Tourney tactics chain Euro while soccer sparkles in New Jersey friendly

By Paul Gardner

We've now seen all 16 of the teams competing in Euro 2012, and it seems a pretty fair comment to remark that none of them on the form so far displayed deserves to win it.

We’re still waiting for a team that displays confidence and flair ... and good soccer. And we’re still waiting for a game that displays the sport at its best, at its most skillful, at its most exciting. In other words, a game worthy of a tournament that purports to put on the field 16 of the world’s elite teams.

Not that things have been dull -- there have been plenty of incidents and controversial moments. It’s just that there hasn’t been much exceptional soccer.

Quite possibly, that is entirely down to the structure of these tournaments -- the four-team group arrangement, which really means that for each team, the competition boils down to an initial three-game affair ... and woe betide any team that loses its first game.

The stats are pretty clear. There have been four Euro championships since it adopted the 3-points-for-a-win system in 1996. They have featured 23 teams that have lost their first game; of these, 15 failed to advance to the next (quarterfinal) round. A 64 percent failure rate. In fact, of those 23 teams, 12 ended up in last place in their opening round group. Of the 22 teams that won their first games, 16 advanced -- a 73 percent success rate.

A set of stats that might suggest that the priority for that first game is to make sure that it isn’t lost. Playing cautiously for a tie seems to be indicated. In fact, that wouldn’t help much, according to the stats -- of the 18 teams that tied their first games, only 7 advanced -- a failure rate of 61 percent, only slightly lower than that of teams that lost their opening game.

The stats are clear -- but you can bet that Italy and Spain, and France and England, and Poland and Greece all of whom tied their games, are feeling, if not totally satisfied, at least relieved. Of those six teams, only one -- England -- was evidently playing for a draw. The others did their best to win, but in a rather cautious let’s-not-lose sort of way.

So tactics have dominated, as they always tend to do in tournaments these days, and tactical games are never wildly exciting. Russia of course, with its 4-1 romp over the Czechs can be excused of being overly tactical -- this was a spirited, attacking performance, a team that maintained throughout a commitment to attacking soccer. We wait to find out, in the next games, whether the Czechs are as poor as they looked.

As for Ireland, I can’t imagine that any amount of waiting is going to improve its chances. I suppose that every tournament contains at least one team that leaves you wondering just how it ever qualified -- and that distinction surely belongs to Ireland in Euro 2012. A woeful performance that made a very ordinary Croatian team look like a threat for the title.

If the soccer has left a great deal to desire, there was a wonderful ending to this first batch of eight games, in the game that saw Ukraine come from a goal down to beat Sweden. Came the hour, came the man -- in the shape of the 35-year-old Ukrainian captain Andriy Shevchenko. With two superbly headed goals, Shevchenko claimed the win for his country ... and there can have been few more emotionally satisfying results than this one, few more deserving heroes than the modest Shevchenko, nearing the end of an outstanding career, one that would surely have been even more glittering but for repeated injuries.

Tactics will continue to overshadow performances throughout the rest of the first round of Euro 2012. When the quarterfinals begin, on June 21, things get more straightforward; from that point on, we should see games -- there will be seven of them -- in which the two teams take the field with the one aim of winning. But the sport has allowed itself to slide into a negative mindset in which cautious and defensive play is still likely to dominate, even in the knockout stage. And the absurdity of the shootout tiebreaker -- which can also encourage teams to play for a tie -- is not helpful.

Just last week, over in New Jersey, we got a thrilling reminder of just what we miss out on, of just how the life is squeezed out of the sport, when negative tactics enter the picture.

The occasion was an exhibition game between Argentina and Brazil. I attended not necessarily expecting anything great -- I’ve seen enough games between these old rivals to know that they can be sublime, or they can be dreadful, and anything in between. And we all know about exhibition games, which often barely qualify as real games as the teams are on holiday, the players don’t really exert themselves ... and all those substitutions.

This time it all worked like a charm. No hesitation -- this was the best exhibition game I’ve ever seen. Tremendous atmosphere -- over 81,000 fans, half for Brazil, half for Argentina, or so it seemed.

