By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (June 13, 2012) US Soccer Players -- So far, the European Championships has been a study in half-baked ideas on how to go about winning a soccer game. So far, the European Championship have hardly been one of those tournaments that sets trends we’ll see latched onto around the world in the years ahead. So far, the European Championships haven’t been a showcase for truly great teams, but a lesson that more often than not, matchups make matches.
Is there a clear, positive, successful method of play that is catching anyone’s eye thus far?
Aside from the rush of adrenaline and questionable officiating that gave us a surprisingly entertaining 1-1 opener between Poland and Greece, a strong performance by Russia against the underwhelming Czechs, and (if you want to be kind to the Croatians rather than hard on the Irish) Croatia’s three goal outburst against Ireland, the tournament has been more marked more by things done poorly than by things done well.
We’ve seen Spain, the pre-tournament favorite and reigning World and European champion, demure from playing a dedicated striker. Vincente Del Bosque opted - rather than send out a lineup with a second or third choice forward in the formation - to pack his team full of midfield talent. It worked and it didn’t, and Spain emerged from their opening group match with Italy with one goal and one point.
There’s no reason to think that Spain’s gambit will catch on, snaking through world soccer the way so many of that country’s stylistic calling cards have over the last few years. Italy didn’t play Catenaccio, but they did stifle the Spanish. Lesser teams will find it difficult to replicate even the limited success Del Bosque’s team found.
It’s difficult to imagine anyone choosing to play as Spain did, even if they’re not going up against as disciplined a team as Italy, because of the potential for disaster. No forward means no point of entry. It means having no margin for error with one’s passing. It’s like trying to pop a balloon with a spoon… technically possible, and easy if you find the perfect angle and pressure, but maddeningly difficult for most.
Holland, perhaps just behind Spain and Germany as a favorite to take home the trophy, endeavored to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more against Denmark and never actually put the ball in the net. Rather than soften up the Danes, Holland’s wastefulness actually seemed to have the opposite effect. Holland pulled the trigger, repeatedly, to the detriment of their attack.
Denmark’s performance smacked of reactive, defensive soccer. To a point it was, but it was also the smart way to play against a team with superior ability. The overriding theme of international soccer these days is the positive/negative matchup. One side, the team with the better technical ability and attacking players, batters itself against the parked bus of the “lesser” team.
More often than not, this dynamic dominates early rounds of tournaments because teams are wary of opening up and risking a loss. Better to play defensive and compact and make the other team beat you with their best shot.
It’s exactly this phenomenon that credits a team like Poland. As a co-host, the pressure on Poland to advance is immense. That usually means playing it safe. Yet against Greece in their opener, and then against Russia in their second group match, they set out with a proactive attitude. As Greece was hardly the ugly, stagnant side that won the 2004 European championship, Poland’s approach was much more dangerous than it might seem. In the tense match against Russia - a dark horse pick to go deep in the tourney and the odds-on favorite to win the group - Poland played aggressively enough to keep the game from bogging down into something approaching typical tournament soccer.
It’s the unfancied teams, and the teams with less of an established stylistic identity (or, in the case of Greece, playing against their presumed identity) that are the entertainers so far. That only means so much, since the world doesn’t take cues from middling soccer nations. They take cues from the traditional powers, and invariably with an eye towards expansive, positive soccer. The Italians are effective at what they do (even when it’s not Catenaccio), but no one is rushing to copy their template.
There’s nothing happening so far in Euro 2012 that smacks of “trend.” Maybe that will change as the tournament progresses, but the theme that seems to be coming into focus is that those with the most to lose will typically play more negatively.
England’s draw with France wasn’t virtuosic. It wasn’t encouraging for those who want to see England be less stodgy, less direct, less negative. It simply made sense as a means to the end of collecting an all-important positive result. It’s England coach Roy Hodgson's job, even if it indicates a clear capitulation on England’s part in the offensive areas of the game when playing an opponent viewed to be superior.
There’s something about these continental tournaments, particularly this one with its long history and political subtext, that breeds “caginess.” Not only are teams wary of failing in the group stage, they’re more apt to retreat because it could mean saving face against a traditional soccer rival, or further, a political or regional one.
Stretched out across wide geographic distances and the inevitable distinctions in ability, the World Cup provides more room for risk. That doesn’t mean it always happens, and negative play can infect a World Cup just as easily as it does any other tournament. Still, without the problem of “losing face” against a familiar opponent, teams can resist the urge to play conservatively.
Euro 2012 is far from over, so a coherent trend or two might emerge by the time we reach the final. As of now, however, no team is innovating in an effective way. No team is proving that their approach is worth mimicking by others around the world. At best, we have a narrative of sides “pulling a Chelsea” (the easy reference, which exists simply due to the recency effect) while established identity mutates into the ultimate in stylistic conceit, as with Spain’s striker-less formation.
It’s a very uneven story, and only time will tell if it resolves itself into something approaching a consistent theme. There’s no guarantee it will, despite our best efforts to draw it out.
More From Jason Davis: