Thursday, June 28, 2012

Food for US thought at Euro 2012

Jurgen Klinsmann has been reporting on the European Championship for the BBC and no doubt picking up tips for his job as coach of the USMNT.

When I asked him last year in Brussels if he preferred playing European nations given his background, he paused for thought, before replying that every country has something to teach you. Three of the four semi-finalists at World Cup 2010 came from UEFA, so scouting here is essential for national team coaches.

Klinsmann seems relaxed and happy at the Euros, on sabbatical from US Soccer and catching up with many an old friend. It cannot hurt that the Mannschaft is on a roll, under the sound stewardship of his former assistant Jogi Low.

Watching the sixteen teams, the US coach will probably have noted some familiar virtues - the need for attacking ambition as well as a mean defence, and the value of mental strength in the knockout stages and penalty shoot-outs.

And some old vices - simulation, timewasting, feigning injury and the unpunished prevalence of shirt-tugging from certain nations. Plus the risk of injustice (in Europe at least) which remains the longer football drags its feet over video replays.

Klinsmann will also have seen the fruits of an overhauled youth system in his mother country, a process to which he contributed of course, and would dearly like to replicate in the United States. The USMNT coach did say how much fitter Italy looked than England, the advantage perhaps of a winter break and Serie A's top-notch conditioning.

The teams dominating the stats have dominated Euro 2012: Spain, Germany and Italy are one, two and three for possession, passes and shots on target, and while 4-3-2-1 is still ahead of 4-4-2, Spain reminded him it is also possible to play without a true striker.

Portugal showed how to upset the Spanish passing-game by pressing and squeezing the space, but failed to score and ran out of gas. The exquisite Andrea Pirlo proved the 'regista' (deep-lying playmaker) can still work, and the Azzurri as a whole the value of quick thrusts down the flanks and a speedy centre-forward hanging on the defence's last shoulder to combat catenaccio (all'inglese).

Mesut Ozil's ever-growing stature on the international stage confirms there is room for a creative mind in an organised system and that not every player must stick to a rigid role.

Klinsi will have enjoyed watching Germany steamroll their way through allcomers again, but as Euro 2012 draws towards the final, the spectacle as a whole has started to deteriorate.
Tournaments usually lose their sheen as teams play their fifth or six game in the heat and the quality of opposition and risk of elimination rises with each round. When the hosts are knocked out the atmosphere is turned down a notch as well.

After some entertaining clashes in Poland and Ukraine, the last two matches have been almost as gruelling to watch as to play in.

England started confidently enough against Italy but before long battened down the hatches and sacrificed the midfield to hold out for penalties. It almost worked, but it was not pretty viewing, more like Superman Pirlo v The Giant Foosball Team.

It is worth remembering England entered the tournament with no hope of advancement back home, so slaying their Swedish hoodoo won Roy Hodgson 51 million brownie points. But their lack of attacking ambition in the quarter-final and perennial inability to hold the ball for long has left a deep depression.

Last night's Portugal v Spain semi-final had all the ingredients for a tasty clash but as in World Cup 2010, the Iberian derby failed to catch fire, despite a gallant opening salvo from the Portuguese. The world champs were truly rattled, launching hopeful punts as their space for tiki-taka was strangled, while Alvaro Negredo's surprising inclusion ahead of Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres backfired.

Extra-time saw roles reversed and La Roja in charge again, their final flourish rewarded when Paulo Bento's team messed up their shoot-out tactics. But Portugal fly home with credit, having courageously tried to attack the big two, Germany and Spain.

Mental strength has been to the fore in Euro 2012. The Netherlands arrived a hot property but had their confidence cooled by an unlucky loss to Denmark and another defeat to old enemies Germany. By the time Portugal had overturned their early lead in Kharkiv, the Dutch were a shadow of themselves, collapsing in confidence and team spirit until they had given up the ghost.

France too came with high hopes but lost their heads in a dressing-room row after defeat to Ukraine. This fractured state of mind rolled over into their quarter-final with Spain, where fear ruled their tactics and they stumbled to a 2-0 exit, not helped by coach Laurent Blanc admitting at his pre-match press conference he was hoping to hold out for the first twenty minutes.

The Czechs meanwhile showed great presence of mind in recovering from a 4-1 mauling by the Russians to win their next two games before they forgot their self-belief and went safety-first against Portugal, man-marking Cristiano Ronaldo, who at last evaded his pursuers to net the winner.

Greece are the best example of  how far team spirit can take you. Inspired by 2004, Hellas was a David so aware of his limitations he had lost all fear of Goliath. The Greeks created the shock of the tournament in dumping Russia out and though ultimately outclassed in the quarter, still found the German net twice and were dangerous on the break. Defence was their Achilles' Heel.

Knowing a draw was not enough in their final group match, Slaven Bilic's Croatia stayed mentally strong and played a shrewd counter-attacking game against Spain. If Ivan Rakitic had aimed his second-half header at the net instead of Iker Casillas, they might have progressed and eliminated the world champs.

So how do you motivate players? Insert your own answer here.

There is nothing like victory to fill up the tanks of self-confidence, which probably explains Spain's ability to win while playing badly, or England freezing at shoot-outs. But how do you kick-start a winning run?

When Jay DeMerit played for Watford, manager Aidy Boothroyd was awash with ideas, including simulating a tense penalty shoot-out at the end of a home game, having grabbed a microphone and asked Hornets fans to jeer their own players.

Boothroyd was heavily inspired by Michael Lewis' Moneyball, and worked 24/7 on new ways to give his limited team an edge. Jay told me of a host of motivational speakers whisked into Vicarage Road but concluded all the confidence in the world could not make up for a lack of talent.

Among his Watford teammates then was Ashley Young, who was England's best player in qualifying for Euro 2012, but had a wretched tournament in Ukraine and fluffed his penalty against Italy on Sunday. Hodgson thought the tired legs and nerves at being watched by millions could not have been replicated in training.

Klinsmann will have a notebook stuffed full of ideas as he heads back to California, but I am sure keeping his squad happy during a tournament and instilling mental strength will be near the top of his list.

- Sean O'Conor


Unknown said...

By the by...
How does No Short Corners feel about all of Spain's short corners? :-)

Will Parchman said...

Think you can probably surmise the answer to that question.

dikranovich said...

its interesting, but italy and england had virtually identical records in pks, something like 3 wins and 7 or 8 loses. something had to give.