And of course there was something special -- or potentially special -- about this one. A matchup between the Argentine Lionel Messi, the reigning genius of soccer, and the young Brazilian Neymar, who is staking a claim to be the next great world star. Messi, all 5-foot-7 of him, and Neymar, something of a giant at 5-9.

The game was special. Very, very special. Was this soccer “they way it used to be”? Maybe -- though memory plays all sorts of tricks. Anyway, who cares -- this was soccer the way it ought to be played. Open, flowing, full of smoothly executed skills, thrills at each end ... and there were end products. We got seven goals, each one more beautiful than the one before. Consider how the scoreline kept changing. The first goal came after 22 minutes: Brazil 1 Argentina 0 -- then 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3 ... and so this superb game was poised at 3-3 with just over 15 minutes to go. Messi had already delivered two terrific goals, maneuvering the ball so quickly, so slickly, shooting with such deadly precision. Neymar had been lively throughout, involved in two of Brazil’s goals, and unlucky not to get a penalty kick at the half-hour mark.

At 3-3 the game was there to be won, and the inescapable thought was that it would be either Messi or Neymar who would settle matters. Messi it was, with an electrifying golazo to seal his hat trick, and to dispose of the old enemy Brazil, 4-3.

Now that’s an exhibition game scoreline -- 4-3. An indication of a game that had shaken off its tactical chains, a reminder that goalscoring is the essential, almost the magic, ingredient of any soccer game. It is not a pleasurable trip from the non-stop excitement of that 4-3, to the calculated aridity of the 1-1 ties between Spain and Italy, and England and France.

Yet we will be told -- and it’s perfectly logical -- that the free-flowing 4-3 scoreline cannot be taken seriously, and that those taut 1-1 ties are the real game. What a ridiculous contradiction of the sport’s most precious values.

15 comments about "Tourney tactics chain Euro while soccer sparkles in New Jersey friendly".
  1. Millwall America, June 12, 2012 at 8:51 a.m.

    I struggle a bit with the attitude displayed here. Surely if you want an open, flowing game with lots of goals, you should be watching basketball? In basketball, each team will frequently score 50 or more goals a game (100+ points) and scorelines of 112-110 are not unheard of. Surely those games must be much more exciting than even the 4-3 clash between Argentina and Brazil? What's that you say? What you're talking about is different? Tell me how. Now that would be an interesting column.

  2. Mark Edge, June 12, 2012 at 8:57 a.m.

    I think M.Gardner has of course missed the point again. We all know that if it's not Barcelona or 1970 Brazil it's not worth a fig. But even his model of the Spanish National team are so obsessed with passing in the midfield they forgot to field a striker.
    Nation passion for our teams takes precedent over tactics. I doubt the Greeks noted that they won the tournament but lament the fact that they did it without playing the beautiful game. Ukraine will remember Shevchenko rolling back the years to win it for the home team.
    No-one will remember completed passes in the attacking third, just the absolute joy and euphoria when your country scores.
    Gardner is a man without a country so we shouldn't be surprised at his rhetoric.

  3. Kent James, June 12, 2012 at 9:37 a.m.

    All games are not created equal, and PG is right; a game in which both teams are actively trying to score (whether they are successful or not) is much more exciting than a game in which at least one team is trying not to lose (tension is not that same as excitement). I've seen many of the opening round games, and I've generally been disappointed. Yes, teams want to win, and it most fans will take a boring win over an exciting loss, but PG's point is that we need to structure the game so that teams have an incentive to attack, rather than one to defend. I've been a defender all of my life, so I value good defense, but good offense is what makes the game interesting. The role of good defense is to make the offense better, force them to be amazing to score. I would have loved to have been at the Brazil-Argentina game. Although there are entertaining 0-0 games, they're rare. I've not seen too many 4-3 games that I thought were boring.

  4. frank passalaqua, June 12, 2012 at 10:38 a.m.

