1) Granit Xhaka looks every bit a £30m player
A few eyebrows were raised when Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger got his chequebook out to splash £30m on Granit Xhaka before a ball had even been kicked in France this summer.
However, on the basis of what we have seen so far, it looks like a good piece of business.
Man of the match in both of Switzerland’s opening games, Xhaka also held his own against a star-studded France team to earn his side a hard-fought draw. By half-time in that game the midfielder had already made 48 passes — twice as many as any France player.
2) France must opt for a 4-2-3-1 formation to get best out of Payet
He has been one of the stars but if France are to get Dimitri Payet firing against Ireland, they must play to his strengths.
Manager Didier Deschamps has been torn between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formation as he attempts to fit all of his big names, like Paul Pogba.
Payet has operated out wide in a 4-3-3, but if he were to be given the central role in a 4-2-3-1 you get the feeling he could fire France to glory.
3) Albania exit highlights benefit of drawing
There were amazing and historic scenes as Albania defeated Romania last Sunday. The victory was the country’s first in a European Championship and with it came a chance of them making the last 16.
Unfortunately Albania missed out, with Portugal usurping them by virtue of the fact that their goal difference was better after claiming three draws. It seems like a cruel blow; a team who has won a match should be sent home by one yet to register a victory. A lesson for teams to adhere to in future tournaments.
4) France can be got at down the flanks
A lot was said about the France defence in the build-up to Euro 2016 as injuries and suspensions left them short at centre-back. Adil Rami (above) has emerged to partner Laurent Koscielny, but it is out wide there must now be concerns about.
As he showed by giving away a penalty against Romania, Patrice Evra’s best years are behind him and Bacary Sagna is also on the decline. It is an area Martin O’Neill should look to exploit, especially if France preserve with a 4-3-3.
5) Better late than never
There’s no time bigger than Fergie time, even at the Euros. The days when matches lasted 90 minutes are long gone, so don’t go home before the final whistle blows.
All France’s goals have come late – not to mention Russia’s equaliser against England and a Czech leveller against Croatia. So stay awake right to the end in Lyon, boys...
6) Premier League stars over-hyped? Nah…
Some people argue the Premier League might not be the best in the world. The phenomenal
budgets and global TV audiences mean players at the big clubs are household names. So when
Italy came across Belgium, everyone waited for Eden Hazard and his chums to run riot. It never happened, Belgium’s Fellaini – strangely cast as a no. 10 – tried hard to be a nuisance as usual, Romelu Lukaku was let down by his first touch and Toby Alderweireld was at fault for Italy’s first goal. Ironically, man of the match was Sunderland reject Emanuele Giaccherini.
7) Group E changed everything we thought we knew
When tournaments start, many watchers – including bookies – expect a certain outcome. But life’s not like that. Ireland were written off after losing to Belgium but found themselves playing Italy reserves.
Belgium were crucified after losing to Italy, but recovered. The same Italy were described as the worst team from that country for decades, then they won two games and Antonio Conte was a genius.
Everyone said Belgium had no full-backs but two of them were named in L’Equipe’s team of the tournament so far. And who foresaw Zlatan waving goodbye so soon?
8) Have coaches given up on individual brilliance?
Looking at the Italy and Belgium squads before the start of Euro 2016, a quartet of players caught the eye:
Michy Batshuayi and Divock Origi for Belgium; Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy for Italy. All four are in their early to mid-twenties, all are talented and all four have not been seen in France.
Antonio Conte has opted for players who will follow his detailed instructions, Marc Wilmots has preferred the size of Lukaku and Christian Benteke, and Fellaini on occasion, while Martin O’Neill left out Wes Hoolahan (above) who had tipped the scales against Sweden, as Ireland called for a more.
9) Teamwork is everything
With superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale, and Cristiano Ronaldo dominating some teams, it’s refreshing to see the power of the collective gain results. Iceland is the perfect example — the smallest country to ever qualify for a major tournament, their players have been together for over 10 years. It shows.
Hungary are also a refreshing addition, with wonderful attacking play. Perhaps it’s the Leicester-fication of the Euros – the best teams are stronger than the sum of their parts.
10) Keepers still wear tracksuits?
Uefa may like everything homogenised but it’s nice to see some players still stand out. At 40, Hungary keeper Gabor Kiraly is the oldest player in the tournament. He has become a cult hero back home, where Thursday was ‘grey tracksuit-bottoms day’, and everyone went to work wearing Kiraly-style legwear.
The keeper faced a penalty with his hands behind his back (it was scored), kicked the ball out with his standing leg, and thrown out a pass from under his legs. What’s not to like?
11) What happened to Austria?
This Austria team was special, they said. David Alaba can play in any position and make the difference, they said. Marko Arnautovic can prove his talent on the bigger stage, they said.
Austria coach Marcel Koller worked with the same group for five years but in France, they never got going. Austria were the weakest team in possibly the weakest group, and leave with one point and only goal scored an own goal.
12) Ronaldo is feeling the pressure
Talk about carrying your country; Ronaldo had more shots in France (33) than the whole Ireland team (32) and before the 3-3 draw against Hungary, seemed to be feeling the pressure.
He sneered at Iceland celebrating a draw “like they had won the Euros” (bit rich), and threw a reporter’s mic into a lake. His two goals against Hungary hauled Portugal into the last 16, and he needs to provide something special to get any further.
13) Two changes is just enough, five is too many
Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t but making wholesale changes is a gamble.
Roy Hodgson did it against Slovakia, ‘resting’ five first-choicers and England failed to win, leaving them in the side of the draw that includes, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. But when you stick with the same side it doesn’t always work either – look at Spain’s defeat to Croatia.
