Attacking Style Pays Off

Euro 2008 is turning out to be quite a tournament. UEFA president Michel Platini has piled on the superlatives, calling it a competition of "exceptional quality, sizzling ... with dazzling individual performances."

A bit over the top Michel -- but not by much. I would dispute that the soccer has always been exceptional, but what the games seem to be giving us is a whole variety of dramatic incidents. Fresh in my mind right now is the amazing comeback from the dead by Turkey to beat the Czechs 3-2. A game that offered a rather pedestrian first half, but came to electrifying life in the second as the Turks threw everything they had -- every player, every muscle, every nerve, every skill -- into the one thing that could wipe out the two-goal lead that the Czechs had enforced. That one thing was, of course, non-stop attacking soccer.

It meant that the Turks took risks, that they flirted with disaster time and time again, but they never faltered, they kept the pressure on the Czechs, they just kept coming.

Yes, there's a lesson there -- but it's one that we already know, have known for years -- and it's one that we have, so far, been unable to apply. Simply this: the Turkey vs. Czech Republic game -- through the vagaries of the results in Group A turned -- quite accidentally, into a winner-takes-all game.

Generally, the group-stage games do not have that drama. And this has long been a huge fault of major tournaments. Calculation and caution have become a strong theme of such games. But no one is going to organize a tournament based solely on knockout games, in which a team might be required to travel half way round the world, only to be sent home after one game, one loss.

So the little four-team groupings, with their guarantee of a minimum of three games, persist. Platini's comment that "defensive tactics are nowhere to be seen" was hardly accurate. The Greeks were pathetically defensive in their first game against Sweden, while both host teams, Austria and Switzerland -- realizing their own frailty -- started play in defensive, counterattacking mode.

What has happened at Euro '08 is that the more attack-oriented teams have been successful. And not just the attack-minded teams -- but those teams that attack with flair and swagger. I mean Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. France and Italy have come over as tentative, aging teams, and in four games have scored just one goal each.

One would never accuse Germany of being a defensive team, but its offense has always been more bludgeon than rapier, rarely does it have a vibrant air to it. So far, the Croatians seem to have adopted that same German approach. Both are formidable teams, and their clash provided exactly the sort of game that I mentioned above -- a game of good, but hardly exceptional, soccer, but a game full of drama.

The Spanish -- well, we knew about Fernando Torres and David Villa, and they haven't disappointed. Spain's dismantling of Russia featured some of the most intricately skillful soccer so far. But Spain is Spain -- and while I applaud its brilliance, I, fearfully, await the by now traditional screw up. Portugal is right up there with Spain in the flair and artistry category -- and, for many, they have the same problem: they're unreliable. I wonder: is it an accident that this criticism is settled on the two Latin and more obviously flamboyant teams? Or are we looking at a genuine fact of tournament play, another facet -- like group-round play -- that tends to work against ambitious attacking teams?

So far, you wouldn't think so. And the proof comes from the remarkable Dutch. Where, suddenly, has this ebullient, joyous attacking play come from? It certainly was not evident during the qualifying round, when the Dutch managed only 15 goals in 12 games. If anything you'd have tagged defense as their strength, with only five goals conceded.

But here they are, a team full of skillful attacking players in most positions, intent on piling attacking pressure -- and maintaining that pressure -- on their opponents. The beauty of this -- in my eyes at least -- is that it looks so different from what we have become used to from the Dutch, who tended to play a rather formulaic soccer. This team, Marco van Basten's team, has a flowing freedom to it that I have never seen from the Dutch. Even -- maybe particularly -- the famous total soccer teams of the 1970s were structured teams. It was the mercurial presence of Johan Cruyff that gave the appearance of constant improvisation. Without Cruyff, total soccer was a different matter -- the difference was clear between the brilliance of the 1974 team, and the Cruyff-less and much more physical 1978 team.

On Thursday, the quarterfinals begin, and Euro 2008 becomes a knockout tournament. Which ought to mean a succession of even more dramatic games, as the Damoclean sword of elimination hangs over each team. But the possibility of a penalty-kick shootout also hangs over these games, and it is far from unknown for teams to play with elaborate caution, preferring the lottery of a shootout to the risks of committing themselves to attacking soccer.

The possible dampening effect of the shootout may be a problem ... but one is entitled to be optimistic. Among the eight remaining teams will be Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. As none of those can meet in the quarterfinals, the prospects are good for both exciting soccer and dramatic games. But if it's drama that's wanted, the Turks are still alive -- and Croatia will have to be prepared for the Turkish heroics that produced a 93rd minute winner against the Swiss, and that incredible three-goals-in-fourteen-minutes comeback against the Czechs.

In short, this is a tournament that, so far, has abundantly rewarded attacking play. Such has been the overwhelming image of goalscoring, that it comes as a surprise to realize that the goals-per-game average of Euro 2008, so far, is 2.56 - only marginally better than the 2.48 achieved four years ago when the grimly defensive Greeks ruled the roost.


1 comment about "Attacking Style Pays Off".
  1. Rob Schneiderman, June 16, 2008 at 11:35 a.m.

    The Euro has been excellent so far, and I think that Michel Platini might indeed deserve some credit: It appears that the referees have been instructed to (1) give the attacking team the benefit of the doubt on close offsides positions, (2) give yellow cards for complaining about calls, (3) give red cards for any retaliation. The players must have also been informed of this, as there has been minimal dissent and a healthy amount of sportsmanship -- all with no lack of commitment. Let's hope this continues!

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