Closing remarks on the Euro 2016

The UEFA Euro 2016 ended last Sunday in Paris, with Portugal taking the trophy for the first time in their history, and behind the competition left a trail of notable occurrences. I decided to weigh in on what I’ll recollect from a month of international football on several fronts, handing out my own accolades (and reproaches).

Here are my choices and the corresponding justifications.

 

Best Game: Germany-Italy

If you’re going purely by the entertainment standpoint, obviously Portugal  3-3 Hungary and France 5-2 Iceland extend a strong case, but I tend to get caught on tactical battles. With the caveat that I didn’t see Italy’s dismantling of Spain, my choices got narrowed down to Germany-France and Germany-Italy. The SF encounter was intense, physical and emotional as always happens when those two countries clash, but the chess game played by Joachim Löw and Antonio Conte takes the cake. A fascinating contrast of styles despite analogous starting structures, it featured the thrilling uneasiness that comes with the belief that every erroneous bounce of the ball could decide the match (which would have happened if Boateng hadn’t suffered a brief brain pause). It was just an absolute classic between the two most competent sides in the tournament. In the end, the dramatic, memorable penalty shootout was simply the cherry on top.

Worst Game: Wales- Northern Ireland

A snooze fest that not even two boisterous sets of fans could save. Little to null goal action, a festival of predictable moves and broken plays that was mercifully ended with an own-goal obtained once the most talented player in the pitch gathered the means to try something different.  A preview of Premier League action in a (not so remote) post-Brexit future?

 

Best goal: Xherdan Shaquiri, Switzerland-Poland

An outrageous overhead kick from the edge of the box tying an elimination match with ten minutes to go? Is there really a question about this? Should it really matter that Switzerland ultimately lost? Yes, please. No. No.

Xherdan Shaquiri temporarily stunned Poland with this ludicrous execution

Honourable Mentions: Marek Hamšík (Slovakia v Russia), Éder (Portugal v France)

 

Best coach: Fernando Santos (Portugal)

An experienced manager that believed stubbornly in his ideas and in the end got crowned in spite of the avalanche of critics.

Portugal dominated every group stage match – as they ought to- but a series of unlucky bounces pushed them dangerously close to falling out, yet the confidence of their coach never wavered. They never dazzled but Santos, certainly inspired by his time at Greece, saw the end of the road before anyone else and did everything he could to get there. If it meant committing all his resources to stifling Croatia’s free-flowing style and hope for a reverse of fortune on the fast break, he went for it. If it meant leaving Ronaldo on an island and force him to retreat to the midfield to feel the ball, let it be. If it meant drilling his players’ mind to keep an eye on both ends at every move, may it work. If it meant tempting destiny by tossing his spare striker into the heat of the Final.…well, why not? As they say, “better be lucky than be good”.

Portugal’s manager Fernando Santos is lifted in the air by his players after the triumph in the 2016 European Championship

However, don’t be fooled. Portugal didn’t put the odds in their favour just by shrinking their margins of error, trusting the individual quality on their side and riding the faith of their coach.  They were mature, tactically aware, malleable and resilient in front of the adversity, as Ronaldo’s injury in Paris highlighted. Both Fernando Santos and its players deserved their immortality in Portugal’s football lore.

 

Worst Coach: Tie between Marc Wilmots (Belgium) and Ray Hodgson (England)

Wilmots came into the tournament under pressure for his palpable shortcomings guiding a stacked line-up brimming with highly valued offensive talents, and didn’t exactly dismiss those concerns in France. Being outsmarted by Antonio Conte in the opener may be excusable, but he didn’t learn from his mistakes when the team was again tasked with having to manoeuvre past a stingy 3-5-2 defensive scheme. If you beat teams handily (but not without some compromising signals burbling) with Kevin de Bruyne slotted behind the striker and multiple talents playing off each other, why bring back the Marouane Fellaini option for the QF against a Wales team that thrives with speed on the counter? Was he expecting the midfielder’s bountiful hair to cover the space his legs couldn’t?

Wilmots may be absolved from his backline’s mistakes after his most experienced options went down, but the lack of a clear strategy to overcome a side that blocked them twice on the qualifying phase was embarrassing.  He simply hasn’t displayed the tactical nous necessary and it backfired spectacularly this time, putting his job under serious peril (and… now it’s gone). I highly doubt he’ll have the chance to waste another opportunity like this.

