THE BEST XI
GK: Gianluigi Buffon
Overlooked in the tactical battle between Prandelli and Del Bosque was the brilliant play of both goalkeepers. Either could have easily won it, but Buffon seemed slightly faster off his line, and had more saves to make.
LB: Simon Poulsen
Denmark defeated the Netherlands 1-0, but more through terrible finishing by the Dutch than a great game plan or particularly good play. The Danes biggest strengths were the flanks, especially the left-side of Poulsen and Krohn-Delhi.
CB: Danielle De Rossi
Despite playing out of position, made some extraordinary tackles to keep Italy in the game against Spain. Adjusted to the 3-5-2 admirably, and Italy’s defensive leader.
CB: Simon Kjaer
The Danish center-back was his teams’ best player in round one, leading the Danish in both tackles and clearances. Had he not been playing, Holland, which took 32 shots, would have been even more dominant, and would surely have won this game. As it is, Denmark has a very real chances of advancing from the Group of Death.
RB: Lukasz Piszczek
Faded in the second half, but was absolutely sensational in the tournament’s opening 45 minutes, taking advantage of some sloppy Greek defending. Poland created chance after chance, including the goal, from the right side, and Piszczek has a strong case for being the best right-back in the world.
DM: Alou Diarra
Didn’t misplace a single pass, and, more importantly, ruined England’s offensive game plan by marking Ashley Young into oblivion.
DM: Igor Denisov
Much like Diarra, only missed a few passes, and shadowed the opponents’ key player, in this case Tomas Rosicky, very well. Rosicky was never at his best and was forced to drop deep into midfield just to receive the ball. Offensively, Denisov started many of Russia’s deadly counter-attacks. Was everywhere in midfield.
LAM: Wesley Sneijder
Created ten chances, highest in the tournament, and completed 37 passes in the attacking third, none better than his brilliant ball over the two center-backs to Huntelaar. Should have had at least two assists. Denmark just couldn’t guard him. Great partnership with Affelay.
CAM: Luka Modric
At the heart of every Croatia move; at his best he is like Xavi Hernandez. Only created one chance— he prefers to make the pass before the assist— but along with Rakitic and Vukojevic, helped Croatia dominate the midfield. Ireland never had a chance. A joy to watch.
RW: Alan Dzagoev
Did know wrong in Russia’s 4-1 demolition of the Czech Republic. Russia’s best offensive player, with two goals, was also one of their best defensively. The youth star has transformed into a world class player. Look for him to move to a big club this summer.
CF: Andriy Shevchenko
Turned back the years with a wonderful brace against Sweden. Ibrahimovic looked like he was turning a Ukraine-dominated game Sweden’s way, but Shevchenko responded emphatically when his country needed him— two perfectly-timed runs and fine headers, helped only slightly by cautious goaltending. The legend, in his last major tournament, hosted by Ukraine, was expected to be a shadow of his former self. What a story.
KEY SUB: Samir Nasri, RW
Was the best player in the France-England game, running between the lines, and adding spark to Les Blues’ dull attack. The heroics of Dzagoev, Modric, and Sneijder meant he couldn’t find a place in this attacking midfield.
Sub: Ivan Rakitic, RM
A pity that Luka Modric was at his best against Ireland, because his fellow Croatian midfielder Rakitic also had a fabulous game, combining well with his full-back (Srna), passing with pace, and generally being very creative.
Sub: Ognjen Vukojevic, DM
Yes, one more Croatian midfielder. With Slaven Bilic playing three attacking midfielders, two forwards, and a very shaky defense, Vukojevic made sure that Croatia weren’t caught out the back. Constantly alert, he made Ireland’s midfielders play very poor, and the rest of Croatia’s midfielders play very well.
Sub: Marko Manzukic, F
With Croatia’s midfield in fine form, somebody needed to score the goals. It was expected to be Nikica Jelavic, the breakout Everton forward, but it was Manzukic who scored twice, with two opportunistic headers, and a little bit of help from the Irish goalie, Shay Given.
Sub: Sergei Ignashevitch, CB
All of Russia’s defenders played a fantastic game, but, as so often, it was Ignashevitch who looked best. He was successful in his bold positioning, as well as all six of his tackles.
Head Coach: Cesare Prandelli
Gets a slight nod over Slaven Bilic for a tougher opponent, and a bolder tactical move, which I analyzed in my last post.
Assistant Coach: Slaven Bilic
Doesn’t stray from the attacking 4-1-3-2, which fits his players. How many other managers would do that? Bilic knew Ireland would be tough, defensive, and organized and had Croatia playing in exactly the right way to counter it. Did everything he needed to, and no more, in terms of player selection, substitution, and individual players tactics.
PLAYER OF MATCHDAY ONE:
WESLEY SNEIJDER, AM, NETHERLANDS
THE WORST XI
GK: Shay Given
Didn’t make any particularly difficult saves, and should have done better on Croatia’s first and third goals
LB: Michal Kadlec
CB: Sokratis Papastathopoulos
The man who infamously became the first player sent off at Euro 2012. Even before the referee’s moment of madness, he had not been having a great game. His error was to blame for Lewandowski’s opening goal. In truth, Greece’s entire defense was terrible, especially in the first half.
CB: Richard Dunne
The second Irish player on this list, he simply could not cope with Croatia’s attacks. Meanwhile, he completed just 68% of his passes.
RB: Alvaro Arbeloa
Played far higher up the pitch than left-back Jordi Alba, and Italy ran rampant in the space behind him. Let international debutant Giaccherini have a decent game. Italy controlled his side during the entire match.
