Euro 2012: GROUP D PREVIEW
Group D is home to one of the most competitive Groups in the tournament, with three teams just about equal in stature and ability playing alongside an emotional host nation who will likely struggle to advance. But if you’re as obsessed with drama in your football as I am, this Group also features three of the most problematic, anxiety ridden teams in the tournament.
First there is England, the “home” of football, the nation that seemingly cannot discern between reality and expectation. Let me say; I watch English football like it is my job, I follow Liverpool FC of the English Barclays Premiere League as a religion, I am smitten with the League, the way the game is played, the pace– the entire narrative of club football in England. I know a little bit about the players and the manager, to say the least. So, please believe me when I say, and many English supporters will say the same; there are few people on the planet more deluded than English fans. I’ll get to the why of it in my team preview below, but right now, England have possibly the worst manager in their entire existence, and the enter Euro 2012 a team bereft of chemistry and imagination with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They can compete, they have great players, but they cannot win it all. Will not happen.
Then there is France, the team that self-destructed at the 2010 World Cup. This was a team that won the 1998 World Cup, were finalists in 2006, but who suddenly held a locker room revolt against their own manager, becoming a group of players who were an absolute embarrassment to their nation, a team without an identity or a focus. Suddenly, under Manager Laurent Blanc, the French have reversed their fortunes and Voila!; the team that everyone loved to hate last time around have the look of contenders about them.
And take a look at Sweden, the team that is always just a hair away from greatness, the team that fights for respect despite playing attractive football, the team that is always flying just below the radar; they’re at it again. A string of attractive results prior to the tournament have raised a few eyebrows and have people thinking that they may be one of the real dark horses of the Euro 2012. It helps to have one of the most outstanding (and vain) players in world football leading the line (more on him later), but Sweden, for whatever reason, look primed to compete, cohesive where once only underachievement seemed likely.
And finally, the co-hosts Ukraine, who are an ok team, but who have the dreams of their nation on their back. I won’t lie; in my opinion, the country itself should not be hosting this tournament. Political repression, concerns about fan racism, homophobic laws being passed; right now, Ukraine seems like a regressive place to showcase European football. Of course, it’s not fair to pin any of that on the team, so I won’t do that, but I will be addressing my concerns about the tournament and Ukraine in particular soon. Needless to say, I think the team are in trouble in this Group, even as hosts.
Lots to discuss…
Roy Hodgson. The name strikes fear in the hearts of, well, of supporters of the teams he manages. Tactically bereft, seemingly appointed to the England position out of sheer desperation, Hodgson has picked up where former England boss Fabio Capello left off; boring the life out of football fans. Watching England play under Hodgson, a 4-4-2 system with balls hoofing out of the back and no player being used to link the defense and attack, one might be lead to believe that this England team had no creative imagination at all. Which is an absolute shame.
The main issue is with the midfield pairing of England captain Steven Gerrard and defensive midfielder Scott Parker, who should allow Gerrard to press forward in the attack. Instead, because of the pure width of England’s wingers James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young (who has been playing as a second striker), Gerrard is being forced to play deep with Parker, the England center back pair generally uncomfortable playing the ball out of trouble into Parker and Gerrard. What this means is that teams set up with a single striker (France, for example) and a combative midfield will be able to overwhelm England in their attacking half, allowing for few opportunities to create offense. How do England respond to that numerical mismatch? Hoof. Counter attack. Hoof. Offside. Hoof.
Sometimes, it works. If England could play the ball fluently, on the ground, and allow their wingers and fullbacks to tuck in a little and help support a possession game, England would have a much more dynamic approach, allowing wide players to press forward, setting up overlapping runs for the excellent Ashley Cole and Glenn Johnson at the fullback position– all of it without sacrificing the shape of the team. But English players simply are not technically gifted enough to play this way. Instead, the lack of skill in moving the ball forward has forced Gerrard to play much deeper, leaving a giant hole in the attacking midfield and leaving the opposition room to press their own attack. It could have been so different, but this is England now; organized, defensive-minded and without a playmaker until the suspended Wayne Rooney, who can fill that hole in the midfield by playing off of another striker, makes his return in the final match of Group play. England have enough quality to make their way out of the Group– I have it at 50/50– but what do they do when they run into Germany? Spain? The Netherlands? Yikes. England are grueling to watch right now, but I have to watch anyway. It wouldn’t be England if you weren’t suffering.
