Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

Twenty-two days and thirty-one games later, Women’s football continental festivities came to its rousing end with hosts Netherlands lifting the trophy in front of 28,000 exultant fans in Enschede.

Few expected the 12th and 15th ranked teams in the World to square off in the decisive encounter, but that was only the final chapter of a tournament where not a lot went according to plan or historical trends. Truly great news for the future of the women’s game and its quest to attract even more eyeballs amongst football fans after a competition that established new records in attendance, television spectators, media interest and social media engagement.

As the cloth descended on a thrilling sporting event, it’s time to recap the action that took place in the Netherlands and we’ll do this in two instalments: an initial post focused on tournament storylines, teams, tactics and memorable moments, and a second part entirely dedicated to the individuals that shined on the pitch, as we’ll name the best player in the competition, present the tournament’s All-star roster and chose the ideal lineup.

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

With five nations making their first appearance in a competition extended to accommodate 16 teams, natural concerns existed regarding the balance of forces. The fears proved disproportionate, as outside of England’s six-goal thrashing of neighbours Scotland, one-sided games were few and far between and, more impressively, we saw the traditional powerhouses struggle to get any kind of momentum and, in some cases, bow out rather meekly.

Belgium’s astonishing win over Norway is a great example of the parity between the sides at the Euro 2017

The main example is, obviously, Norway’s catastrophic showing, as the former European, World and Olympic Champions took the plane back home without a goal to show for the trip, yet their traditional rivals wouldn’t perform considerably better. Sweden, for instance, stumbled to get out of the group phase before kneeling to the hosts in the quarter-finals, while France had to cling to a life buoy incidentally thrown their way by Switzerland’s goaltender just to qualify out of what many considered the easiest grouping. Moreover, six-time defending Champions Germany failed to impress in their first three games before falling flat in the last eight.

Conversely, all debutants had the opportunity to celebrate historic victories and went on to entertain thoughts of progressing until the dying minutes of the group stage. Only Austria advanced, but Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland left behind indelible evidence of their quality and the growth observed around the continent.

Misfiring star strikers

For all the competitive parity and intensity, the tournament held in Dutch soil wasn’t exactly fertile ground for barn burners, delivering the lowest amount of goals per game (2.19) since 1993, and no players felt it the most than the individuals tasked with swaying the nets.

Many of Europe’s renowned goal scorers were kept in check throughout the event and their teams naturally suffered the consequences. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the reigning European player of the year, unintentionally became the poster girl for this dry spell, but others also stood out for their absence from the scoresheet. Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso, fresh off a 35-goal League campaign with FC Barcelona, was unable to assist her country out of a startling 350-minutes scoring drought, while Germany’s usually prolific duo of Anja Mittag and Mandy Islacker wasted several chances to tally in each of their four appearances.

Germany’s striker Anja Mittag lies down dejected after her team crashed out of the Euro 2017

France’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie, who have combined for 125 (!) international goals, couldn’t muster more than the former’s converted penalty shot versus Iceland, while Netherlands’ superstar Vivianne Miedema only got off the schneid in the quarter-finals after growing visibly frustrated by her misses.

Notably able to escape this misery were just two sides: England, whose great start helped bring to life all their forwards’ dreams during the group stage, with Jodie Taylor leading the way, and Italy, which headed home earlier than anyone else but not without distributing five goals for their three strikers (Cristiana Girelli (1), Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatini (both 2)).

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

In a tournament that hit high notes for the level of play, there was one aspect that drew unnecessary attention to prod the grumbles of the detractors: many of the goaltenders present in the competition failed to uphold the levels of technical expertise displayed by their teammates and egregious mishaps abounded, an indictment that the standards of training and mental preparation for this specific position still sit a notch below other parameters of the women’s game.

More than a handful of goals, scoring chances and, even, eliminations can be chalked up to appalling errors by goalies, be it failed zone clears, botched interceptions, fumbled catches or erroneous stops, and while no good comes from nominating them, it’s still telling that they touched the entire spectrum in hand.