DM: Glenn Whelan
Ireland’s performance in both midfield and defense was awful, and any of Ireland’s players in these areas could have made this list. As the main defensive midfield, Whelan is perhaps the most to blame for Croatia’s dominance in attacking midfield, but he mainly starts because defensive midfielders in general performed very well in the first round.
DM: Kim Kallstrom
Just one of Sweden’s many disappointing players in midfield, Kallstrom is no longer what he once was. Sweden played two very offensive midfielders in their defensive midfield, and it was very evident.
LAM: Sotiris Ninis
The “Greek Messi” did absolutely nothing of note before being substituted at half time in the tournament’s opener.
AM/SST: Ashley Young
They key player offensively for Roy Hodgson, did well without the ball, but disappeared when England took possession. Could be more comfortable on the wing, where he might play when Wayne Rooney returns.
RW: Sebastian Larsson
Sweden had absolutely nothing on the wings in this game. Larsson attempted just twelve passes, and competed just six, before being taken off in the 68th minute.
CF: Milan Baros
Has not produced for the Czech Republic in over two years, but Michal Bilek continues to start him. The injury he picked up in training made him even less effective than usual against Russia.
KEY SUB: Ola Toivonen, LW
Sweden’s other winger, was just as disappointing as Larsson, and never got into the game, but at least he has an excuse— he was being played out of position.
Sub: Sebastian Boenisch, LB
Poland is as weak at left-back as it is strong at right-back. Boenisch showed a disturbing lack of match fitness after more than a year out with a knee injury, and was to blame for the Greece equalizer.
Sub: Stephen Ward, LB
Very similar performance to Richard Dunne’s. Hapless at the back, and completed just 60% of his passes. Might have been the second-worst player so far; luckily Michal Kadlec is also a left-back.
Sub: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, F
While Van Persie missed more sitters than he did, Huntelaar missed arguably the easiest chance that Holland got. You could sense his animosity with RVP; as soon as he came on, Holland started to pass it more, and dribble less. Ruined Holland’s chemistry and completed just three passes. Complained before the tournament about his lack of match time, then put in a dreadful performance when he finally got a chance.
Sub: Rafael Van der Vaart, CM
Again, this isn’t a performance-based pick, but VDV was just as much to blame for the Denmark loss as any other player. Like Huntelaar, he is angry about a lack of match time, and the Dutch squad is reportedly close to a revolt, a la France 2010.
Head Coach: Vincente Del Bosque
Almost any other formation would have given Spain a victory against Italy. Even more appalling was his reluctance to change formations, and the lack of thought behind his substitutions.
Assistant Coach: Erik Hamren
A terrible debut on the big stage for the Swedish coach, who got his midfield mix all wrong for the game against Ukraine. He has often been criticized in Sweden for over-attacking, and he certainly did so today, starting Rasmus Elm and Kim Kallstrom for a very offensive holding duo. Then, he played Ola Toivonen out of position on the wing. Predictably, Ukraine dominated the midfield, and particularly the flanks, where Sweden’s full-back also looked poor.
The solution? Take off Rosenberg, move Toivonen to striker, move Elm to winger, and start Svensson next to Kallstrom.
FLOP OF MATCHDAY ONE:
MICHAL KADLEC, LB, CZECH REPUBLIC
Poland-Greece: What an opener!
Spain-Italy: The clash of giants did not disappoint, producing end-to-end excitement and an intriguing tactical battle. Italy’s defense against Croatia’s offense, in the battle for second in Group C, could be even better.
Croatia-Ireland and Ukraine-Sweden: Four lesser known teams, trying to give themselves a chance to advance to the quarterfinals, playing brilliant offensive football in front of four impassioned fan bases.
Germany-Portugal and France-England: Four well-known teams, afraid of losing, playing slow, defensive football.
Italy proved they have the players and the manager to contend for the trophy, while Russia’s brilliant counterattacks will be hard to stop. Croatia could have easily won by more than 3-1; their five offensive players were breathtaking. Questions remain about the defense.
The Czech Republic and Ireland were suspected by many of being the 15th and 16th worst teams at the tournament. They proved the doubters right with blowout losses, neither of which were at all harsh on them.
With everyone looking to Poland as the co-host that could surprise, Ukraine quietly showed off an impressive brand of quality, counter-attacking football. Even more amazingly, Andriy Shevchenko is back from the dead and scoiring again. With two talented young wingers, and a manager not afraid to change things, this team could go far.
As always, there is drama in the Netherlands’ camp.
-A stormy public debate over whether Rafael Van der Vaart should start at defensive mid, with VDV very unhappy with the situation.
-A stormy public debate over whether Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should start (the lastest poll: 56% of Holland wants Huntelaar to start, 4% wants RVP to start, 40% want both), with Huntelaar unhappy about the situation.
-Nigel De Jong’s anger at being substituted in the 71st minute for Van Der Vaart- he felt Van Bommel should have gone off instead.
-An anti-Van Bommel feeling in the squad. Many players reportedly sided with De Jong, and don’t want Van Bommel as their captain. Van Bommel has been playing poorly recently, and many feel he only starts because he is the coach’s son-in-law.
-Robin Van Persie’s tense relationship with Wesley Sneijder.
-The loss to Denmark. Holland have to play Germany next.
MOST INTERESTING FORMATION
Del Bosque’s ultra-modern 4-6-0-ish formation. It didn’t work against Italy, but the manager might keep it against Spain. Del Bosque loves to change things around, and he gave this formation its’ major-tournament debut. Despite its’ lack of success, expect to see a lot of it in the coming years.