Wednesday, June 20, 2012

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.

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