For club and country
Just over a week into the Euros, we’ve all been reminded of why tournament football is an exceptional beast. There has been a surprising diversity to the football, which added to the numerous narratives, makes it nothing short of an addiction. Despite the unpredictability, there have been unmistakable trends.
The dichotomy between proactive and reactive teams has reached a level that teams are now essentially playing two different sports – often in the same game. A goal or two is all it takes for the relationship to be overturned, as has been shown in Germany-Portugal and Ukraine-Sweden. And the fans of the reactive sides are left scratching their heads, asking “if we could play like that, then why did we resort to parking the bus.” This, of course, doesn’t apply to fans of teams from the British Isles.
There has also been a clear strategy of trying to create the spine of the team from a single club. You could argue, that the (re)popularization of this has to do with the success of Spain – the herd always follows the winners – but even Spain weren’t always like this.
As recently as the Euros in Austria-Switzerland, Spain’s team only had three starters from FC Barcelona. But over the last four years, there has been a clear Barcelona-ization of the national team. Del Bosque scrapped Aragones’ 4-1-3-2 for the 4-3-3; inverted wingers became the source for goals and the Barca player was given preference for his familiarity and suitability with the style of play. But Euro 2008 remains the best football Spain has played. The problem with the Barcelona-ization is that it can never be complete. Spain has no one of the directness, attributes or, quite frankly, the talent of Leo Messi and Dani Alves. David Silva is a remarkable player, but he can never be a false nine of the effectiveness of Leo Messi (74 goals!).
Furthermore, as Chelsea and Inter have shown repeatedly, parking the bus can always provide a glimmer for the opposing team against the tiki-taka merchants. In international football, where success and failure is dependent on one-off knockout matches, Del Bosque has had to be conservative. Xabi Alonso provides him with the second pivot against counter-attacks. His diagonals and long shooting provides him with the directness that the Barcelona Spaniards often lack. But even when Alonso giveth, he taketh away as well. His presence disturbs the V-midfield of Barcelona: Busquets loses half his job scope (all he’s left with is winning free-kicks), Iniesta is pushed out wide, and Xavi has too much of a burden placed upon him. Add that to a static front three, and you no longer have a team that the casual fans can claim to support. The lack of harmony results in people jumping off the bandwagon as if a skunk was found inside it. Thankfully, Del Bosque might be scrapping his flirtations with the false-nine model with Fernando Torres providing the verticality that Spain have lacked.
Yet, this is making a mountain out of a molehill. They are, still, the World and European Championships. The problem with them is that they will always be compared to the greatest club side of the last two decades. They are required to win, convince and entertain. This, remember, is the team that has lost two competitive games in 36. Vicente del Bosque is a man who won the League or the Champions League in every one of his four seasons at Real Madrid, and won the World Cup at the first time of asking. To doubt him, or his team, would be like jumping off a fifty foot cliff with a sixty foot bungee cord. Yes, they may not be Pep’s Barca, but who is?
After a decade of continued homogenization and the dilution of national identities brought about by the trends in the post-Bosman globalized world of football, we finally may be re-entering a phase of identity-based football. Germany have taken a decade to transform their identity, but it is on that is now cast in stone. Helped by the work that Louis van Gaal did at Bayern, they are able to call upon a backbone of Bayern players that play with a distinct identity (only Barcelona had a higher possession and pass-completion rate in the top-five European leagues). Dick Advocaat’s laying of the foundations at Zenit is now reaping him the gifts as coach of Russia. Germany have started both games with seven players from Bayern, Russia have started with as many Zenit players (Four years ago the equivalent numbers were 4 Bayern players and 3 Zenit players starting). And it is no surprise that they top their groups. Unlike Spain, their entrants (Dzagoev, Ozil, Khedira and Hummels in particular) are an upgrade on the club team they draw inspiration from.
But the most fascinating storyline has been from the Azzuri. Cesare Prandelli has forsaken the stubbornness that often affects international coaches and abandoned the diamond 4-4-2 that he used for the latter parts of the qualifying campaign. The scarcely believable season by Antonio Conte’s Juventus (unbeaten champions after finishing seventh in the last two years) has given him the perfect excuse to turn to the formation that Conte used for the second half of the Serie A season. The 3-5-2 is not uncommon in Italy – 17 of the 20 teams used it at some point this season – and with as many as six Juve players starting, Italy will pose questions that many non-Italian players have not been asked for years; questions that many have forgotten the answers to.
As I said last week, this is a tournament to be cherished, and every match has provided reasons to make that claim ever more justified. New questions arise with every encounter: will Spain continue to move to the middle ground, as they did against Ireland? Will the effect of the club-based teams reduce as the tournament goes on, and other teams improve their synchronization? How will teams like France and Portugal survive without a coherent identity of sorts? And I haven’t even mentioned half the tournament teams yet!