Tag Archives: England

EURO 2016 Review: Portugal the surprising victors

The victors…all rights are reserved for this image ©

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)

Rui Patrício;

Boateng, Williams, Bonucci;

Kimmich, Kroos, Ramsey, Guerreiro;

Payet;

Griezmann, Nani.

Player of the tournament: Antoine Griezmann

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Abject England humiliated against Iceland

Dejected…England humiliated…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

Who expected that? Iceland, a country with more volcanoes than professional footballers, outplayed England. They beat England. England, that supposed football powerhouse. Reality check? Yes. Wakeup call? Yes. The same old story? Damn right.

There are many reasons for why England continually fail to perform at major tournaments. We have exhausted the individual reasons down the years, from fatigue to youth coaching to senior coaching to the players. So why did England fail at Euro 2016?

Let’s start with the man responsible at the end of the day: Roy Hodgson.

Hodgson is the man who has control over every aspect of the England team. It is his job to ensure his players are ready and prepared for each game. It is his job to ensure he has plans ready for different in-game scenarios. Ultimately, it is his job to select the right players.

Hodgson’s managerial background, in particular in the last 10 years, should have told us that England would at best be mediocre. A man used to fighting relegation battles was England’s manager at a major tournament. Not once, not twice but three times. Let that sink in.

Tactically, Hodgson has proven himself to be inept. We all expected Iceland to sit behind the ball and absorb pressure. They surprised us. Iceland chose to employ a high press, left 2 strikers up front so England’s defenders were unable to attack as much as they would want to. Hodgson seemed flummoxed by this tactical surprise.

Throughout the tournament, England had no tactical plan and that is the fault of the manager. He did not know his best team. He did not know his best formation. Having played so many matches since the last world cup, Hodgson did not know a thing.

He selected players who were unfit, tired and simply not in good enough condition to play for England at a major tournament. Raheem Sterling warmed the bench for Manchester City in the 2nd half of the season. Why was he selected ahead of an in form Andros Townsend? Even worse, he started in the knockout game against Iceland despite being below average in the opening two games of the tournament.

Why was Jack Wilshere selected? Why was Jordan Henderson selected? Both players coming back from injury were quite clearly unfit. Wilshere was deemed bad enough to be subbed after 50 minutes against Slovakia yet was tasked with creating an England revival in the 2nd half against Iceland. Henderson looked off the pace against Slovakia and did not do much to catch the eye.

Why take James Milner? He played 3 minutes. Why take Ross Barkley and John Stones if they are not going to play?

The Slovakia game told us much about Hodgson and his ability (or rather inability) to read his players. Wayne Rooney was England’s star man in the opening 2 games of the tournament. There is a common thought around football that when Rooney is fit and firing, he should be playing every game to keep his momentum and should not be ‘rested’. Inevitably, Hodgson chose to ‘rest’ him and he only played just over 30 minutes.

That is by no means an excuse for Rooney. It was his worst performance during his reign as captain. He let the team down and displayed very little leadership in a time the young players needed leaders.

Worse than the Rooney decision, Hodgson changed the make up of a team that had some momentum from the lucky last minute victory over Wales. The buzzword is momentum. Why break up momentum of a winning team? You can change 1 or 2 players, but you need to have a settled lineup, especially if like England, there was no clear plan before the tournament. When you stumble upon a formula, you must stick to it.

The entire country could see Harry Kane was exhausted. Even at the back end of the season, he was not the same as a few months ago. Yet Hodgson chose to play him in all of the friendly games. Surely in training, Kane could not have been showing the usual levels of energy. So why did Hodgson persist with him? He went on reputation not form.

Dele Alli did not perform in any of the games he played in, in the group stages. So why did Hodgson persist with him? Why did he not try a different player or a different system? The answer lies in the next part of the article, namely the manager failed in planning and preparation.

Planning and preparation is the most important role a manager has. Everything in the team links to the manager’s planning and preparation. Hodgson had no plan. The evidence of this is in the confused nature of the players throughout the tournament. Having a plan helps the mentality of a player and takes the pressure away.

England players should have been aware of different gameplans for different situations. The best coaches at major tournaments can relay information to their players about what will happen in each game and will give them a solution.

Looking at the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup, the Dutch players repeatedly said that Louis van Gaal would inform them about a gameplan for different phases of the game and that gameplan would work. In turn, the players confidence in the manager increased. Van Gaal had a plan involving the water break in the game against Mexico. Did Hodgson have any type of strategy or was he just desperate?

Playing in a tournament has its own pressures. Had Hodgson been able to conjure any type of gameplan, the players would have been able to stay calm under the pressure of potential defeat, instead of having dizzy minds.

Instead, we saw a complete meltdown of the England players. Misplacing 5 yard passes, loose 1st touches, ball rolling under the feet and running as if boots were full of lead. These were the hallmarks of England’s attempted fightback, in the face of tournament elimination.

Even in the group matches, you could not discern how England wanted to play. There was no evidence of patterns of play being worked on in training.

What was the Plan B? I said in my preview of the game that England needed to be radical if things went wrong. They had to do something different. Hodgson ended up bringing Marcus Rashford on which was smart. Of course it would have helped had he brought him on with more than 4 minutes left.

