Curtain closes on golden age
By Jonathan Wilson
Four wonderful goals and all the debates about Spain’s style suddenly seemed rather academic.
This is what happens when an opponent pushes high up the pitch against them; they simply thread passes into the space.
Spain won the final of the European Championship playing football of the highest order, becoming the first team to defend the title and the first since the Second World War to win three major international titles in a row.
They are the best side in the world and one of the greatest sides of all time and yet they are far from the most popular; they lag far behind, for instance, the Dutch side of 1974 or the Hungary of 1954 in public affection.
While there is admiration for their technical mastery of the ball, their decision to use that supremacy for control rather than chance creation means respect for them tends to be grudging. Their style tends to preclude drama and that means their victories tend to be deemed a little sterile.
The focus on control has grown over time. Partly that is to do with a change of coach, from Luis Aragones to the more cautious Vicente del Bosque; partly it’s probably to do with anxiety — a terror of relinquishing their pre-eminence revealed by Cesc Fabregas’s comment that winning had gone from being “a joy” to “an obligation”.
At Euro 2008, Spain had 56.6% of the ball and a shot after every 27.4 passes; in South Africa, that was 65.2%, a shot every 34.2 passes. This time round, in games up to the final, it is 67.4%, with Spain taking a shot every 42.9 passes. They give the impression at times they could cut loose and eviscerate teams — they had much the better, for instance, of extra-time against Portugal — but they prefer to stifle the game, taking as much of the chance out of it as possible.
Neutrals may complain, but if opponents aren’t good enough to come out and win the ball from them, why should Spain give it back to them?
Entertainment in football is not an end in itself but a by-product of the struggle for victory. And in that struggle defence and attack must be balanced.
That was Germany’s failing. Jogi Löw’s side flattered to deceive. At the World Cup they were a fine counter-attacking side: of the 13 goals they scored in six games, not including the third-place play-off, 12 came in three games, in each of which they went ahead in the first 10 minutes and the opposition attacked with a high line. They struggled though, when facing well-ordered opponents: one goal in three games against Serbia, Ghana and Spain. Over the past two years they have tried to become more proactive, but that has exposed the limitations of Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski, both of whom need space in front of them. That Löw was concerned by that was made clear by his decision to leave both out for the quarter-final against Greece, opting for the more technically accomplished Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle, and then bringing back Podolski but omitting Muller for the semi-final.
The bigger problem though, was at the back of the midfield where the development of Sami Khedira into a more compete midfielder at Real Madrid has upset his partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger. Where Khedira used to sit, giving Schweinsteiger licence to get forward, now he too likes to make late runs into the box as he did in volleying the second against Greece. The problem is that unless Schweinsteiger drops back, it can leave the German back four horribly exposed.
The warning signs were there: in retrospect 10 goals conceded in five friendlies between the qualifiers and the start of the tournament was an enormous red light.
Favourites with flaws make for an engaging tournament and Euro 2012 has proved the European Championship the best of all competitions.
Neither of the host nations made it through the group stage but only Ireland and the Netherlands really disappointed.
Sweden, Russia, France, the Czech Republic and England have significant questions to answer in World Cup qualifying but all won at least one game. The last four editions of the tournament have all been excellent, Euro 2000 probably best among them, far better than the last four World Cups. They’ve had quality, drama and excitement, at least partly because the concentration of quality means big sides meeting early on. The Euros should be held up as an example of what tournaments should be, a model for others to follow, but instead the greed and idiocy of football’s administrators mean this will be the last tournament with this format.
The move to 24 teams in France in 2016 will dilute the quality and, with four best third-placed teams presumably to qualify from six groups, the drama: imagine, for instance, Russia v Greece or England v Ukraine if both sides had qualified.
If Michel Platini’s suggestion for multiple venues in 2020 goes ahead, it may not even feel much like a tournament any more. The distances involved and underdeveloped infrastructure made this at times a frustrating event to cover, but in terms of the football itself, this was probably the end of the golden age.
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