Marc Wilmots was the face of Belgium’s incapacity to surpass Wales

As for Hodgson, the writing has also been in the wall for some time. With a career built majorly at underdog sides he could pummel to fit his defensive approach, the 68-year-old is a relic of another era at a time England is producing generations of  unpredictable talents. The English roster had the depth and high-end skill to match the best in the competition, but no one ever understood how they wanted to play.

It was not only the bizarre saga about Wayne Rooney’s assignment, but the inability to put players in position to succeed, with the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane turning into caricatures of their form for Pochettino’s Tottenham. Were it not for Daniel Sturridge’s late match winner against Wales, “The Three Lions” would have left the competition without a victory and the game against Iceland simply displayed the team’s contradictions, with England unable to break down their opponents despite ample warnings. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were free to run forward but England just couldn’t find man advantages at the flanks to afford solid crosses or open space in the middle to pierce through. Watching 18-year-old Marcus Rashford being sought repeatedly on the final minutes to force 1 on 2’s (or 3’s) reeked of desperation and fittingly signalled the end of Hodgson’s tenure.

 

Underachieving team:  Belgium

When you possess their array of talent, get tendered a soft road to the final, and still can’t beat Wales at the third try, you failed. Plain and simple.

Overachieving Team: Iceland

The smallest nation ever to qualify for a major tournament was vaulted by almost 10% of their own in route to stamp the shock of the tournament, and in the process caught the hearts of millions. Fighting like Vikings until the final drop of sweat left their bodies, Iceland’s infectious disposition was in display as they firmly chased an unsurmountable deficit against France in the game that ended their Cinderella run.

They take the recognition over the other feel-good story, Wales, because they can’t count on a World top-ten (five?) player to lift them at any time.

The “Please, take another drink” team: Croatia

Croatia’s triump over defending Champions Spain didn’t have the follow up they expected

I called them “indisputably one of the most talented (ensembles) in the tournament” and they   didn’t disappoint, amassing a deserved victory over Spain to finish atop the competition’s toughest group. Everything was clicking, even as there were questions about their ability to function as a team, which, outside of those final moments against Czech Republic, proved unwarranted. However, their journey took an unfortunate turn while they sat at home, and they can blame Iceland for that.

Ante Čačić took too long to decipher Portugal’s plan and when he acted (the brazen Marko Pjaca should have been launched earlier) fatigue was already too prominent to control the outcome. Croatia got greedy chasing a goal and was punished on the break, traveling home way too early. Better luck next time.

 

Worst Teams: Sweden and Ukraine

Playing 180 minutes of football in a major competition without recording a shot on goal is acutely disconcerting, and Erik Hamrén should thank Zlatan’s national team retirement for temporarily changing the narrative.

Nevertheless, Sweden’s dearth of a mere flicker of imagination was dispiriting to watch, as their game was entirely founded on Albin Ekdal’s and Kim Källström’s ability to play long balls towards their strikers.  They waited…and waited…and waited for Ibrahimović to do some magic but their frustrated star could never deliver with two or three men hanged over him, as wingers Sebastian Larsson and Emil Forsberg became invisible for the tournament’s entirety. Sweden’s rudimentary style lacked offensive spark and not even the generation that won the U-21 Euro last year seems to have an answer for that.

The Ukrainians were the only team to leave the tournament without tallying despite possessing the firepower to do so in the Konoplyanka-Kovalenko-Yarmolenko trio. To a positive showing against the World Champions, especially in the first half, Ukraine responded with a listless display against Northern Ireland in a do or die situation. They did better against a Polish team already qualified but still came out with nothing to show for it.

 

Best fans: three way tie between Iceland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Vibrant, piping, unconditional and unwavering support coupled with a legacy to boot. We’ll miss the Icelandic “Haka” (or “thunderclap”) the French so shamelessly copied, Wales’ rendition of “Don’t Take me Home” ringing until the Semis and the memorable “Will Grigg’s on Fire”.