Chris Coleman got it right with Wales – just minor changes. Wales are now in the ‘easier’ side of the draw, and can even dream of a semi-final place.
14) Wales are travelling club class
The Welsh players have spoken about the atmosphere in the camp in Dinard being like a club side. Even with superstar Gareth Bale, they are all down-to-earth and mucking in together, and the team spirit shows on the pitch.
Chris Coleman has gone out of his way to ensure Bale and Aaron Ramsey are not given special treatment, and it is paying off. Joe Ledley said “Table tennis, darts, banter – we do it all together. It’s a fantastic team to be in.”
15) Russia are a mess
No victories, no manager, no team spirit, and no competitive games for the next two years. How are Russia going to fare as hosts of the 2018 World Cup? Not well, on the evidence of the past two tournaments.
They were woeful under Fabio Capello in Brazil two years ago, and only made it to France when they binned the Italian to put Leonid Slutski (above) in charge. But he leaves now, and the team is a mess, with few players looking up to top level tournament football.
It is no coincidence that they are the only country here with every squad member playing in their domestic league. Perhaps they need to get more experience abroad if they are to thrive at World Cup 2018 — otherwise they will have to face the wrath of Vladimir Putin.
16) Slovakia made a mockery of the format
Ok, so England really should have put one of their 23 shots on goal past the keeper, but Slovakia got what they wanted by sticking 10 men behind the ball to force a goalless draw and qualify in third place.
The idea of having four third-placed sides reaching the last 16 means you are bound to get cynical coaches knowing that four points will be enough — so if they win one of the first two games, they will play for a draw, as Slovakia did. Pretty it is not, and Slovakia, will now play Germany, who will not be as wasteful as England were.
17) Croatia have depth to go all the way
Many people had Croatia down as ‘dark horses’ before the tournament, mostly down to La Liga stars Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, but few expected them to be quite this good.
Even with Modric injured for their final group game against Spain, coach Ante Cacic (right) made five other changes, and they still won 2-1. Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic was superb, as was 20 year old Dinamo
Zagreb holding midfielder Mark Rog, while veteran right-back Darijo Srna is player of the tournament so far.
Croatia are also now on the ‘easy’ side of the draw - and starting to look quite like potential winners.
18) ...Even with political goings on behind the scenes…
Croatia’s tournament actually seemed to be falling apart late against the Czech Republic when they conceded a late equaliser after fireworks were thrown onto the pitch.
‘Fans’ protesting corruption involving national federation president Davor Suker and associate Zdravko Mamic were blamed, with some reports backing up their complaints. Their team were having none of it however - with Cacic blaming ‘sports terrorists’ and the players talking about pulling together. Such events can be destabilising - but it seems having their own fans against them has not hurt Croatia’s team spirit.
19) De Gea transition gone awry
David De Gea taking over from Iker Casillas looked symbolic of a new Spain team - with the Manchester United goalkeeper finally ousting the long serving captain and La Roja easing to victory in their first two group games.
De Gea looked shaky though in the defeat to Croatia, arguably at fault for both goals. The uncharacteristic mistakes reminded pundits of his pre-tournament involvement in a sleazy sex scandal, although he claims to be unbothered by the reports. ‘San Iker’ is unlikely to be recalled - but De Gea’s big chance has not gone at all to plan.
20) Emre Mor a future star
Emre Mor started the tournament on the bench, but by the final game the so-called ‘Turkish Messi’ was starting and orchestrating a 2-0 win over the Czechs.
The Messi comparisons did not look completely off as the diminutive Denmark-born 18 year old regularly dribbled past opponents and also provided an excellent assist, showing why he got to choose Borussia Dortmund over Liverpool and Manchester United earlier this summer.
Robbie Brady’s goal against Italy eliminated the Turks, but there is more to come from Mor in future.
21) Are Germany more balanced with Gomez up front?
Joachim Low has tried Mario Gotze in the false nine slot, he asked Thomas Muller to do a job at the apex of his formation for a bit against Poland, but the side produced their best performance with Gomez leading the line against North.
Germany played penetrative as well as passing football, something they failed to do against the Poles, and varied their approach play with sharp one-touch football. And yet defence remains a worry. The enigma continues.
22) Poland have forgotten how to make the most of Lewandowski
Poland sauntered through the group with Germany despite the fact that their star striker failed to manage a single strike on target in three games, but they will need him to fire as the knockout stages dawn.
Much was made of his burgeoning relationship with Ajax’s Arek Milik before the tournament and, while the younger man has benefited from the attention awarded to Lewandowski, the latter has had to withdraw too deep too often for touches. It’s a puzzle, given Lewandowski’s 13 goals in qualifying and his superb season with Bayern Munich, and one Poland need to figure out.
23) Kyle Lafferty is not indispensable
Everyone agreed before the tournament — if Kyle Lafferty does well, then so do North. That was before Michael O’Neill left him out from the start against Ukraine and Germany for the harder running Conor Washington.
Wales are not Germany but they are likely to dictate their last 16 clash with the North and that may see Lafferty come off the bench again. Undoubtedly their best goal scorer, he simply may not be the best fit for the system right now.
O’Neill likes to tinker, but Lafferty is certainly no automatic starter.
24) The opening game remains as vital as ever
With four of the third-placed teams to advance from the knockout stages there was the knowledge every team could have something to play for by round three, but Ukraine demonstrated the continued importance of a good start. A 2-0 defeat to Germany was no shame but it could have been better for a side studded with attacking potential and one that seemed to be still dazed after being swatted by Northern Ireland. Russia were shambolic but there was the sense with Ukraine they had much more about them than they showed.
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: The BallTalk team talk about Ireland’s chances of progressing to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved