In the aftermath of Euro 2016, international football appeared to be in a fix. The continental championship was a 24-team (up from 16 in 2012), 51-game snoozefest, which saw some dreary football and no standout team. That the winner was Portugal, an outfit that squeezed out of the group stage unconvincingly, won just one match all tournament in 90 minutes, and required a 109th-minute goal from Eder to beat France in a largely insipid final in Paris, seemed just about right.
It was a far cry from the happenings four years earlier when a spirited Italian side, managed by the progressive Cesare Prandelli and powered on by the mercurial Mario Balotelli, staked claim to the top prize alongside world champion Spain. The final was lopsided, as Spain thrashed Italy 4-0, but the tournament witnessed some fine football, with Spain making a compelling claim to be recognised as one of the greatest sides of all time.
When Turkey and Italy kick off Euro 2020 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on June 11, which of the two styles of play will be ushered in? There is genuine excitement about fans congregating for a full-fledged international competition after more than a year of action in empty, soulless stadia. But will the standard of football reverberate with the same energy, especially with players mentally drained and physically jaded after a long, bruising season in the sequestered world of bio-bubbles?
There was a time when international football used to showcase the best of the prevailing tactical trends. Brazil was supposed to have alerted the world to the virtues of a lineup with four defenders in 1958, something that was in the works in the country’s clubs like Flamengo, Vila Nova and Sao Paulo in the years before the World Cup. The Dutch popularised ‘Total Football’ at the 1974 World Cup, a revolutionary concept developed and distilled by Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs at Ajax.
In this century alone, we have seen two such teams – Spain mainstreaming the Barcelona idea of radical ball possession at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, and Germany making pressing and rapid defence-to-offence transitions, developed by the likes of Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, its primary identity in 2014.
But Euro 2016 was perhaps the first significant break from this showcasing tradition, a detachment that more or less continues till date. Even as Luis Enrique at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and then at Manchester City, Klopp at Liverpool, Thomas Tuchel and Petr Bosz at Borussia Dortmund, and Maurizio Sarri at Napoli were at different stages of developing sides that employed a combination of possession and pressing, the play at the Euro was drastically different.
Italy brought reigning champion Spain down in the round of 16 with a counterattacking 3-5-2 formation, while Germany, looking tired and reactive, lost to France in the last four. Total control of the ball and fiery pressing seemed to have hit a dead end and the football apex appeared to have shifted away from Spain and Germany.
If anything, the early stages of the 2018 World Cup dispelled whatever lingering doubt one may have had, as Germany crashed out in the group stage and Spain lost to Russia in the pre-quarterfinals.
“In 2008, 2010 and 2012, we had the players we had and we played at a level and in a style that nobody had done before,” said Fernando Hierro, who was appointed Spain’s coach just a day before the World Cup after Julen Lopetegui was dismissed acrimoniously. “Now we’re in 2018. Other teams are playing with a [defensive] line of five, which had been forgotten. There are also a lot of direct balls and quick transitions. Everything is changing.”
The second half of the 2018 World Cup did bring some relief, with a few high-scoring contests. England and Belgium impressed with modern, forward-thinking football and made it to the last four. But France, the champion, embraced neither possession nor high-intensity pressing fully. Instead, it excelled in short bursts within a game – think Kylian Mbappe – and played the important moments better. Seen together with Real Madrid winning three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles from 2016 to 2018 by making do with largely functional football, a customised blueprint appeared to have been drawn to win standalone tournaments both at the club and international levels.
However, in the last three years, the tide has turned and front-foot play has proved to be effective even in cup competitions. In the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Champions League finals, the furious high-press of Klopp’s Liverpool and Hansi Flick’s Bayern Munich triumphed over the marginally less furious high-press of Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain.
The 2020-21 campaign saw signs of moderation from Tuchel’s Chelsea and Guardiola’s Manchester City – the finalists – but it was no significant departure. It was just a judicious mix of the high-press and steady ball retention, in part to maintain some amount of defensive shape and in part to keep players fresh.
To expect such all-out attacking at Euro 2020 – though not unwelcome – would be a stretch, but a recalibrated approach from sides as compared to previous tournaments can bring back some of the old thrill and excitement. Spain’s 6-0 demolition of Germany in the UEFA Nations League last November was indicative of at least one country being in step with the advances.
But the modern pressing game is exacting and needs fresh legs to be implemented. The COVID-19 lockdown from March to May-June last year meant that the 2020-21 pre-season was truncated and players have been on the pitch continuously for more than a year. In early November last year, as many as 26 players in the Premier League were down with fatigue-induced soft-tissue injuries.
Current-era schedules also give international coaches very limited time to define attacking structures and synchronise moves. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this, with a host of fixtures being cancelled. Sides that have a strong core of players from one or two clubs and train together week in and week out may enjoy an edge, but it is easy for others to just slip into the throes of a safety-first approach.
Of course, team specifics matter and unlike clubs, nations cannot buy made-to-order footballers to plug holes. Still, it will be a pity if another Euro passes by lacking in incident and without arresting the trend of tired, laboured football.
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