THOUGHTS ABOUT EVERY GROUP C TEAM
Ireland: When a team has less talent than its opponent, and naturally uses less possession, relying only on defensive shape, it must react to its opponents game-plans, rather than try to force through a rigid, inflexible one of its own. Ireland failed to do that at this tournament, the main reason for its unceremonious exit, scoring one and allowing nine.
It is hard to teach a team a new formation, especially when that team needs to be extremely solid at it, but they didn’t play the 4-4-1-1 particularly well either. Ireland were never likely to get far in the tournament, and Trappatoni can take it as a lesson, as Ireland progress as a footballing nation. He has already pledged to add a new formation to the team’s repertoire during World Cup qualifiers.
There is some truth to the theory that, if Ireland had gotten a different group, they would have done much better, but that is understating how terrible they were at this tournament. Certainly, the possession-focused, midfield-heavy styles of Croatia, Italy, and Spain were part of the reason Ireland succumbed so easily, but this was the same draw that Irish fans were so excitedly touting two weeks ago— they were naturally suited to the style every team uses against Spain, Trappatoni always beat Italy, and Croatia was their easiest game.
Every team used very similar formations against the Irish—- Italy and Croatia used four central midfielders and two strikers, Spain five central midfielders and one striker, and everybody pushed their full-backs very high up the pitch.
Most importantly, however, none of the teams Ireland faced used a flat midfield, while the Irish themselves stuck to the 4-4-1-1 through-out the tournament.
Take the Croatia game. Vukojevic and Modric tended to play in the space between Ireland’s midfield and forward lines, with Rakitic and Perisic between Ireland’s two banks of four. Even if Ireland covered all four— and two of Ireland’s midfielders were naturally wingers, not meant for covering central midfielders, Croatia simply pushed their full-backs up. Ireland’s full-backs failed to step forward, and Croatia won the flanks, while keeping two forwards on Ireland’s two center-backs.
Spain was actually the best match for Ireland’s formation. If Simon Cox dropped back into midfield, Ireland could have a five-on-five in that soon, and a spare man at the back. Once again, Ireland’s opponents pushed their full-backs far up the pitch, and once again, O’Shea and Ward refused to mark them.
Cesare Prandelli, despite using a 3-5-2 for the first two games, decided to switch to a midfield diamond for Italy’s last group game, relying on the full-backs to provide width, just as Croatia did. Italy never got out of first gear, and still won comfortably.
Defensive mistakes were also a feature of Ireland’s games, and, for a team that relies almost solely on tactical discipline, that was a killer. They also allowed three goals for set pieces, including two in the game against Croatia that effectively eliminated them, which was supposed to be one of their biggest strengths.
Ireland had by far the least talent of any of the teams at the Euro, but Trappatoni, frustratingly— he was quite a tinkerer when in charge of Italy—did little to help their chances of progression.
Croatia: A very interesting lesson in how minor tactical changes can make a huge difference. Ever-bold Slaven Bilic used a 4-1-3-2 in his opening match, slicing Ireland to pieces, a game which both teams badly needed to win. Such an attacking formation would obviously not work against a team which was more of a threat going forward, and Bilic switched to a formation which could broadly be described as 4-4-2. Italy dominated, but were not clinical, leaving Croatia only one goal down at half-time. Making Modric the central playmaker again, this time in a 4-2-3-1, changed everything. Bilic didn’t even have to make a substitution. Italy, just like in the first game, tired in the second half, and Croatia deservedly picked up a point to keep its hopes alive.
Going into the Spain game, Croatia knew they had to score if Italy won against the Republic of Ireland, still humiliated from the 4-0 loss to Spain. Italy, predictably, did just that, but Croatia were unable to find the back of the net, playing a 4-2-3-1, but making several changes to the starting lineup.
Spain were again un-enterprising, while Croatia made the most of their 28.1% possession. They ended their tournament having created the best legal scoring chance of the game— Navas’ goal should have been called offside—and earning two legitimate penalty claims, neither of which was given.
This team showed the could play with Spain and Italy, and only played one bad half the entire tournament; too bad they couldn’t advance.
Italy: They dominated large portions of the games against Spain and Croatia, scoring first, but eventually tiring. 1-1 draws against teams of semi-final caliber are not bad results, and the team showed they have a great defense and a brilliant tacticians, although Cesare Prandelli does seem to be too slow to make substitutions, too reliant on only a select few players, which explains the tiring at the end of the game. If Italy had been more clinical in either game, they would have won easily, and that is another problem heading into the knock-out rounds, but the forward line did everything else well. The Ireland game was Italy’s worst game, as if the team really believed Spain and Croatia would fix the other game. The Spain-Croatia game almost ended 1-1, the only situation which would have come to goal difference, and Italy made a late surge but couldn’t score the third goal they needed.
In the end, Spain won, and Italy advanced. They will be happy to face England, and have a very good chance of winning the trophy.
Spain: In a tournament characterized by a level playing field— as well as attacking football— and with no team having clinched advancement after two matches, Spain provide a very good example. They have been called unimpressive, people say they were lucky not to lose to Italy and Croatia, they are supposedly not even close to top form. All of those are partially correct, but in the end, as expected, they won their group, picking up seven points, worse only than Germany.
Tiki-taka is being criticized like never before, but it is too late to change styles now. In any case, most of their possession does have a purpose, albeit for a defensive one. If the other team doesn’t have the ball, they can’t score, and Spain’s creativity usually creates a goal at the other end. Apart from the Ireland game, Spain has only scored twice in two games, allowing only one.
Being outplayed in the first half, and coming back strongly in the second is not a coincidence either. It is hard to beat teams only with possession at first, but when they tire, Spain will dominated. All but one of their goals have come in the second half.
Playing for a 1-0 win can lead to an upset, but, in all likelihood, the final will be the expected mouthwatering clash with Germany, another team that has gone for effectiveness, rather than dominance, with off-the-ball movement just as impressive, and overlooked, as Spain’s possession.