This has been a strange Euros. Compared to previous tournaments these finals in France have seen less goals per game than any major international competition for decades. Some fans have expressed a belief that this is the most ‘boring’ competition they’ve seen, but others, myself included, feel that the increased competition has led to fascinating tactical battles between teams with vastly differing resources and approaches.
It is, however, hard to argue that Euro ’16 would not be enhanced by more goals. With teams often happy to play for draws knowing that they can potentially qualify in third place in their group, the hope is that once the knockout rounds begin the fact that games have to be won (assuming that the prospect of a penalty shootout is appealing to no one) will lead to teams opening up and playing a more adventurous game. The nations in the last 16 with the least resources will no doubt still remain compact, but the imperative will be for their stronger opponents to avoid the lottery of penalties at all costs. In the groups a draw for France, England, Germany et al was not the end of the world, but a failure to win in a knockout game could have disastrous consequences. The hope is that the swashbuckling Spain v Croatia game, in which both sides had already qualified for the next round and played out an open and exciting match, will become the norm.
But why have so many of the more fancied sides struggled to score goals and impose themselves on significantly weaker (in talent terms) opponents? Clearly defensive organisation has played a part, but is not the whole story. Over in the United States Lionel Messi has risen to the challenge of performing in a major tournament for Argentina, most recently scoring a sumptuous free kick and dominating the game in a 4-0 Copa America quarter final win over hosts the United States. In the Euros the star turns have most definitely not turned up to the party. The most obvious example is Cristiano Ronaldo, impotent and frustrated in group games for Portugal against Iceland and Austria, most notably missing a penalty late in the 0-0 draw against the latter. The offensive beast who has rampaged through La Liga and the Champions League last season has been replaced by a tetchy, wholly mortal version. Without his inspiration and finishing a stylish Portuguese team have lacked the cutting edge to break through against teams with a fraction of their resources.
Throughout the tournament the big name attackers have struggled. Zlatan Ibrahimovic came into the tournament on the back of a season in which he scored 50 times in 51 games in all competitions for Paris St Germain, and yet he has struggled to make an impact in a workmanlike Swedish side that has only a single point from their first two games. In the same group, Belgium’s inconsistencies have been once more on display. Star player Eden Hazard again been peripheral as his team lost to Italy and then beat Ireland, thanks in no small way to Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne.
Germany have progressed comfortably from their group, but whilst their performances have been controlled their forwards have been immensely profligate. Most has been expected of Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller, who has 32 goals for his country but has yet to net at this tournament. Also in Group C is Poland and their striker Robert Lewadowski, also of Bayern. The 27 year old is arguably the best pure centre forward in Europe, but he has cut a frustrated figure as lesser lights have dragged his nation into the knockout rounds.
Almost everywhere we look the biggest names have struggled. For England their prolific centre forward Harry Kane laboured in the games against Russia and Wales and was dropped against Slovakia. For the latter game in came Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge, both scorers as substitutes against Wales, yet both failed to make an impact as starters. Despite a relatively incident free passage to the last 16, France have struggled to overcome stubborn opponents, twice scoring late against Romania and Albania. Whilst Dmitri Payet has shone in short bursts, their myriad of attacking talent has largely misfired. Antoine Griezmann has yet to replicate his Atletico Madrid form, while in his one start Manchester United’s hugely gifted Anthony Martial was largely anonymous. Olivier Giroud has once again displayed his erratic finishing and Andre Pierre Gignac is a limited alternative. Almost everywhere we look there are under-performing star attackers.
There are, however, two exceptions. Gareth Bale, by far Wales’ best player, has scored three times to drag a limited team to the top of their group and Alvaro Morata has scored the same number of goals for Spain. Even with the latter, however, there are caveats. The Real Madrid forward has looked dangerous without appearing deadly in a side which creates a lot of chances. Spain just edged past Czech Republic with a late Pique header, despite dominating and demonstrating wayward finishing, and whilst the win over Turkey was as one-sided as we have seen at the tournament, a lack of cutting edge was partially to blame for a surprise defeat to Croatia (although defensive weakness and goalkeeping mistakes did not help).
That win for Croatia highlighted that instead of being a tournament of stars, this has been a Euros dominated by teamwork, preparation and tactical astuteness. No side embody that more than the Croats, although Antonio Conte has created an impressive unit for Italy. Most Italian commentators consider this squad to be the weakest in their nations post-war history, with an ageing spine, a lack of up-and-coming young talent and nothing approaching a top-level striker. Instead, the new Chelsea manager has moulded a compact unit capable of grinding out results. Whilst the Croats have demonstrated more flare, their success has been built on a high-class midfield which showed that it can cope without the brilliance of Luka Modric, missing against Spain. For the Spanish it has been the evergreen Andres Iniesta who has shone brightest.
This has thus far been the tournament of the team rather than the star. Whilst goals may have been at a premium nearly all of the games have been close and tactically fascinating. The hope is that once the formalities of the group stage are over then the real football can begin, as draws are no longer any good for the likes of Slovakia or Switzerland. Winner now takes all and stars usually make the difference in knockout football. But we cannot assume that that will be the case, as intelligently coached smaller nations battle on knowing that resilience and a bit of luck will be needed to progress further. Whilst an explosion of attacking genius would be welcome, for it is goals that we all love to see, the tournament should not automatically be dismissed as poor or boring if it does not happen. The colour, the noise, the passion of the fans and the tactical battles have made Euro ’16 a fascinating and compelling tournament to watch and it would be no surprise if it is the collective which ultimately triumphs over the individual.