Wales’ Red Wall crossed the English Channel to support its heroes in France

 

Best Player: Antoine Griezmann (France)

Out of sorts against Romania in the opener, Atletico’s marksman rescued victory against Albania coming off the bench, yet his party wouldn’t really start until the knockout stage got running.  Five goals in three games powered the hosts to the Final, and the vision of the blue #7 darting through Germany’s end jumps out as the remembrance from the tournament’s most-charged encounter. He didn’t reach the same level of brilliance displayed in the Champions League a few weeks earlier, but so didn’t any of his rivals, and there’s no denying his numbers (six goals and two assists) and influence. Had Griezmann struck on any of his glorious chances in the final, a new French legend would have been born. This way, he just takes two (somewhat) meaningless trophies home.

Honourable mention: Toni Kroos (Germany)

The maestro of the Mannschaft was omnipresent throughout the competition: recovering, distributing with assertiveness, shifting the point of attack, finding his teammates in between the lines, delivering every free kick expertly. It was tiring watching him pull the strings and become the fulcrum for a team that missed dearly the finishing ability of Thomas Müller, probably the major reason they couldn’t go further. After a long season for Real Madrid, the effort laid down by the slick midfielder deserved another corollary. At age 26, he may be the world’s best all-rounded central midfielder.

The class of Germany’s Toni Kroos was in display at the Euro 2016

 

Best eleven of the tournament:

 

GK Rui Patrício (Portugal): A victim of Portugal’s early hitches, he brought his A-Game for the knockout rounds: a vital late stop in extra time against Croatia (with the post’s assistance), a great stretch save to pare down a Polish kick in the shootout, a handful of superb saves in the Final to prolong the tie and set up Éder’s gift from the gods.

RB Alessandro Florenzi (Italy): At the hardest position to fill, I opted for a player that symbolised Italy’s performance, as the hard-working wing-back was key on Antonio Conte’s strategy. His versatility allowed his team to meander between tactical structures almost imperceptibly, and he impressed closing down the flank aggressively and diligently helping out in attack.

Leonardo Bonucci was a leader for the Azurri at the Euro 2016

CB Leonardo Bonucci (Italy): Started the competition providing an outstanding dipping ball for Emanuele Giaccherini’s goal, and ended exhibiting nerves of steel in front of Manuel Neuer, flawlessly converting a penalty late in regulation, an unusual situation for him. He couldn’t do the same in the shootout but he looked sublime throughout, commanding Italy’s backline with aplomb and chalking up the offense, channelling his inner Andrea Pirlo. At age 29, his stock rose so much that he can become the World’s most expensive defenseman this summer.

CB Pepe (Portugal): The lifeblood and vocal leader of Portugal’s defensive unit was in imperial form against Croatia and kept the level up there onwards, using his athleticism to clear every attempt venturing close to Portugal’s net. The “Man of The Match” award in the Final was as much deserved as long overdue.

LB Raphaël Guerreiro (Portugal): Snapped by Borussia Dortmund earlier in the tournament, Guerreiro validated the German’s confidence by showcasing his skilful left foot abundantly. A poised, offensive-minded left back with defensive acumen and speed to transition back and forth, he excelled whipping the ball towards the box on crosses and free kicks. By far the most dynamic full back in the competition, and so, so close to becoming the hero in the final with his smashing shot off the cross bar.

CM Toni Kroos (Germany)see above

CM Aaron Ramsey (Wales): Chris Coleman anchored much of his team’s success on Ramsey’s ability to connect the midfield and attack, and the Arsenal man delivered on the task. He pushed the pace forward elegantly, and smartly attacked the space between defenders, all without ever relinquishing his duties alongside Joe Ledley and Joe Allen. Magnificent against Belgium, he was absent in the SF due to suspension and Wales missed his craftiness dearly. His four assists led the tournament alongside Eden Hazard.

OM Dimitri Payet (France)see below

F Gareth Bale (Wales): Three splendid goals in the group stage to fire up Wales’ debut, and an enduring “never die” attitude after that despite failing to hit the scoreboard again. His teammates looked for him in times of trouble, and Bale relished the challenge of inspiring them with his unrelenting runs and thumping shots.

