Orchestrators are few and far between

The European teams, by and large, have decided to go with their favourite 4-2-3-1 continental style of play, which leaves very little space for interpretation or inspiration. By Ayon Sengupta.

A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.

— Alfred Hitchcock

The standard of act and production in the on going EURO 2012 has not been of such dramatic heights to save on the cost of theatre admission or dinner. Thankfully, a few of us don’t have the need for a babysitter, yet. (Watching an extra-time nail-bitter with a howling, attention-craving infant is as traumatising as a howling, attention-craving infant in a packed movie hall — just minus the deathly stares and whispers.)

We, the fortunate few, however, have given the night shows a miss (suddenly there is a deluge of ‘good’, watchable movies or so our mother publication’s movie critics say — Prometheus, Gangs of Wasseypur, Madasgcar 3. Spirit, for the football-fanatic Malayalis) and sit glued to television sets, trying to soak in the variances from the so-called second-best football tournament in the world. Not much has been on offer, though, as the European teams, by and large, have decided to go with their favourite 4-2-3-1 continental style of play, which leaves very little space for interpretation or inspiration. Hopefully, our movie-hopping brethren have had better luck.

The football, in Poland-Ukraine, has been mostly pedantic, with overemphasis on defensive shape and heavy reliance on wing play. The orchestrators — football’s trequartistas and registas — have been few and far between.

Registas — the strong, irreplaceable character actors (deep-lying playmakers) — have long been the favourites in Europe (Alex Games of Scotland, England’s Danny Blanchflower, Dutch Willem ‘Wim’ van Hanegem, Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola), but there have been only a few noteworthy ones who have made it to the EURO this time round. The shortage of quantity, though, has been made up by the richness of quality. Italy’s Andrea Pirlo — considered the best, still-functioning midfield fulcrum — has performed admirably despite an advanced age.

Over the past fortnight, Pirlo, unquestionably, has done his best to restore the sullied reputation of his side, Italy, after the World Cup debacle in South Africa in 2010 and has notched up one goal and two assists during his team’s four strikes (inside regulation time) in the competition. He can find team-mates from every angle and his penchant for delaying the final ball an extra nanosecond helps others to find space. The unfailing exactness of his long-range ‘drone’ passes and mastery over free kicks has made Italy hop, skip and jump past opponents. Pirlo’s aptitude to continually find space in the centre circle opens up play for his team-mates.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, Germany’s long-serving crusader, at 27, has hardly drawn attention. But his excellent positional understanding (and vision) has allowed the likes of Mesut Ozil and Marco Reus or Thomas Muller to revel. A natural combative leader (almost in the Roy Keane mould) he holds play for the Germans and, like a traffic cop at a busy intersection, he directs play.

Luka Modric of Croatia, though his team was knocked out, did dazzle and the Tottenham pivot, again, showed the world his real class and quality. He indeed is too special to continue playing for a top-tier pretender and most definitely will seek Champions League football elsewhere next season. (Sadly for Modric and mercifully for Croatia, he doesn’t have the option of switching nationalities).

Modric and Schweinsteiger, that way, are a little bit like Michael Caine — Batman’s Alfred Pennyworth one day, Robert Angier’s engineer in The Prestige the next.

Spain’s Xavi Hernandez (EURO 2008’s Player of the Tournament), though a natural pivot who grew up idolising Guardiola, these days plays a little ahead in Spain’s very own tiki-taka variation, which allows players to switch positions, constantly moving the ball around, playing short passes, retaining possession while enacting a high intensity, pressing game.

A little off-colour by his standards in the group games, Spain’s ‘Puppet Master’ still had the best passing accuracy of 96 per cent in the quarterfinals against France. He knows his strengths well and is an undisputable master in holding sway over the pulse of a game, moving the ball around with machine-like precision. (There is nothing mechanical in his game apart from this unconceivable steadiness.) “We all live in the present but Xavi actually lives in the future,” Barca team-mate Dani Alves correctly says. (To make matters rosier for Spain, his Real Madrid compatriot Xavi Alonso has outperformed him in the pivot’s role.)

Trequartistas (playmaker in the central attacking midfield position), comparably, are much more glamorous — the Matt Damons, George Clooneys or Marlon Brandos of the beautiful game. Equally talented and mesmerising, they add elements of panache, style and that arrogant, nonchalant swagger. Diego Maradona, Francesco Totti or Rui Costa (even Zinedine Zidane to an extent) all had that “bluster”. The modern variants, though, have decided to be more grounded.

Ozil, hardly boisterous, has been imperious in this competition, glittering particularly in the 4-2 quarterfinal mauling of helpless Greece. Quiet, yet effective in the group stages, Ozil stepped up in the first knockout game and ran Greece ragged, finding pockets of space where it seemed impossible to even dream of. Despite the Greeks reinforcing their defence with a five-man protective midfield, the Turkish-origin enganche fashioned countless chances for the likes of Miroslav Klose, Marco Reus and Sami Khedira and ended the game on two assists.

Spain, with its atypical system (they are often playing a headless 4-6-0 formation) has both Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta and Manchester City’s David Silva dressing up for the trequartista’s role in an ever-shuffling system. Starting on the left and right wings respectively, both players habitually cut inside, occupying space behind either the regular or false No. 9.

Iniesta, always an indispensable member of Spain’s XI, can almost guarantee a goal at will as his drive, vision, conviction of touch and artistry on the ball make him a real standout player even on off days. The 28-year-old has already proven himself on the biggest stage, scoring the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final.

He has been more perilous (easily Spain’s best player so far) at this EURO. The diminutive Silva has likewise been equally intelligent and has already notched up three assists and a goal in four matches. The 26-year-old’s versatility and passing ability make him an incomparable threat on the pitch. With a phenomenal 88 assists in 326 club appearances he is already a proven bet and the player has looked composed and cerebral in his first major foray in an international tournament. Silva was only a fringe player in Spain’s EURO 2008 and 2010 World Cup success.

Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart have also shown glimpses of their footballing geniuses but, regrettably, a feuding and dysfunctional squad cut short their stay.

The rest (except Modric) are still very much there in the tournament and, again, as Hitchcock said: “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So we can sit tight for a week more and wait in anticipation for the modern greats to terrorise oppositions and, at last, provide EURO 2012 with its big bang moment.