Rashford was England’s best player having only been on the pitch for 4 minutes. Imagine if he had been on for 15 minutes more.  Proactive management? Never for Hodgson. He froze.

Tournament after tournament, England managers do not have a clear gameplan. That translates to the players. Players who already feel the strain of the England shirt, cannot rely on the manager to help them.

Preparing for a job interview or exam, those who have prepared well always feel more confident and under less pressure, than those who have not prepared as well. The same theory applies to England in football.

Alas, it is that pressure which creates so much fear. Fear which inhibits the players and makes them play as though they are playing Sunday League. They were not playing the situation. They were not playing the game. They were playing as if they had the future negative headlines in the mind.

Joe Hart is the most visible example of an England player playing with fear. Of all the players, he has the biggest insecurities and self-doubts. All the bravado and shouting in the tunnel whilst jumping up and down, getting ‘pumped up’ is just that – bravado. Trying to act the leader and show the world he is the man. In reality, he is an overrated goalkeeper and mentally soft.

An example of under-preparation can be seen in Iceland’s opening goal. Everybody knew about Iceland’s long distance throw. We all knew they had tall players. Why then was Wayne Rooney marking a player over 6ft? Why did Kyle Walker forget to track his man? Surely having seen Rory Delap at Stoke for so many years, coaches and players understood that the 2nd ball in the area is always the most important.

Nobody would say Iceland have better players than England. Yet Iceland had a clear gameplan. They knew what to do and when to do it. They pressed high, they attacked, they left 2 strikers forward for most of the game. It was only the last 20 minutes did they decide to defend deep. The players trusted in the gameplan. They emerged as deserving winners.

Whilst Hodgson rightfully shoulders a lot of the blame, it is important to not absolve the players.

Ultimately it is the players out there on the pitch. Some of those players have had stellar club seasons but could not produce under pressure. These players are mentally weak. They are the 3G generation of academy players. They are not street smart in life so why do we expect them to be able to handle the pressures of tournament football.

Nowadays, everything is done for the players. They have agents and assistants and cleaners and drivers and so on. The players nowadays do not actually have to do anything which shapes them as characters. Everything is manufactured, from image to press conferences. The inability to do anything for themselves and think for themselves in life, eventually translates onto the pitch.

Young kids aged 11/12/13 are being offered agents and large sums of money. Clubs are offering £50,000 to families just to enter into negotiations to get a player to join the academy. Can we really expect players growing up in this environment to be street smart?

The manager cannot tell you when to commit a cynical foul, waste time or kick long. It is about decision making under pressure, something only the individual player can do. England players need to toughen up in life and then they can learn to play like men.

The children growing up nowadays, will have a warped idea of football. For them, it will only be what they see on Sky Sports & BT Sports. They will play on 3G pitches, perfect surfaces and have the best equipment. That is not a true love for the game. This, as Jamie Carragher says, will lead to us producing babies not grown up men.

In different countries across Europe and especially South America, children grow up playing football on the street. There are no signs saying “no ball games allowed”. Children play on grass which has more mud than grass. They use jumpers as goalposts. There is seemingly an organic love for the game.

In our country now, children do not go out and play football on the street. They do not spend hours kicking the ball against a wall like Dennis Bergkamp did. Instead they turn on the XBOX and PlayStation and are addicted to video games.

These seem like petty and insignificant at a time when England have been knocked out of a major tournament, but these things all matter for the coming generations.

So where do England go from here?

They need to find the right manager. A manager with the right mix of tactics and psychology. A manager not afraid to make the big decisions. Preferably, a manager who already has tournament experience.

There are no English candidates who fit the bill.

Approaches should be made to Slaven Bilic. Laurent Blanc is another who should be a contender. Jurgen Klinsmann has the right attributes.

They need someone who can change the mindset of England players. By whatever means.

As it stands however, the England job looks very much like a poisoned chalice.

 

England vs Iceland: Preview

Can England finally perform? … all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

England’s result against Slovakia has left them in a precarious position.

Now on the hard side of the draw, with teams such as Spain, Italy and Germany, England’s Euro 2016 hopes have taken a huge hit. However, before they even think about those teams, they must first overcome Iceland. They must not underestimate this very clever team. Nor should they feel inhibited.

Roy Hodgson made 6 changes from the starting XI against Wales. 4 changes from the team that finished the 2nd half very strongly against Wales. Those changes backfired. There was no need to change a team that was on a high. It disrupts rhythm and player momentum.

The disruption was evident with England’s failure to score a goal and create several clear cut chances. As Germany showed against Northern Ireland, the best way to play against a packed defence is for quick passing and transition in the final part of the pitch. England were slow and laboured. How many clear cut chances did they create?

By in large, we know the team that Roy Hodgson will play against Iceland. The two fullbacks, Kyle Walker and Danny Rose will return. The midfield will be a 3 of Eric Dier, Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli. Harry Kane will most likely be recalled as the main forward. Adam Lallana will start on the left and Daniel Sturridge will replace Raheem Sterling and start on the right.

Jamie Vardy will most likely have to settle for a place on the bench, and he will be hoping to make an impact like he did against Wales.

Iceland will look to play a 4-4-2, aiming to counter-attack. They will be happy to play on the back foot, absorb the pressure and then break whenever England give the ball away. They will be on a high after the 94th minute winner to send them through to the Last 16 stage.

There will be a big battle in midfield. Rooney will have to shake off pressure from Aron Gunnarson, a hard working, tenacious and always running midfielder. He is used to playing in the Championship so will be fierce in his contest against Rooney, trying to stop Rooney from dictating the tempo.

Eric Dier will have to cope with the clever movement and passing of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson has terrific movement, and a wonderful technique. England will have to make sure he is unable to control things for Iceland.

If as expected Iceland play with a packed defence, opting for a conservative approach, the onus will be on England’s attacking midfielders to open up the gaps with short, sharp passing.

They need overlapping runs from Walker and Rose. They need to start fiercely attacking the Iceland goal. They need to try and take more shots from outside the area. England so far have been trying to be too clever and pass the ball into the net.

They need to become assassins. Ruthless and cold in front of goal.

England should learn from the way Germany played against Slovakia. There was a quick tempo, clever movement and space created for the attackers. In knockout games, England often play with pressure and with a complex. They need to learn from Germany.

Germany play with confidence bordering on arrogance. They believe they are better than the opposition. They want to teach the opposition a footballing lesson – as they did against Slovakia.

England, whilst respecting the strengths of Iceland, should adopt a similar mentality. They have the better players. They have the better bench strength. So they need to believe they can go out on Monday evening and obliterate the Iceland team.

All too often we see England players shrink under pressure. The lack of goals in this tournament so far suggests England are suffering from a mental block once again. They are nervous in front of goal and unable to perform. Against Iceland, we need to see a clinical performance from all players.

It is not just about the strikers scoring. Every player whether it be a defender or midfielder, has to believe they can score goals if they get the chances.

If things are not going well, Hodgson needs to be radical in his subs. Ross Barkley has not been used so far and he is someone who is- as Slaven Bilic says – a ‘joker’ in the pack. He can provide something different and a moment of magic.

Hodgson should be afraid to experiment with a Plan B in the game, by bringing on John Stones to play up front if England are chasing the game.

Hodgson should be bold and pick Marcus Rashford if he feels he can offer something different. England should look to dominate. This does not mean being reckless by throwing 10 players forward at every set piece.

It means the midfielders being clever and picking the right moments to flood the box. It means good, quality balls into the box from the fullbacks. The best way to play against a 4-4-2 is to get in behind by stretching the play and moving the Iceland fullbacks out of position.

For England to have any hope of winning this competition, they cannot just be satisfied with a victory over Iceland, they need to send a message that England have arrived at Euro 2016.

This is tournament football.  All too often England have not achieved what they should have. They have been weak and stumbled through even against the smaller teams. This England team needs to put it right.

There is enough technical quality. Do England have the mental stability to perform as well as they should?

England vs Wales: Preview

The showdown…all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

After a disappointing late draw for England and a boosting late win for Wales, the stakes of the second round of games in Group B have risen.

England having controlled most of the game against Russia, failed to take the chances they created and allowed Russia to grab a late equaliser. There was lots of promise from the England forward players but very little output and substance. Adam Lallana missed 2 relatively easy chances, Harry Kane was lethargic and ineffective and Raheem Sterling’s decision making was very questionable.

The big talking point before the tournament was England’s ability (or inability) to defend properly as a unit. James Milner and Dele Alli were weak in clearing the ball. Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill were ball watching which allowed Vasili Berezutski to climb over Danny Rose and score the equaliser. In the crucial moment, England as a defensive unit failed.

The tactics and in game management of Roy Hodgson also left a lot to be desired. The decision to take off Wayne Rooney was bizarre. Rooney was not only the best player on the pitch, but he kept a calm hold on proceedings and had the experience and leadership to help England close out the game. Whilst Jack Wilshere has a wonderful technique and creative mind, England did not need his unpredictability at that time.

Wilshere was involved in losing the ball on England’s left when he went charging forward, resulting in the corner kick which preceded the goal.

After going a goal ahead and switching to a counter-attack, Hodgson persisted with the ineffective Kane, instead of bringing on the pacier Jamie Vardy or even Marcus Rashford.

Such decisions cost England 2 points against Russia and could cost them all 3 points against Wales.

Wales were by no means impressive in performance nor was Gareth Bale a big threat in the game. Tournament matches though, are decided on moments. Wales had the character and self-belief to grab the moment.

Gareth Bale scored a wonderful free-kick. Hal Robson-Kanu ensured he got some type of contact to score the late winner. In contrast to England, Wales defended valiantly as a unit, led by Ashley Williams.

Unlike Hodgson, Wales manager Chris Coleman got his decisions correct. He acted decisively, introducing Joe Ledley, five weeks after breaking his leg, and Hal Robson Kanu from the bench. A lucky 13 minutes later Ledley began a move that ended with Robson-Kanu scoring.

England will have to be tactically smart to cope with Wales.

Wales employed a 3-4-3 formation against Slovakia, with Aaron Ramsey and Jonny Williams very narrow either side of Gareth Bale, allowing the full backs to occupy the space. The 3 centre-backs were very comfortable, as they should be having played a 3 at the back system through qualifying.

England should look at the Belgium vs Italy game to learn how not to play against 3 centre-backs.

Belgium had a lone striker in Romelu Lukaku, isolated against 3 centre-backs. Therefore England must try and occupy as many of the centre-backs as possible. Playing another striker is an option. Pushing the midfield further forward is another option.

The space to exploit in any back 3 system is always down the sides. So England must push the full backs high up the pitch. Kyle Walker and Danny Rose are central to England’s attacking success. The midfielders must also occupy wide areas. England have to try and stretch Wales across the entirety of the pitch. This in turn creates space in the middle of the pitch to exploit.

England also have to be wary of the counter-attacking threat posed by Gareth Bale. Wales enjoy playing on the back foot so they can have an effective counter.

There is no one way to defend against Gareth Bale, but there are ways to try and limit his influence by improving the defensive positions of the defenders.

As a general rule, one of full backs should always remain behind Bale, whilst the other full back pushes forward. Chris Smalling should also remain back and create a 2v1 situation against Bale to try and crowd him. Eric Dier should act as a defensive screen to prevent supporting runners and stop the ball getting to Bale.

It would though be a mistake to focus purely on Bale. Wales play very much like a team. Bale is the difference maker but the qualities brought by Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Jonny Williams cannot be underestimated.

England could also have a problem in midfield. Wayne Rooney will not get the same amount of time on the ball as he did against Russia. Rooney notoriously struggles when pressed quickly and not given much time on the ball. Therefore if England are to retain possession, they must ensure there is always a release option, even if that means being defensive and passing the ball backwards.

It is imperative for England to take any chances they create, and the best way to do that is to get the best finishers on the pitch. Too many of the chances on Saturday fell to Lallana and Sterling who are not renowned finishers as they showed on Saturday. Ultimately goals win you matches.

Perhaps the best gauge of how far behind England are in international football is by comparing them to the experienced Italy and Germany.

Germany managed to defend a 1 goal lead resolutely, but also got the killer 2nd goal on the counter-attack late on. The same with Italy, who produced a masterclass in defending, but also counter-attacking late on to get the killer 2nd goal. England failed to get a killer 2nd goal and instead conceded a late equaliser.

It is always difficult to find the right balance between attack and defence. It is a balance England will need to find if they are to progress in this tournament.

England face an uphill struggle, can they deliver?

Euro 2016: Tournament Preview

Euro 2016 is upon us… all rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

A 24 team tournament. Bigger. Maybe better. Certainly more complicated. To accommodate the expansion, there has been a change in the format of the tournament. 2 extra groups in the group stage and an extra knockout round.

The six groups (A-F) would contain 4 teams each, with the top 2 from each group going through to the knockout stage. In the new format, the 4 best third-ranked sides would also progress, leaving 16 teams going into the new round of 16 knockout stage, ahead of the usual quarter-finals, semi-finals and final, and only 8 teams going out at the group stage.

Beyond the structure, it is the football in the tournament and the teams in the tournament which will catch the eyes of every ardent football fan and many part-time fans alike.

Group A contains France, Romania, Albania and Switzerland.

France are the hosts and will be spurred on by the home support. They will expect to qualify with ease in this easy group and will believe they can go all the way. They have, on paper, the most balanced team of all the teams. Defensively they have solidity and experience in the likes of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Patrice Evra and Hugo Lloris. In midfield, they have the power and skill of N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi.

France have a unique blend of pace, power and athleticism, which can be adapted to suit different styles of playing. They’ll be adept at keeping possession against lesser teams, but also playing a higher tempo against better teams. Attackingly, they have variety. The speed and skill of Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and Antoine Griezmann. The creativity of Dimitri Payet – who can also provide goals from set piece chances. The power of the in form Olivier Giroud. Giroud will be very useful against defensive teams who prove hard to break down.

Romania  have coach Anghel Iordanescu, who took Romania to the quarter-finals of USA 1994, back in the job, for his third spell. Vlad Chiriches and Costel Pantilimon are the most prominent members of the Romania squad. Romania qualified unbeaten, and no team in Europe conceded fewer than the two goals they allowed in. However, Romania also struggled to score goals, scoring only 11 in the 10 games. Romania have been effective sitting back and playing on the counter-attack, and will likely continue this approach against France and Switzerland in particular.

Albania have made it to their first ever tournament. The backbone of this team is the defence, as they only conceded 5 goals in qualifying. Taulant Xhaka (brother of Granit who is playing for Switzerland) will be an important player as he can be very versatile across defence and midfield with his intelligent dribbling and skill of winning the ball back. Amir Abrashi will also be key, as alongside Xhaka, the pair can can make quick and long passes to help start counter attacks. Like Romania, a big weakness is in the attacking areas. They have only scored 7 goals in 8 qualifying matches, and each of the 7 goals were scored by different players.

Switzerland will fancy themselves to qualify from this group in 2nd place due to the relative weaknesses of Romania and Albania. They will rely heavily on the known ‘names’ in the squad, including  Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, with support from Valon Behrami and Gelson Fernandes. In defence, the new captain, Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus will be important due to his class and experience. Having won the Scudetto 5 times in a row, he will understand the standards that need to be set in this tournament.

Group B contains England, Wales, Russia and Slovakia.

England have made excellent progress since the debacle of the 2014 World Cup. They have bright young talents who do not carry the mental scars of previous tournaments. Defensively, England have genuine concerns. They have only 3 natural centre backs with Eric Dier providing back up. Chris Smalling is the only one who has had a consistently good season. In midfield, Dier will provide protection to the defence.

There are several tactical dilemmas for Roy Hodgson. Does he start Jack Wilshere alongside Dier with Dele Alli in front, leaving out Wayne Rooney? Does Rooney play in midfield in a diamond formation? Do both Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy start? England have plenty of talent, but the biggest challenge will be relying on Hodgson to get the best out of his players tactically. England have looked jaded in the warm up games, suggesting the traditional tournament fatigue has already kicked in after a long and intense season. England will be relying on the forwards to score them to victory in individual matches and the tournament. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy whilst proving themselves in the Premier League, have yet to do it at the highest level. It will not be an easy group for England. It could be a group they struggle to escape from.

Wales are the team England will fear the most, and should they qualify, most teams will want to avoid Wales. The big focus is rightfully around Gareth Bale. One of the few genuine world-class players in the world, who can change the game in an instant. This is a big tournament for him, to prove that he belongs in the upper echelons of world football today. Wales need him to fire. Yet he is not the only threat Wales possess. Proven defensive quality in Ashley Williams. Reliable midfield talents in Aaron Ramsey, Andy King and Joe Allen. Manager Chris Coleman has shown tactical nous in using a 5 man defence in a 5-3-2 formation. They play on the counter attack using quick transitional passes developed playing in the high-speed Premier League. The main problem for them will be breaking down teams who sit deeper and do not allow a counter-attacking game.

Russia are not a particularly exciting team, with a lack of youth and quality, yet they have good organisation which could make them a tough prospect to beat. They have some solid experience in Sergei Ignashevich, Yuri Zhirkov and captain Roman Shirokov. Having only conceded one goal in the qualification process since new manager Slutsky took charge replacing Fabio Capello, Russia’s defence could be a deciding factor as to how long they stay in France. Experience can go a long way and if they manage to get draws from the games against England and Wales, Russia could set up the prospect of reaching the round of 16.

Slovakia had an impressive qualifying campaign and will believe they can get through this group. In Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Juraj Kucka, they have players who play regularly for top European clubs. Kucka is the toughness and hard work to Hamsik’s flair and finesse, and should prove to be an effective shield for Slovakia’s star man. They have a compact style and defensively have discipline. With an average age of 28, they also have enough individual experience. However, this is the first European Championships they are competing in since becoming independent, and they are very reliant on Hamsik. If they can get a win against Russia, they will fancy themselves to getting through to the round of 16.

Group C contains Germany, Ukraine, Poland and Northern Ireland.

Germany are the reigning world champions and despite a few retirements, they are the fancied choice for many. They are the most cohesive team in the tournament, filled with world-class talents. Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller are now in peak form, with Muller in particular being lethal in the big tournaments. The class of Toni Kroos in midfield ensures control, whilst Bastian Schweinsteiger on his day (as shown in his man of the match performance in the 2014 World Cup final) can win any game for his team.

In goal, Germany have arguably the best in the world in Manuel Neuer, who is another match winner for them. Germany have the ability to switch from being a possession orientated side to being a counter attacking side, meaning they are able to adapt for both the big and small teams. If there is a weakness, it is that they do not have a proven natural striker, as the recall of Mario Gomez shows. Mario Goetze is likely to start as a false ‘9’. Defensively, with the exception of Mats Hummels, there is no other stand out.

Ukraine will look to improve on the disaster of 2012. This is the first ever European championships for them where they have earned a place through qualifying. The wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko will hold the key for Ukraine to have any chance in this group, with the ability to score goals. The experienced squad, with many players having Champions League experience will hold them in good stead, as they will know the levels they need to reach. The ageing squad however, also means they are susceptible to energetic teams. Ukraine will be tough to beat, but should not be making the knockouts in this group of death.

Poland like Wales, will be relying heavily on a single individual: Robert Lewandowski. Lewandowski finished as the top scorer in qualifying with 13 goals to his name, a European qualifying record. The ability to score goals at will makes Poland an extremely tricky team to encounter. They will believe that goals can fire them to the knockout stages. Defensively, Poland have been poor and inconsistent, keeping only four clean sheets in qualifying. Poland will need Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki to fire to provide service to Lewandowski. If the rest of the team can keep it tight, and Lewandowski can fire, there is no reason why Poland cannot make the round of last 16.

Northern Ireland are the fierce underdogs in this group. Michael O’Neill has Northern Ireland playing attractive football, with qualification for this tournament the most important thing. They have an unbreakable team spirit and a willingness to work for each-other. They are determined and will never give up. They have proven Premier League defensive quality in Jonny Evans, Gareth McCauley and Craig Cathcart. Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty provide hard work and goals further up the field. Northern Ireland will be relying on Lafferty’s goals if they are to have any chance. However, the lack of quality in the squad suggests they will not progress from the group. The hard work and discipline means they will provide a challenge to the other teams, but they do not have enough quality to trouble other teams.

Group D consists of Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey and Croatia.

Spain will be looking to bounce back after the humiliation of the 2014 World Cup. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding Spain, they still have a hugely impressive array of players, many of whom have won it all. Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and David Silva would be cause for delight in most countries. Spain are not currently playing the Spanish way of the past 10 years.

