Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Matter of Inches

Much will be made about how, in their respective first matches of the tournament, Holland let the game slip through their fingers while Germany showed the resolve of a champion and pulled out a tough win. While you cannot argue with results, we must be careful not to make too much of these particular results and what they say about the nature of each team. Yes Holland squandered chances and yes they had a defensive breakdown which led to a Danish goal, but that does not automatically make them "a collection of individuals that can't play together as a team" or anything like that. Essentially the same team made the finals of the 2010 World Cup so that kind of hyperbole should be out the window. Instead, let us focus on what went wrong and what can be done to fix it before the next match. And yes, Germany got a clutch goal from their big striker Mario Gomez, validating the decision to start him over Miroslav Klose. But for a German team that was supposed to be a high octane, dynamic attacking side, this tentative and often boring 1-0 win over a game Portugal side should be remembered for the things that didn't go right as well as the things that did, otherwise the same mistakes may be repeated in their next match against Holland.

Still, Denmark and Germany have three points apiece while Holland and Portugal have serious hills to climb. It is a particularly difficult road for Holland as they have yet to play Germany, the supposed best team in the group and the team (along with Spain) most mentioned as front runners for the title. Still, this is a fickle group of death and it wouldn't be hard to see Portugal beat Denmark next Wednesday, meaning that even if Holland lose their match to Germany, they would enter the last game of the group stage within three points of their competitors and still with everything to play for. Down, perhaps, but never out.

Denmark vs Holland

As Michael Cox says in his analysis of this first game from Group B, "This result came down to finishing." Holland had 28 shots to Denmark's 8, 11 corners to Denmark's 4, and the majority of possession during the match. Despite all of these numbers, the Dutch couldn't finish when it mattered and it cost them points. Though I love him dearly for leading Arsenal back to the Champions League this year, Robin Van Persie had a very poor game, once missing from the top of the six with a side footed shot from a cross, and once even whiffing completely on a shot as his plant foot failed him. Arjen Robben didn't fair much better, though he did ring one curling left footed shot off the post. The problem was that more often than not, his shots or crosses flew over the bar, leaving his teammates without opportunity off a pass or rebound. He was generally a black hole for the ball, making sure that once it was passed to him it wasn't coming out again, regardless of how much talent he displayed. Holland's man of the match was clearly Wesley Sneijder, who moved well to received the ball, had some chances on goal, and set up his teammates time and again. His through ball to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should have resulted in the tying goal, but the Schalke striker butchered the chance. All-in-all it was a good but flawed performance for the Dutch and rather than escape with a win or a point, they conceded everything.

We often fall into the trap of talking about the "big" team even when they lose (as I admittedly just did) so let's talk about Denmark. They were good and showed that they can win tight games against strong opponents, but let's not go crowning them as the dramatic upset story of the tournament just yet. They played very open soccer and while that made for an entertaining match, it also led to those stats detailing Dutch dominance. Despite keeping a clean sheet, this wasn't a gritty defensive effort. It was a team that played well and took advantage of their chances, but also was bailed out by a lack of finishing on the other end. Left back Simon Poulsen did well to keep Arjen Robben from running all over place, but he was especially valuable jumping into the attack. His run forward created the chance that Michael Krohn-Dehli scored on and he caused problems a number of other times by moving into the play wisely. Next-Big-Thing-To-Come-Out-Of-Euros candidate Christian Eriksen had a quiet game, at least in part due to the "killers of all things creative" Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Denmark will have to find a way for Eriksen to exert his influence on their other matches as he's likely to face this kind of attention all the way through the tournament. Still, even with Eriksen a non-factor, Denmark was able to win their opening match and put themselves in great position to move forward in the tournament. Portugal will be a difficult test, but one they've proven they can pass.

Germany vs Portugal

This match was the flip side of the day's narrative, with a seemingly out of sync German side doing what they needed to win their opening game. Well, perhaps "out of sync" is the wrong phrase to use here. It wasn't that the Germans didn't execute at all, they just couldn't break down a Portuguese side that was determined to stop them from finishing in the final third. Portugal played very defensively and then tried to counter with the speed and skill of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. While both wingers had some good individual chances, they never were able to break through and Portugal was left to try to hold the Germans scoreless and pray for a point. It looked like this might work for a while but Germany have too many ways to try to beat you. They can soak up pressure and then counter in a blur of quick passes; they can play possession and then work combinations passes to open you up; and they can play off their target man in the middle to create shots on goal or general chaos in the box. The last of those options is what finally worked for Germany as Gomez was able to adjust to a deflection off a cross better than his defender and then put a beautiful header across the goal and out of the reach of Portuguese keeper Rui Patricio. Even when Portugal stepped up the tempo in an attempt to get the tying goal, Germany was able to hold on and earn the full three points.

I'd like to say more about this match but to be honest, this is most of what happened and it was somewhat of a letdown. In hindsight, I don't know why I thought that way because Portugal didn't have the offensive firepower to really go toe-to-toe with Germany. I guess I was under the impression that Germany would carve out chances going forward and Portugal would counter attack with speed, creating something of an up and down match. This happened to a degree but not with the verve I had anticipated. An early German goal would have really turned things around and pulled Portugal out of their shell, but what can you do? Ronaldo dribbled with the outside of his foot, Mesut Ozil played like the dynamic little kobald that he is, and the game went to Germany as was expected. Time to move on.

Group C is up next with Italy playing Spain and Croatia taking on Ireland. The former is obviously the bigger of the clashes, but it will be interesting to see the latter as well. If either Croatia or Ireland can take the full three points from that match, it will put them in a good position to try to steal points against the bigger teams and move on in the tournament. Let's see how they do. See you back here tomorrow.

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