Italy’s Laura Giuliani reacts after letting the ball slip through her fingers against Germany

From 19-year-old Tatyana Shcherbak (Russia) to 35-year-old Gemma Fay (Scotland), and catching up to the rookies getting their feet wet at the highest level of competition, such as Portugal’s Patrícia Morais and Italy’s Laura Giuliani, or veterans with significant experience in international competitions, as are the cases of Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark), Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland), Gaëlle Thalmann (Switzerland) and Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands). A disparate group that suggests this issue should be a priority for all stakeholders of the women’s game over the next few years.

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

Postponed to a Sunday morning due to the tremendous downpour that stroke Rotterdam, this historic quarter-final matchup will go down as a paradigm shifting moment, since Germany’s sovereignty over the European game ended after 8162 days (!).

A takedown that came unannounced, especially since disaster struck Denmark just three minutes in when goalie Stine Lykke Petersen, perhaps still numb from the early kickoff, failed to stop a trivial Isabel Kerschowski’s shot and the ball trudged into the net to give Germany a premature lead. The defending Champions’ tricky passing game and fluid positional exchanges then came to the fore as they threatened but rarely overwhelmed throughout the first half and, bit by bit, Denmark started to encounter the pockets of space the Germans had been guilty of exposing all tournament.

The Danish players celebrate the second goal of their stunning triumph over Germany

Nadia Nadim’s powerful equalizer in the early moments of the second half was born out of a mistake by two German players, who foolishly paused looking for a whistle, and it catapulted the Danes to a 15-min stretch where they blew several glorious chances. It appeared Denmark would rue their luck when Germany finally settled down to get back into attacking mode, but the underdogs were still looking very much alive.

Until the moment, with seven minutes to go, when time seemed to freeze as the ball crossed by substitute Frederikke Thøgersen met an unmarked Theresa Nielsen rambling through the heart of Germany’s defence. The Danish right back nodded it past goalkeeper Almuth Schult and the biggest upset in the tournament’s history was complete.

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

Worst Game: Austria 0 -0 Spain (5-3 on penalties)

A great sample to appease the “tiki taka is boring” crowd looming out there. Spain had already passed the ball to exhaustion without much to show for it against England, and they allowed the proceedings to slow down to a halt in this encounter with Austria, a feisty, well-organized team that was more than happy to sit back, milk the clock and take their chances on set pieces.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda would introduce all the offensive weapons at his disposal, move pieces around and tweak the approach, but his side wouldn’t break down the wall or generate enough to justify victory following a tedious 120 minutes. The decision came to a penalty shootout where Silvia Meseguer’s shot was the only one stopped by the goaltenders. Therefore, it sent Spain packing and Austria’s fairy-tale journey into the next stop.

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

Italy and Sweden were levelled at one when full-back Linda Tucceri Cimini’s dipping delivery met the onrushing Daniela Sabatino inside the box. The veteran forward twisted her body to one-time the ball with her right foot, and the gorgeous chip sailed over goaltender Hedvig Lindahl to find the top corner on the opposite side. Lovely finish.

Honourable Mentions: Jordan Nobbs (England – Scotland), Pernille Harder (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

An outrageous, right hand stop by the outstretched German goaltender to deflect Barbara Bonansea’s scorching free kick in a fantastic showcase of Schult’s athleticism.

Honourable Mentions: Manuela Zinsberger (Austria – France), Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best fans: Iceland

The Icelanders have learned how much fun attending these tournaments can be, and now they make the trip south in droves whenever possible to provide a special atmosphere to their matches. The blue legion congregated in the stadiums of the Netherlands proved as lively as in France last year, and there were copious amounts of their “thunderclap” to boot. Before, during and after the games even if their women’s team seldom afforded opportunities to cheer.

Honourable Mention: Belgium

Clad in Red, the Belgium fans trekked north by the thousands to fill the goal-line stands in each of their three matches, and it was pretty obvious how their girls feed on their energy and steered forward with renewed enthusiasm every time they stepped up the vocal support. It was almost enough to pry away a point from Denmark, and vital to secure a brilliant 2-0 triumph over Norway.

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

With major props dispensed to Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands), who oversaw the most exciting team in the tournament, and Nils Nielsen, manager of a runner up that thrived, in spite of several injuries, due to their tactical malleability, the leader of the competition’s surprise package gets the award.