The passing has lacked the pace and precision that once characterised them and chances were few and far between. Spain lacked spark, freshness, an apparent sense of purpose, edge, creativity and speed. The manager, Vincent del Bosque talked about the importance of releasing longer balls more quickly, of being able to play on the counter-attack, of a willingness to mix the game up. This though is coming at the cost of their identity and is not seemingly effective. They do however, have a natural striker in Alvaro Morata and still have individual brilliance. If the individuals can turn up, there is no reason why Spain cannot go all the way and retain the crown that currently belongs to them.

Czech Republic were one of the more impressive teams in qualifying. They topped Group A scoring 19 goals and only losing 2 of their matches. They have a determined style which can compensate for the poor defence that they have- they failed to keep a single clean sheet. They have a world-class goalkeeper in Petr Cech who can make the difference in crucial pressure situations. Even if they fail to keep a clean sheet, Cech can pull off vital saves which ensures the game can still be won. The team does not have many world-class players, but its team spirit and unity can cause problems for opponents. They have a good chance at making the round of 16 in this relatively evenly matched group.

Turkey have momentum on their side after an excellent qualifying campaign and they will be driven on by one of the most popular and eccentric managers in the game, Fatih Terim. Turkey have immense quality in the attacking areas which could make the difference in this group. Arda Turan has immense quality and drive. Alongside him, Mehmet Topal and Burak Yilmaz provide experience and technical class. Turkey also have a promising crop of youngsters, with Hakan Calhanoglu a free-kick specialist, Gokhan Tore providing explosive talent and Oghuzan Ozyukap being able to run with the ball and control the tempo of the game. Having only conceded 6 goals in qualifying, and only 3 after the first game, Turkey have a solid defence. They will believe they can cause an upset and qualify to the knockout stages. Turkey are the dark horses of the competition.

Croatia have experience and quality and will believe they can beat anybody in the group. Ante Cacic has remained undefeated in competitive matches since taking over as manager. In Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Darijo Srna and Mario Mandzukic they have experience and quality at the highest level. Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic are both energetic midfielders with the pace to burst forward. With creativity and attacking prowess, Croatia will be a handful and threat. They do however, have a big defensive weakness. The Croatian defence often are unable to cope with sustained pressure put on them by opponents. The manager has yet to find a tactical solution, experimenting with a 3-5-2. If the defence can tighten up and become reliable, Croatia have a real chance at getting to the quarter finals and beyond.

Group E consists of Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden.

Belgium have experienced a meteoric rise in recent years in world football, officially being the best team in Europe. They have an incredibly talented squad even without Vincent Kompany, but football is not won on talent alone and the questions about the mental strength of Belgium will remain unless they do something significant. Coach Marc Wilmots has to find the correct balance. Defensively, they have the best centre back pairing in the Premier League in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, yet Wilmots will choose to play them at full back. Thibaut Courtois will look to prove his doubters wrong after a difficult season in the Chelsea goal.

In midfield, Belgium have a plethora of options of both creative skill and combative nature. Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembele, and Marouane Fellaini provide the power and tackling, with Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco providing the flair and spark. In attack, Romelu Lukaku will be the key man as a focal point and goalscorer in the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Wilmots. Belgium have the class, and they will provide a threat to every team they face.

Italy are always threats in major tournaments, but this is undoubtedly one of its weaker squads of recent times. Injuries to key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio have not helped Italy. As expected, the defence of this Italy team is its strongest suit. The Juventus back 3 of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci will be more crucial than ever as Antonio Conte will look to deploy a back 3. Gianluigi Buffon’s world-class abilities as goalkeeper and leader will have to make a difference. The forward line is a big weakness, with Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne being the only reliable forwards. Antonio Candreva and Daniele De Rossi have proven quality in midfield, but Italy are very thin in those areas to make much of a difference. It is always hard to rule out Italy in big tournaments, but this tournament seems too competitive for Italy to make much of a mark.

Republic of Ireland led by Martin O’Neil and Roy Keane along with the vociferous fans they will bring along make for an interesting proposition. They face a tough group and lack the all round quality to make much of a difference. They have a big team spirit, are well organised and are all consistently at a similar level, meaning they can use the depth of the squad without a drop off in quality. ROI have Premier League quality players in Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and John O’Shea. Shane Long will be a menace up front and Robbie Keane can always find the goal. In order to progress, they will have to consistently produce team performances with every individual contributing, as they do not have an individual match winner.

Sweden have historically struggled to exit the group stage. In this tough group, they will be relying heavily on the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who delivered in the playoff against Denmark to drag Sweden to the Euros. Sweden have a balanced squad with decent footballers, none of whom compare to the skills of Ibrahimovic. Kim Källström and Pontus Wernbloom will be important in the midfield battle. Sweden are defensively susceptible to long balls over the top due to a lack of pace in the defence, so will need to play deeper against teams with pace. Ultimately, if they are to have any chance, they will need their talisman to fire.

Group F contains Portugal, Iceland, Austria and Hungary.

Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo which means Portugal can beat any team. The strength of Portugal will be their defence. Whilst that seems strange, Portugal do not have any other attackers on the same level as Ronaldo, but they do have a solid defensive unit, proven through England’s difficulty in breaking them down even when they were reduced to 10 men. The central defence is particularly strong with Pepe and Bruno Alves,  assisted by Southampton’s Jose Fonte and veteran Ricardo Carvahlo who is the best form of his career. In the attacking areas alongside Ronaldo is Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, who are experienced but have struggled to set the stage alight. Whilst they should easily make it through the group, they will struggle against tougher opposition. If Ronaldo fires though, anything could happen.

