By Manish Pandey.
After 51 matches in an expanded tournament, Portugal ended as the champions of Euro 2016, beating France in the final in extra time.
The final was symbolic of the tournament as a whole. Dull, low quality and very defensive. It took Portugal 80 minutes to get a shot on target. France were slow and wasteful. Antoine Griezmann and André-Pierre Gignac missed easy chances to wrap up the game. Didier Deschamps was negative in his strategy, waiting until Portugal went 1-0 up to bring on Anthony Martial. In truth, it was a forgettable final.
Expanding the tournament to 24 teams was a big mistake. Yes it gave the opportunity to some nations to play on the biggest stage whereas they would not have had the same chance under the old system. This came at a huge cost. At the cost of quality of football, entertainment and excitement for the fans.
The statistics are a damning indictment of the lack of adventure shown by the teams. Euro 2016 produced 108 goals in 51 matches, an average of 2.12 per game, which is the lowest since 1996 and the third lowest since 1980.
Teams were happy to spend most of the group stage defensive and on the back foot. Even the winners Portugal were through to the knockout stages without needing to win a single match. 3 draws. 3 points. Easier half of the draw. Job done.
Northern Ireland made it as far as the round of 16 scoring only two goals.
The lesser teams being defensive had a knock-on effect on the bigger teams. They could not break down defences and play with the same assertive freedom that entertained in years gone by. Even Germany struggled to score goals. Games were largely decided by moments of individual magic rather than cohesive attacking performances.
A major positive of this tournament was the tactical nous and flexibility shown by most managers. Antonio Conte’s Italy were the best tactically, operating a 3-5-2 formation with class and determination. The sight of Conte barking out instructions every second of the game was a joy. The fact Germany changed their entire system to neutralise Italy is perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Italy.
Wales under Chris Coleman were also magnificent. Operating in a 3-4-2-1 formation gave them balance and flexibility. Reaching the semi-final was a brilliant achievement and a testament to Chris Coleman’s abilities to get the most out of his players. Giving Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey – the two best players- the freedom to operate without being burdened by defensive roles meant Wales could create chances and score goals. Ramsey’s absence in the semi-final was a huge loss to Wales and had a major impact.
The tournament winners Portugal, were also tactically aware and well-drilled by manager Fernando Santos. Santos was probably the MVP of the entire tournament. He drilled his team defensively and they were exemplary in defending, with Pepe’s Man of the Match performance in the final a symbol of the rest of the tournament. They conceded one goal in 420 minutes of knockout football.
It was not pretty to watch for a neutral, but in a tournament, it is ultimately about winning. Santos also showed tactical flexibility in the final, even after the injury to Cristiano Ronaldo. Santos switched to a 4-3-3 once he brought on Eder for Renato Sanches. This shift was too much for Didier Deschamps to handle and ultimately was the decisive moment, with Eder getting the winning goal.
For all of the tactical marvel of some teams, there was equally tactical ineptitude to gargantuan levels, namely by England and Belgium. It should be no surprise really. Coached by Roy Hodgson and Marc Wilmots, there was a high probability that both of these teams would be dragged down to each manager’s low-level of tactical acumen.
The struggles of England under Hodgson are well documented. Marc Wilmots however, has consistently been responsible for Belgium’s failure at major tournaments. The ‘Golden Generation’ of England could not get past the quarter finals, it seems it will be the same story for Belgium.
So what will we remember this tournament for?
The tournament of the underdogs perhaps. Iceland and Wales inspired. Their attitude and sporting culture of unity was a lesson to others.
Possession is not as important as once thought. Spain, Germany, Switzerland, England, Belgium, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine were all in the top 10 for pass completion rates. Between them they won 11 matches out of 33. Four of the quarter-finalists were among the 10 teams with the lowest percentage of possession overall. The champions, Portugal averaged just 51.6 per cent possession, the 12th highest of the 24 teams.
Age is just a number was rather true in this tournament. Talents who by age should be past their best showed some undeniable class. Dimitri Payet was a star in the group stages. Andreas Iniesta rolled back the years. Nani was perhaps the most exciting 103 cap stalwart around. Ricardo Quaresma was the most effective substitute in the tournament. Gigi Buffon showed his world-class abilities at the age of 38. Andrea Barzagli at 35 was part of the formidable Italy back 3.
The stress of being manager on the touchline can impact managers in very different ways. Some such as Roy Hodgson are left with a confused expression on their faces. Others such as Antonio Conte scream and shout, feeling every kick of the football. And some have a very unique and never seen before reaction on the touchline, namely, Joachim Löw. The adrenaline can make people do strange things.
There is also a debate to be had on the growing importance of club football against international football. Something needs to be done to cure the tiredness on show from most players at the Euros. It does not make for a good spectacle and ultimately, fans want to be entertained watching the game.
From the next Euros on, we will no longer enjoy the simplicity of watching football in one country. Instead, we will be taken on a journey around Europe, playing in some notable cities- 13 cities to be precise.
Let us hope future tournaments provide us with more entertainment than this one.
Team of the tournament: (3-4-1-2)
Boateng, Williams, Bonucci;
Kimmich, Kroos, Ramsey, Guerreiro;
Player of the tournament: Antoine Griezmann