Late goals, cautious tactics, Icelandic chants and underdogs’ success stories have characterised a surprising and enthralling month of football at UEFA Euro 2016. 2 billion viewers in France and on television watched 108 goals in 51 matches at the Championships, as Portugal finished unlikely winners.
Portugal won their first major tournament in a final against host nation France, courtesy of a fantastic 30-yard strike from substitute Eder which earned a 1-0 win in extra time at the Stade de France. The pompous but brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo was unfortunately injured, but a well-organised Portugal reaffirmed how football is a team game.
They showcased resolute defending and counter attacking without their star man against an apprehensive French side who squandered a glorious chance to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy for the third time.
Despite Moussa Sissoko’s beastly display, France employed a passive, conservative strategy in the final, passively playing the ball around at the back and lacking the cut and thrust needed to create chances for Antoine Griezmann to gobble up. It was uncharacteristic of Le Bleus’ performances until then as Didier Deschamps’ team looked certain to win the tournament.
The country was reunited again as the likes of Paul Pogba, Hugo Lloris, Dimitri Payet and their top scorer and talisman Griezmann instilled pride and dynamism back into the French national team after years of rebuilding since the disastrous 2010 World Cup. However, their underachievement will be rued for some time.
“The increase to 24 teams and the consequential tactics produced turgid football and a lack of entertainment for many”
Favourites Germany will also feel they under-performed. The world champions were typically solid in defence, expansive in midfield and the omnipresent Manuel Neuer conceded just one goal in five games before the semi-final. But Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler were not clinical enough against France in the last four which cost Joachim Low’s side dearly.
The same can be said for other heavyweights Spain and Italy who were guilty of cautious football in the latter stages after cruising through their groups. They both left the competition far too early. Lacklustre, cautious displays were in fact a feature of many games at the Euros. Because of the inclusion of 24 teams and a new round of 16 phase, many teams came to France with strategies designed to simply avoid defeat.
They were content to sit back with the knowledge that they could qualify in third place and were afraid to attack at pace due to the fear of being exposed in defence. Portugal demonstrate this very factor as they drew all three of their group games and did not win a game in normal time at the finals apart from their 2-1 semi-final triumph over Wales.
The increase to 24 teams and the consequential tactics produced turgid football and a lack of entertainment for many. The average of 2.12 goals per match was the lowest at a Euros in 20 years and analysts have called for the return to the previous 16 nations set-up. Sheepskin-wearing commentary veteran John Motson said: “Bringing the number of teams up to 24, and a system where a lot of third-placed teams went through, rather cultivated a philosophy of ‘if we get one result, we will qualify'”.
“I know you can’t predict who will win each group but in the end UEFA produced a system which bunched together too many of the ‘big hitters’ in the knockout stages”, Motson added.
“22 of the 51 games at the Championships were goalless before half-time”
But whilst there were some dull matches, indeed 22 of the 51 games at the Championships were goalless before half-time, this was certainly made up for with late drama in games. 25 goals came after the 75th minute and moments of spontaneous magic like Xhedran Shaquiri’s bicycle kick for the Swiss, Ronaldo’s flick against Hungary and Radja Nainggolan’s screamers left viewers open-mouthed in front of their televisions at home.
What was even more surprising was the number of overachievers at this year’s Euros. Of course I’m talking about Wales. Chris Coleman’s fearsome red dragons reached the semi-finals at their first tournament appearance since 1958 in superb fashion. They overcame Slovakia, Russia, Northern Ireland and a Belgium side tipped to win the competition.
That 3-1 win against Hazard and co. was possibly the best night in Welsh sporting history, as Hal Robson-Kanu’s turn and finish proved one of Euro 2016’s top goals. Although they missed Aaron Ramsey in the semis, the Welsh are up to sixth in the world rankings and will be hoping this is the start of something huge.
This is just the beginning… pic.twitter.com/PIp9zQFNW4
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) July 7, 2016
Northern Ireland are also due massive credit for their tenacity, demonstrated in particular by their 2-0 victory against Ukraine while the Republic also put up a fight to beat Italy in the group stage and came close to getting a result in France.
Iceland also deserve huge praise. For a nation with 325,000 people, with Swansea City’s Glify Sigurdsson as their only household name and a part-time dentist as a manager, the Scandinavians performed astonishingly and received huge support, emphasised by their blue legions of fans in France who will be remembered for that intimidating ‘hoo’ clap. Only 298 Icelandic television viewers watched other channels instead of their game against England. Their 2-1 win against The Three Lions propelled Lars Largerback’s team to new heights as their results took everyone by surprise.
— Football__Tweet (@Football__Tweet) July 5, 2016
What was less surprising, of course, was the ability of England to exit a major tournament in more embarrassing fashion than ever before. Roy Hodgson’s tactics unquestionably failed – he retained the inept Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling against Iceland when Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford and Daniel Sturridge all deserved to start against Wales. The six changes against Slovakia and needless resting of Adam Lallana and Kyle Walker were all astounding decisions.
Also, playing Jack Wilshere whilst leaving Danny Drinkwater at home was like a teacher rewarding the naughty kid who smokes cigarettes behind the bike sheds and skived off school all year instead of the quality hard-working student whose attended every class – shocking. But nonetheless it was the same old passionless team with no clear strategy who inflicted disappointment on 51 million people – let the typical tournament post-mortem about the state of English football ensue.
Investigations must also be in order for others who should have progressed further – the likes of Poland, Switzerland and particularly Croatia who had world class talent in Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakatic. Their departures may be due to the increase to 24 teams at the Euros – this feature will indeed need to be reviewed, with many calling for the number of finalists to be 16 teams to improve the quality of football.
But this was surely overshadowed by the wonderful success of the underdogs – who would have thought that Iceland and Wales would have even make it to the knockout stages? Euro 2016 has been a peculiar and dramatic tournament full of brilliant surprises.
Video via Youtube
Featured image: Joe Tanner