F Antoine Griezmann (France) – see above

Antoine Griezmann shined brightly for the hosts France

F Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal): The Portuguese captain was the face of anxiousness for the first two games, but everything changed after his crucial brace against Hungary. He ditched the selfishness that was creeping into his game, and understood how he could better help his team: pushing back defences, offering passing lines, supporting the ball movement and crashing the box to finish. The individual moment of genius came on a towering header against Wales and later his teammates picked him up when he went down in tears, managing to claim the title he desired so much.

 

Bonus:

I wrote a series of articles previewing the players that would breakout in the competition, and now decided to do a quick follow up by keying in on my top five hits and slips.

Missed the mark:

Piotr Zieliński (Poland): Only 45 minutes of playing time against Ukraine as Adam Nawałka rested some starters, he gave entry to Jakub Błaszczykowski, who would score the game-winning-goal. The option for the two man partnership up front killed his chances

Jason Denayer (Belgium): Marc Wilmots’ last minute change of heart on his defence’s composition relegated Denayer to the bench in favour of Thomas Vermaelen, and he only got in the action when the oft-injured Barcelona man flailed before the QF. Then, Denayer got caught watching closely as Hal Robson-Kanu fed his inner Johan Cruyff, and both Ashley Williams and Sam Vokes headed the ball home.

Jason Denayer had his hands full against Gareth Bale and the rest of Wales

Paddy McNair (Northern Ireland): Started the first game against Poland but was taken out at halftime as the team looked for a more offensive minded approach. Later, he was thrown in injury-time against Ukraine, and never touched the French grass again.

Federico Bernardeschi (Italy): One hour as a left-wing back against Ireland while Conte rested almost all of his favourites on the group’s last encounter. And that was it for now. I suspect things will look different in Russia’s 2018 World Cup.

Oğuzhan Özyakup (Turkey): Featured in all three of Turkey’s games but the impact just wasn’t there. A half-time casualty against Croatia, opening space for Hakan Çalhanoğlu to tuck inside, Özyakup was one of the victims after Spain’s lashing on the second match. Fatih Terim still gave him 30 minutes on Turkey’s farewell.

 

On the spot:

Dimitri Payet (France): I read somewhere before the Euro’s beginning that Payet might leave as the best player in the tournament. I didn’t exactly buy that right away, but an outstanding kick to pry away the triumph against Romania on the opener turned the spotlight on him. Payet wasn’t unerringly brilliant throughout, but his scented, unpredictable game brought much needed flair to France’s midfield. Didier Deschamps’ option was, thus, completely vindicated by a trio of cracking goals and a couple of assists.

The trickery of Dimiti Payet wreaked havoc in the pitches of France

Elseid Hysaj (Albania): The Napoli man may have been the best right-back of the group stage, with his impressive stamina along the sidelines leading the minnows on their way to an historic first international participation. His stunning through ball to put Armando Sadiku face to face with the Swiss goalie was one of the best pieces of skill in the tournament, but he also locked down his flank impressively, contributing to a unit that proved tough to break.

Ondrej Duda (Slovakia): The creative midfielder scored just seconds after taking the pitch against Wales, and won regular duties as an improvised forward for the rest of the group stage, proving difficult to control due his shiftiness, technique and ability to soundly exchange positions with the members of the offensive trio slotted behind. Ján Kozák opted for a pure striker against Germany and Slovakia was kept at bay…

Jonas Hector (Germany): FC Köln’s inconspicuous left-back played every minute of the competition for the World Champions and his performances were staunchly immaculate. Consistent and dogged on defence, always available to support and offer width to Germany’s possession game, Hector confirmed his report as a dependable full-back destined for bigger stages. All in all, probably the second best in the competition at his position.

Ádám Nagy (Hungary): The slender defensive pivot was a working bee on Hungary’s midfield, vigorously pacing left and right looking to tackle, receive the ball and initiate the offense with crisp passes. Like the rest of his teammates, he seemed a bit bemused by Belgium’s attacking waves during the round of 16 match, but with so much space to cover by himself he can be forgiven.

Arnór Ingvi Traustason (Iceland): 15 minutes against Austria, and a last-gasp goal that reshaped the route of the eventual Champions and arguably the complexity of the entire tournament. THANK YOU, Arnór!

Iceland’s players mug goalscorer Arnór Ingvi Traustason after guaranteeing their first win in European Championships

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