Iceland are a very small nation of only 330,000. Yet the achievement of them qualifying is no fluke. Iceland have a very talented generation of players who have been playing together since youth football. Iceland are a team very capable of producing attractive football. They had balance in attack and defence in qualifying, scoring 17 and conceding only 6. They defeated the Netherlands twice, with Gylfi Sigurdsson being the star man. He will be crucial to their efforts in this tournament, being a threat on the dead ball, creating chances and scoring goals. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson will be another attacker to keep an eye on. Iceland have a terrific team unity and work ethic, yet they lack genuine world-class quality. They also do not have a very deep squad and lack the experience of tournament situations. They will believe that they could make it through to the next round in 2nd place because of the similarity of skill levels with fellow group competitors Austria and Hungary.

Austria are another one of the dark horses of the competition. They qualified unbeaten and are ranked in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings. Austria have several big name players including Premier League winner Christian Fuchs as captain, Tottenham defender Kevin Wimmer, Bayern Munich defender David Alaba and Stoke City forward Marko Arnautovic. The squad is extremely well-balanced with a nice blend of youth and experience. Austria under manager Marcel Koller are able to adapt at playing attacking football and counter attack, depending on the strengths of the opposition, with high tempo transitions. Austria have a real chance to progress and will need stars such as Arnautovic and Alaba to perform consistently. Much like Iceland, they will also believe they can qualify because of the similarities of skill level.

Hungary are possibly the weakest team in the group, with few standout players. Yet they have a new-found resilience and team spirit which saw them overcome Norway in the playoffs. Former Premier League stars Gabor Kiraly and Zoltan Gera, despite being past their very best, remain key men in the squad and will provide important experience. Skipper Balázs Dzsudzak is their biggest threat going forward. He has the pace and skill to beat a man in a 1v1 situation and is crucial to the counter-attack that Hungary employ. Whilst not being the toughest group they could have been given, Hungary do lack individual quality, the kind of quality that Austria and Iceland contain. If Hungary can muster the resilience and team spirit of the playoffs, they will feel they can get something against those 2 teams, giving themselves a chance at qualifying.

This tournament will be a close tournament, with several teams containing the quality which could cause a few upsets.

The increase in the number of teams will potentially make the group stages a more defensive affair. The underdog teams will look to limit the defensive damage and will seek to counter attack, much in the vein of Leicester City, because they know they cannot compete in the attacking third with the bigger nations. There are many sit back and counter-attacking teams in the group stages: Albania, Romania, Wales, Russia, Northern Ireland, Ukraine and Austria. Perhaps the unfortunate success of a defensive approach is reflected in the stat that there is an 87% of qualification from the group if a team obtains 3 scores of 0-0 (credit to Michael Cox).

This tournament will have its high and low points. Whilst there will undoubtedly be some bore-fest draws, there will also be lots of attacking and exciting football. Groups D, E and F look the most entertaining and competitive. There is plenty of individual quality on offer for us to enjoy. As is the way in football however, anything can happen.

Let us hope Euro 2016 in France provides us with rich summer entertainment.

England vs Australia – The Ashes Preview

The battle commences: The Ashes…All rights are reserved for this image ©

By Manish Pandey.

One of the most intense rivalries in cricket will restart in under 24 hours time, with England looking to exact revenge for the 5-0 drubbing they suffered last time out. Australia meanwhile, as world champions will look to continue its aggression to win its first series in England since 2001.

Both teams will be motivated, both teams will be ready. All the pre-series talk and drama will end at the flip of the coin and the real business of cricket shall begin.

Australia are not as invincible as many think. Recent batting performances have not been up to scratch, with the exception of Steve Smith. Warner, Clarke and Smith are the ones who pose most trouble to England yet all have weak spots. Warner tends to play extremely attacking cricket which will give England opportunities. Clarke is Australia’s best batsman, but his fitness issues coupled with his weakness against Stuart Broad suggest he may not be the player he once was. Smith is rated as the best in test cricket at the moment, but he has never batted at 3 in English conditions, and therefore could be susceptible against the moving ball early on.

All 3 are capable of hurtful scores to England- Warner scores extremely quickly and can put the pressure back on the bowlers. Smith loves his hundreds and Clarke averages 50 making him the prized wicket.

Australia’s weakness as a batting unit was visible in the last Ashes, where they were often 5 wickets down with not many runs on the board, with Brad Haddin often riding to the rescue with a superb rearguard action. He however, has been out of form, with only one score of 50 since.

England will have to be wary of Adam Voges, who is used to English conditions through country cricket and has the experience to handle the pressures of any situation.

The bowling department is the strong suit for Australia, and will be the area which decides whether they win or lose. The star of the last Ashes, Mitchell Johnson will once again hold the key, as it is his pace which the English fear so much. Yet he had an ordinary world cup and IPL, seemingly down on his regular pace which will make the battle between him and England’s batsmen so interesting.

Australia will be without Ryan Harris, who in English conditions was the most dangerous bowler that England could face. In his place, it is expected Josh Hazelwood will play, with his ability to swing and hold an accurate line and length have prompted comparisons with Glenn McGrath.

