A again... at least for now.

With two rounds of games in the books, here's how things stand in the group:

Russia - 4 Points
Czech Republic - 3 Points
Poland - 2 Points
Greece - 1 Point

Russia is pretty much through unless they get blown out by Greece so all eyes are on Czech Republic vs Poland where whoever wins goes on to the next round. A draw opens things up for Greece though, so Russia can't just sit back and ease into the quarterfinals. As far as predictions go, I would think Russia plays conservatively to do no worse than tie and succeeds while the Polish speed down the right flank overwhelms an inconsistent Czech defense to take the win, and the quarterfinal spot, in front of their home fans. It all happens on Saturday so stay tuned. I'll see everyone tomorrow with a Group B breakdown.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Eschewing Conventional Wisdom

Commentators are often talking about the cagey nature of a team's first match during the group stage, how neither team really wants to lose because it puts them in a poor position in the group, because they're getting used to playing with each other, because they're testing their opponent, etc. Somewhere along the way this was accepted as a perfectly reasonable bit of soccer wisdom and the basic question I have to ask is: why? Every opponent is going to be a new one as even if a country has played their opening match adversary before, the specific team selection, the coach, and the attitude of the country could have changed. This is no different in the second or third match, save with one extra game's worth of film to study. Getting used to playing with each other is reasonable as in many cases the players on the national team spend their time playing club football away from each other. But still, one extra game and three extra practice sessions is all you gain, and in return you're willing to not play to your fullest? It's not an attitude that makes sense to me.

The only point I'm willing to give any credence to is that if you lose, you are sitting on zero points after the first match and are likely sitting last in your group. And if you aren't sitting last, you're three points behind two different teams. So I get it, you play conservative and hope that the worst you do is draw, earning a vital point as well as keeping an opponent from earning three. Still, there are several things wrong with this mentality:

1. What if you lose?

If you lose a match that you played in such a restrained fashion then not only do you risk the ire of your fans for playing so negatively, but you have made a basic error in that you didn't do your best to win. Simple as that. You went into the match with an inferior plan and lost, so who do you have to blame but yourself?

2. What if you draw?

If you're North Korea playing against Spain, sure, you'd love to draw. Completely agreed there. But what if you are faced with a beatable opponent that isn't quite a walkover? Sure you have earned a point, but you also gave up the ability to earn three. If you have a slight slip-up and draw again, your opponents could vault past you and again, you'd have no one to blame but yourself for your position.

3. Isn't winning always better?

I'm stating this to be obvious, but there is still a point here. In poker tournaments, there is a point called "The Bubble" that refers to the places you can finish that are just shy of making money. For example, in a 1000 person tournament, generally the top 100 finishers will be paid. 101st place makes nothing. 100th might double their $100 entry fee to $200 while 1st will take home multiple thousands. It's a sliding scale that rewards you if you place in the money, but rewards you much more if you place well. Now when you're on The Bubble, when there's 110 people or so left but only 100 people get paid, players start playing more conservatively so that they make the money. They'll fold out of pocket 10s with a raise in front of them, they'll take fewer stabs at dry pots, and they'll generally get into fewer hands because they don't want to get involved in a hand where they could get knocked out of the tournament without getting paid. Knowing that this is the general attitude, there are a small percentage of players that up their aggressiveness, that take advantage of this passive attitude to collect more and more chips during The Bubble. In doing so, they put themselves at more risk to get knocked out before the money but put themselves in an excellent position to finish deeper in the tournament and therefore take home a larger purse.

Why doesn't this strategy make sense in the world of soccer? When everyone is going into their first game cautiously (again, assuming relatively equal competition), doesn't a team have a lot to gain by going for the throat and making their opponents uncomfortable by playing a more aggressive style? If you're Ireland and you don't really have it in your makeup to be aggressive, of course there's nothing wrong with sitting back. But what if you're France with all of your attacking options? Or Portugal with your ability to counter with pace? You don't want to play yourself out of a match, but there is certainly something to be said for earning that early win. Let's say your group breaks down like so: there's a team you should beat, a team you can beat, and a team that will probably beat you. You're playing the team you can beat first, a team that is more or less equal to you or at least on the same level. Rather than starting out slow and trying not to make many mistakes, you take the game to them, put pressure on their tempered tactics, snake a goal or two, and win the match. Now you have three points with a game against a team you should beat still to come. Win that and six points will get you through to the next stage almost guaranteed. Compare that outcome to if you had played to tie. With one point from the first match, there is a lot more pressure to get a win against the team you should beat, and even if you do get the win, four points might not be good enough depending on what else is happening in your group, so you could need a result against the powerhouse as well. Which scenario would you prefer?

I'm not saying that going all out is always going to be the right play. But it is something that should be considered more often than it is. Listening to Roy Hodgson go on about how 1-1 against France was a great result for England annoyed me to no end. Yes, it's good that you didn't let France win. But you didn't either. All of a sudden the home side Ukraine doesn't look like a pushover and Sweden was impressive in qualifying. Neither win is guaranteed and a loss wouldn't be hard to see either. In such a close group, wouldn't an opening win have been exactly what was needed? Now instead they must get that win elsewhere as the pressure mounts and as the schedule doesn't get much easier. Perhaps shrugging off some of that conventional wisdom would have done them well.