Connect in the back of the net

Below is the sixth installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.

Euro 2016 has reached the end of its first round of games and so far it has been a cagey, yet curios start to the tournament. Unfortunately, events off the field have gone some way to marring the enjoyment but events on the field have been enough to suggest all the ingredients of a memorable tournament are bubbling under the surface.

Goals haven’t exactly been free-flowing, Wales, France, Germany, Hungary and Italy are the only sides to score 2 goals so far in Euro 2016, but we are yet to witness a goalless draw. Using the full-backs to drive forward and provide width from diagonal balls has been a recurrent theme and no team, apart from Northern Ireland in their disappointing 1-0 defeat to Poland in Nice on Sunday, have set about to intentionally shut the opposition out.

In a championship where three teams can emerge from the group stage this has been refreshingly unexpected, with the majority of countries sensing that the 3 points that would go a long way to seeing them through is more attractive than holding out for a draw.

Swift counter-attacking was used effectively by Wales and Italy in their wins while Republic of Ireland nearly managed to steal a vital 3 points from Sweden by soaking up possession and quickly hitting their forward runners.

Hungary were maybe the most fruitful proponents of reeling a team in before stinging them, barely registering an attack in the first half against an off-colour Austria but growing into the contest in the second and finishing them off with two excellent goals.

Also in Group F came the most surprising result, Iceland, with a country population of around 335,000, managing to hold Portugal, complete with Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and co. to a 1-1 draw despite having their goal peppered with 21 shots compared to the 4 Lars Lagerback’s men managed to trouble Rui Patricio with. Still, defensive failings were all too aware and Portugal’s supremacy counted for nothing.

Ukraine were also dangerous on the break against Germany who had the brilliance of Manuel Neuer to largely thank for their opening win in Lille.

Joachim Low’s world champions had 68% of the ball in that game but it seems unlikely that the mercurial Toni Kroos, who made 112 passes as he ran the game from his midfield station, would have such an influential say against better opposition. However, holes in the German defence were apparent as Jerome Boateng had to clear off the line from Yehven Konoplyanka and Neuer was kept busy throughout the evening.

Bastian Schweinsteiger’s late break to finish off a deadly break up the field put the gloss on the night for Germany, but it set the tone for a Euro 2016 tournament in which no side has yet managed to send out a deadly statement of intent.

Spain saw even more of the ball than Germany in their victory over Czech Republic, seeing 72% of possession, but their lack of goals in attack, as Alvaro Morata toiled in vain as the spearhead striker, would become a concern to manager Vincent Del Bosque who required a late winner from defender Gerard Pique to get his defending champions off to a winning start.

The Czechs were content to sit back and absorb pressure for long periods and their faith that Spain’s defence could be exposed was nearly rewarded by a header from Theodor Gabre Selassie that required a goal-line intervention from Cesc Fabregas. Vladimir Darida also forced David De Gea into a superb save late on as La Roja clung on to a clean sheet.

On Monday night Italy, described as their “worst team for 50 years” ahead of the game by an Italian journalist, showed Belgium how team-ethic and solid organisation can win out over a litter of individual talent.

Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were denied space on the wings by the 3-5-2 of Antonio Conte and Belgium, with a stodgy midfield of Axel Witsel, Marouane Felliania and Radja Nianngollan, lacked the guile to break down Italy’s firm unit in central areas.

Still, however, Italy, regardless of how professional they were in Lyon, afforded them chances, surviving the late opportunities that fell to Divock Origi and Fellaini as crosses were launched into the box.

Similarly to Germany, the game was made safe late on through Graziano Pelle’s volley but there was no escaping the fact that even Juventus’s concrete quartet of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Gianluigi Buffon were made to look vulnerable against an admittedly sub-standard Belgium.

France had the excellent Dimitri Payet to thank for their opening Euro 2016 night’s win over Romania, the West Ham playmaker digging out a 25 yard curling winner to overcome Anghel Iordanescu’s plucky side who more than played their part in the curtain-raiser and indicated why France cannot be held among the favourites for this tournament yet.

Laurent Koscielny looked characteristically erroneous while Patrice Evra’s indecision cost a penalty, Les Bleus undermined by a defensive vulnerability they will have to address.

Meanwhile England eventually did pay for their defensive vulnerability, caving-in during stoppage time as Russia cranked up the pressure, but it was a deflating blow to an otherwise bright, innovative and confident performance from Roy Hodgson’s men.

England dominated for long spells in Marseille but lacked cutting edge and could not finish the game off after Eric Dier broke the deadlock, the main difference with other teams in this tournament is that England lacked the defensive maturity, or even the good fortune, to see them over the line.

All eyes will now move to Lens where Wales await on Thursday with Gareth Bale in top form and having shown on Saturday afternoon how effective their game-plan of rigid defending fused with hard running can be at this level.

Wales sat deep, narrow and defended as a team in the 2-1 win in Bordeaux, using the electric pace of Bale, the intelligence of Joe Allen and the creativity of Aaron Ramsey to move forward with threat.

England should have enough to negate that in Lens while also possessing enough to overcome Wales, if they maintain the standard of performance that gave cause for optimism in Marseille.

This time however they will need their own defence to hold firm in a Euro 2016 tournament in which seemingly no team can get a grip on dominance.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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