Roy talks tactics. *sigh*
Right now, I have France winning this Group and earning a spot in the semi-finals of the Euros. I am loving how they are playing right now; Karim Benzema is dramatically improved as a striker, Samir Nasri is doing a great job of opening space with his passing, Franck Ribery is on fire attacking from the wing, they have one of the must-see rising stars of the Euros in Jérémy Ménez, and an experienced back line lead by Philippe Mexès. After the absolute train wreck that was the French team of just two years ago, Laurent Blanc has come in and righted the ship, getting this new generation of French players to attack with a fluid, beautiful style. It has paid off; France are lighting it up right now, winning recent matches against The USA, Germany (!!), Iceland (coming back from 2-0 down to win 3-2) and the always tough Serbia– France just look good and are controlling possession with attractive football. The other piece of good news from France is that the goals seem to be coming from the right places, with Ribery, Malouda and Benzema all in form right now. There is something about Les Bleus attitude and their tactics that have me believing in them. Can I get an Allez?
You know what they say about books and covers? Meet Franck Ribéry
Sweden are another team playing attractive football right now, but they are missing the balance and depth of a team like France. Instead, they rely on one of the geniuses of the game to make them dangerous; Zlatan Imbrahimović is an absolute nightmare for the opposition, a player of tremendous skill, technique and a fiery attitude that pulls the entire team forward. In eight qualifying games for Sweden, Imbrahimović scored 5 goals and had 3 assists, essentially responsible for a goal a game. That number should scare anyone. He’s 6’4” but can dribble the ball with the best in the world, and he is absolutely deadly in front of goal. The best part? He knows how good he is; there may not be a player more in love with his own abilities than Zlatan. But honestly? If I were him, I’d feel the same way. When Zlatan’s on the pitch, Sweden are always in the match; with a new generation of midfielders like Rasmus Elm and Seb Larsson and good chemistry with strike partner Ola Toivonen of PSV Eindhoven, Zlatan and Sweden could finally make some noise at the Euros.
I’d Probably Hate On Me Too: Zlatan
On paper, Ukraine look like a team of faded potential. With names that would make most people’s “he’s still playing?” list, names like 35 year old striker Andriy Shevchenko, 32 year old midfielder Serhiy Nazarenko and 32 year old Andriy Voronin on the roster, Ukraine will certainly not be lacking experience. They also feature a few names that pop off of the team sheet, none more so than Bayern Munich star Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (33 years old!), who is coming off of a heart breaking loss in the Champions League final. Still, it seems clear that hosting the tournament has stoked something nostalgic in Ukraine, allowing a swan song for its great generation of footballers. I expect it to be bittersweet; despite the power of playing home matches and the support of their nation, Ukraine don’t look likely to make it out of the Group. They have been disappointing in the run-up, losing their last two matches to Turkey and Austria; just can’t see them taking down the other three teams in Group D.
Hosting Is Fun!
Must See Match
I’m inclined to say France vs England (who am I kidding, of course I’ll be watching that one), but the game that I think will be the best game of Group D will be France vs Sweden on Tuesday, June 19th, the final match day of Group play. I think this match will decide the Group D winner and since England will be playing Ukraine at the exact same time (and with Wayne Rooney itching to get on the pitch), this one promises to be a scoreboard watching affair with two attractive teams gunning for the knock out stages.
Players To Watch
Group D is full of great players, especially the aforementioned Imbrahimović, Benzema and Ribery, but I think it’s going to come down to how productive Ashley Young can be in setting up goals and scoring them for England. Without the creative influence of Rooney until the final match, England are going to need Young to continue to be an attacking influence, mostly because Steven Gerrard will likely be sitting deeper than he otherwise would be (and thus, less effective than he otherwise would be.) Young is a streaky player who is in good form at the moment; if he can get the ball and link up with Andy Carroll up top, if Hodgson continues to play him as a second striker, he can make some noise for England and man, do they need some noise to be made…
One man, one match, one-nil: Ashley Young for England
I have France as Group D winners, with Sweden surprising a disappointed England for second place and Ukraine breaking the hearts of the locals in fourth. I just have a feeling Sweden are ready to get over the hump against England. Just a hunch…