Short in talent, flash and experience compared with most opponents, the Austrian’s relied on versatile tactical principles, impressive physical condition and guile to masquerade their limitations in a way that made their campaign less surprising by each game. Seamlessly able to switch systems during the match, shifting between a defensive unit of three, four or five, a central midfield structured in 2+1 or 1+2, and an attack that could easily tolerate Nicole Billa alongside charismatic striker Nina Burger, Thalhammer expertly balanced defensive compactness, when necessary ordering two banks of players stationed in front of goal, and offensive depth, advancing the block in hopes of forcing dangerous turnovers (see their game-winning-goal versus Switzerland) before retreating to their shell as soon as the front line was surpassed.

Austria reached the semi-finals on the strength of their coach’s tactical sagacity.

Austria’s strong core of Bundesliga-based players possessed the tactical maturity to implement its coach’s vision, and the results were remarkable, with teams such as Spain, France and Denmark left without answers to forcefully pin them back, penetrate their block and coerce the novices out of their comfort zone.

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

We’ll absolve Martin Sjögren for now, as Norway’s problems run much deeper than management, and focus on yet another frustrating tournament for France.

Olivier Echouafni’s job was not an easy one, as he had to deal with the legacy of an international heavyweight that ultimately falters in key moments, but that can’t excuse a series of puzzling personal and tactical decisions which concurred to end their campaign at the hands of England.

For instance, debuting against an Icelandic team that would populate their own half and try to retain the 0-0, did he really need to introduce a third central midfielder (Élise Bussaglia) into the lineup and break in a late call-up (Clarisse Le Bihan, who substituted injured Amel Majri in the final roster)? The French struggled to establish possession in dangerous areas, and the duo was unsurprisingly replaced as France furiously chased a winning goal, which would fall from the sky by way of an unnecessary penalty.

Eugénie Le Sommer’s late penalty saved France against Iceland but Olivier Echouafni’s options would still get in the way of a successful campaign

They weren’t as fortunate against Austria four days later, when Echouafni took 70 minutes to correct his hand after once again getting creative with his starting eleven. He sat playmaker Camille Ability for youngster Onema Geyoro, and fielded an head-scratching front three with Le Sommer on the left (ok), Gaëtane Thiney as a center forward (meh) and towering striker Marie-Laure Delie deployed along the right side (what?).

The 44-year-old manager seemed to finally crack the code against Switzerland, with the irreverent Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani flanking Le Sommer, but Eve Perisset’s red card and ensuing Swiss tally meant they would have to fight back, undermanned, for 75 minutes. With the clock running out, Abily’s free kick miraculously slipped past the Swiss goalie to send them through undeservedly, but any hopes of avoiding a precocious clash with England went up in smoke, and they fell despite playing their best game of the tournament.

Now, imagine if they hadn’t skidded early due to their manager’s strange options, avoided England and reached the knockout rounds buoyed by the confidence of three good showings. Just another “if” to add to France’s growing collection of disappointing exits.

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

We’ve covered France extensively in the previous section, so let’s jump right into Spain, a team that crashed headfirst into their (high) expectations and understated concerns.

After waltzing past Portugal in a first match where their sweet looking, possession-based game seemed to be on point, the Spaniards’ problems started when England, up 1-0 from the get-go, deliberately conceded control the ball and watched as the Iberians struggled to disentangle a team that wouldn’t run around and chase, but rather keep the positions and pack the centre lanes. Missing an element that could break lines in possession, combine in the half spaces and still attack the box (have you seen Vero?), Spain’s game was quickly exposed for his lack of incisiveness and reduced to an unending succession of crisp, lateral passes that could be harnessed by any structured defensive unit.

Vicky Losada’s Spain was dumped out of the Euro 2017 by Austria

Picking up on England’s example, Scotland similarly found a way to neutralize Spain and take full advantage of a defensive error to secure a 1-0 victory, and therefore the ambitious title challengers only avoided a precocious elimination because the tiebreaker favoured them over two debutants.

A third newcomer stood on their way at the quarter-finals, and simply based on tactical fit, Austria was far from an ideal pairing for the bewildered Spaniards. Another frustrating 120 minutes without finding the back of the net – to stretch their streak of futility to more than 5.5 hours – were followed by a shootout loss, and they were issued a ticket home with a   recommendation to get back into the drawing board.

Overachieving Team: Austria

A pretty straightforward pick when a debutant reaches the last four, heads home undefeated (3 wins, 2 draws) and boasts the stingiest record in the competition, having allowed just one goal (from a corner kick) in five matches.

We warned in our preview that Austria would have a word to say in the outcome of Group C, and they made us look smart by outmanoeuvring their talented neighbours in the opener, courageously challenging France’s superiority before receding to secure the point, and thoroughly dominating (16-0 in shots on target) Iceland to finish top of the table.

Austrian players celebrate the second goal of their 3-0 victory over Iceland

Way more industrious and pragmatic than brilliant in the knockout rounds, they still engendered their own opportunities to avoid penalties against Spain and Denmark. Perfect (5 of 5) on their first attempt and abysmal (0 of 3) later, they left the Netherlands after an historic campaign that improved the stock of many of their players.

Worst Team: Norway

Three defeats in three games, 0 goals for, 4 goals against, 0 points and a record unworthy of one of the most decorated nations in women’s football. How to make sense of such paltry performance from a team that can field the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen?

With a clear understanding that football is a team game where the best can only play…at their best when put in positions to succeed and surrounded by teammates that can help them flourish. That means a dazzling offensive dynamo like Hansen has to receive the ball as soon as possible when it gets to the final third, looking to accelerate and spread the panic, but without a host of opponents harassing her and several banks of defenders to beat. That also means Ada Hegerberg, who is not a striker capable of creating her own chances, needs to be served with deadly through balls or swinging crosses she can reach without having to muscle out the three defenders strapped to her back.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hanse evades three Danish players on the last matchday of Group A

Norway failed spectacularly and systematically at these missions, and while much of it rests on coach Martin Sjögren – on paper, freeing the stars of defensive responsibilities in a  4x2x3x1/4x4x2 made sense, but the dynamics didn’t match – , there’s a lot to be said about the lack of creativity, technical quality, poise in possession and passing acumen of the full backs and roulette of midfielders and forwards tasked with supplementing the difference-makers.

Lastly, it was telling that in Norway’s final match, with the captain Maren Mjelde helping the build up a few meters ahead, and the talented, 23-year-old offensive midfielder Guro Reiten hovering close to Hegerberg and Hansen, their football’s fluidity and offensive punch shot up enough to substantiate multiple tallies (Hansen missed a penalty and they hit three posts against Denmark). Too late to salvage face, but a glimpse of what they need to do to stem the decay of a women’s football powerhouse.

Best Team: Netherlands

In the end, for the first time in 22 years, the Germans didn’t win but the best team clearly /did. Something these short summer tournaments don’t spit out as regularly as you’re led to believe.

Under the pulsating sea of orange shirts, the Netherlands women’s national team might not have been the embodiment of “Totaalvoetbal” or mechanical, clockwork efficiency, yet few didn’t relish their exquisite, effervescent expression of modern football: fluid and imaginative with the ball, responsible in transition and aggressive looking to regain possession.

A submission levitated by two flying Dutchwomen of contrasting attributes, the powerful, dizzyingly fast Shanice Van de Sanden and the silky electric Lieke Martens, that nonetheless couldn’t have gone into overdrive without its elegant spear (Vivianne Miedema), or reach the plenitude if two tireless, understated artists (Daniëlle Van de Donk and Jackie Groenen) had ever stopped loading the front lines.

Netherlands’ Daniëlle van de Donk is tracked down by her teammates after scoring against England in the semi-finals

Built on this splendid quintet of individuals whose complementary skills fit to perfection, and a defensive unit that responded affirmatively under the spotlight, the Netherlands surfed a mounting wave of confidence to the final triumph, dispatching two former winners (Norway and Sweden), belying a regional rival (Belgium), routing the mighty English in the semi-finals and twice overcoming a Danish squad that more than any other seemed to trouble them. In the group stage, when the Dutch were fortunate to secure the 1-0 win, and in the Grand finale, as the hosts chased the score for the first time and rose admirably to the challenge.

A necessary final ordeal to attest this young, highly-talented Dutch squad had been elected to succeed those all-conquering German teams, and was destined to double the number of countries that have won the men’s and women’s UEFA European Championship.

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