Mitchell Starc has been the star of world cricket in recent months due to his successes with the white ball. Whether he can replicate that with the red ball in England remains to be seen, but he certainly has the attributes to be the star of this series. The ability to swing the ball at 90mph from a left arm angle gives him a huge advantage over many other bowlers, including Johnson. It will be Starc’s performance both individually and in tandem with Johnson which holds the key if Australia are to succeed.

The spin of Nathan Lyon has gone under the radar in amongst the talk of fast bowling, but the way the English batsmen play him will be particularly key. They struggled against the spin of Mark Craig at Headingley against New Zealand because they were hesitant. England must attack Lyon, using the crease to go on the backfoot, or skipping down to hit him straight down the ground. Lyon does not have a mystery ball or wrong-un, England must attack him like Australia attacked Graeme Swann.

Lyon had success against India because he was bowling an inbetween length which caused the Indian batsmen to be unsure on how to play him. With Cook, Lyth, Ballance, Stokes and Moeen Ali being the 5 left handed batsmen Lyon will spin the ball away from, it is imperative for the right handed Bell, Root and Buttler to attack Lyon and unsettle him. Against New Zealand in the 2nd test, the right handers struggled against the off-spin turning into them because they were stuck on the crease.

England generally, will need to build on the attacking cricket they played on instinct against New Zealand, if they are to beat Australia. Australia will be a picture of non-stop aggression, constantly sledging and will be attacking as much as they can be. In order to do that from a batting perspective, they will need to rejig the batting order. Cook, Lyth and Ballance are all left handers. England should aim to create a left/right hand combination as much as possible, moving Bell to 3, Ballance to 4 and keeping Root at 5. A top 6 of Cook, Lyth, Bell, Ballance, Root and Stokes combines attacking stroke play with rigid defence and determination.

Any hundreds you get against this Australian attack will not be pretty. It will have to be ugly and gutsy because Australia have the best bowlers in the world. England will not have faced pace like Johnson or Starc which is a problem but not a problem without a solution. They will have to be watchful, look to leave the ball, put away the hook shot and find new scoring shots. With the pace of Starc and Johnson, they should look to deflect the ball, finding gaps for singles and boundaries.

Alastair Cook is England’s key man. He is now back in form with the bat, but his captaincy still leaves lots to be desired. How attacking will he be? Will he trust Adil Rashid? England need a frontline spinner who can be an X-Factor. Rashid has variety and can bowl out the tail which has been a big problem for England.

As Geoffrey Boycott pointed out, ‘the biggest problem with playing Rashid is Cook does not have confidence in him. It is not Rashid himself. It is Cook, the leader. He did not play him in the West Indies. He should have played all three Tests and England would have won them all if he had played. But if the captain does not have confidence in any player then it is a problem.’

‘Even if you pick him the captain is not keen to bowl him. If Rashid bowls a poor spell and Cook panics, takes him off and does not bring him back for three hours then the kid’s confidence will go down. At Yorkshire they take him off and bring him back in 20 minutes and he gets wickets because the captain, coach and players have confidence in him. The problem for England is the leader.’

Cook will be relying on his trio of seamers in Anderson, Broad and Mark Wood. They must prepare pitches like against New Zealand which brought these seamers into play. Even if those pitches might bring the Australian bowlers into play, they have to back their own batsmen to better than the Australian batsmen. Jimmy Anderson has over 400 wickets with a superb average in England, the Australians will be fearing him as much as the English will be fearing Starc and Johnson.

The three England young guns of Root, Stokes and Buttler will have key roles. Root is the glue of England’s lineup and averages over 90 in the past year, his ability to score in all situations will be invaluable. He has to get through the first 30mins where he is most vulnerable, particularly on off stump. Stokes will have a key role with bat and ball, with his aggressive style being more Australian like than English. Yet he must keep his temper under control. The sledging he lost his head at against Marlon Samuels will be nothing compared to Haddin, Clarke and Johnson constantly chirping away. If he can focus his energies on cricket, he can be the difference between the two sides.

Jos Buttler will be under huge pressure. Not particularly with the bat, as his natural abilities to score are unquestioned. But as wicketkeeper, particularly to the spinner(s), his glove work still leaves lots of room for improvement. He cannot afford to miss chances as this Australian team will be ruthless enough to capitalise.

Key battles:

Cook vs Clarke – the captaincy will decide much, the captain which provides the most attacking set up for his bowlers will be the victorious one.

Root vs Johnson/Starc – Root struggled last time out in Australia, but he has played much cricket since then and averages 90, his performance against these two speedsters will decide much.

Smith vs Anderson – Anderson is England’s best, Smith is World No1 – can he handle the early swing of Anderson? If he can get through that, he will line up the big scores.

Clarke vs Broad– Broad has dismissed Clarke numerous times, particularly with the short ball, can Broad find his form one last time vs Clarke?

Key Wildcards:

Ben Stokes- a matchwinner if he keeps his head calm.

Josh Hazelwood- has the skills to succeed, can he find the consistency?

Adil Rashid- can he show enough to earn his captain’s trust? Has the variety.

Adam Voges- experienced in cricket but not in international test matches. Has played for years in England, his abilities cannot be underestimated.

Ultimately, it will be about the combination of technique, mental toughness and character.

Prediction: Series draw at 2-2.