    PG; I am glad you described the "friendly" with such color. I was lucky to be in the 5th row. I was lucky to witness a glow in my 8 year old son's eyes seeing his hero Messi. The crowd , the passsion, the respect that was shown by Brazil fans to my son who had a Messi jersey on. The skills, the passing, the hard tackles the saves. It was the greatest sporting event of my life, which includes Super Bowls, playoffs of all sports etc..
    England yesterday fell back to defend it was obvious and boring to a point. I had the game on in the office with a bunch of regular/hardcore sports fans. They were complaining,saying the Mets are more fun to watch. That is exrteme to me but they had a valid point since they dont 'get' soccer. If they saw the Arg v Bra game they would have been educated,and suprised by that match.

  5. Bill Anderson, June 12, 2012 at 2:08 p.m.

    I hope the USA win tonight in Guatemala, they should do whatever it takes tonight.

  6. Ramon Creager, June 12, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.

    Excellence in soccer is multi-faceted, not one-dimensional. Good defense, good goalkeeping, good tactics, are just as much a part of the game as offensive prowess. I enjoy watching a great 'keeper make a good save as much as I enjoy a good goal. (That 1-1 draw between Italy and Spain was quite a good game!) As long as something big is at stake it is inevitable that weaker teams will play for draws. Deal. The stronger teams will just have to show why they are stronger, won't they?

  7. Ken Jamieson, June 12, 2012 at 6:32 p.m.

    This game was proof that a 90-minute match can have epic goal-scoring and brilliant goal-keeping in the same game. If you did not watch the game you cannot understand the sheer artistry that was on display in this game.
    The goals, for the most part, we the product of hard work and industry with a bit of flair and guile. I would be hard pressed to fault either keeper on more than one goal.
    This is what is meant by total soccer, playing full out for the entire 90, not taking "breaks" by back passing or "probing" but actually moving left to right and counterattacking immediately off a turnover.
    Anyone who did not derive pleasure from watching this game will never understand Joga Bonita.

  8. Carlos Thys, June 13, 2012 at 2:17 a.m.

    At Euro 2012 all I see is non-stop fouling that interrupts any rhythm in the game that any one player or team might try to achieve. (Count just the number of times an opponent steps on another's boot -- as just one diagnostic measurement -- remembering that we only get to see what the camera reveals to us) Ten Euro 2012 matches of nothing but cynical play done to disrupt, achieve a very minimal result or just not look bad, i.e. not look shown up as a streaking player with ball blazes past. Also a lot of very poor skills on display, e.g. shooting on goal. All we see is herky-jerky at best, a whistle stopping play for something / anything on average every 47 seconds. And a lot of the fouling seems welcomed by both sides as they all show the international body language of fatigue -- even almost disinterest. How many fast restarts have you witnessed? In summary: We're all being ripped off -- and not for the first time in this UEFA / FIFA level of tournaments. This is all a sham. Example: This last game featured Poland and Russia mostly stumbling around in the last 38 minutes of the second half. C'mon, sad to say but true. This is all rigged, folks. The Russians stopped playing (and practically invited the equalizer) after Poland's Kuba scored. I think that the betting houses in Asia with millions on each match now do far more to determine these outcomes than any of us ever imagine. I agree with Mr. Gardner. Maybe the betting houses really don't give as much out to friendlies like Argentina-Brazil in New Jersey. Highlights from that East Rutherford match looked significantly more interesting than anything at Euro 2012.

  9. Carlos Thys, June 13, 2012 at 3:23 a.m.

    One would be very hard pressed to convert an "unbeliever" or "doubter" to the game of football / soccer on the merits of what has been "on display" at Euro 2012. Yet this is what we now get every time there is a "big tournament." Name six games of the 64 at South Africa 2010 that left you breathless? (or truly craving more) Surely there are six, right? And we all watched dozens of South Africa matches -- yet only a very few really stand out as one's you'd ever -- ever -- play again in a DVD player. Also: Fans are not so fooled -- anymore. Note all the empty seats. Possibly 5,000+ seats! went empty in the France-England match. I believe there have only been four sellouts so far (two with Poland, one with Ukraine). This is probably one key reason why we'll see Poland AND the Ukraine at least make it one more step. To an extent, I understand caution at these tournaments. After all, on Saturday we'll already bid farewell to two departees from Group A, two more on Sunday from Group B. For all 16 participants, it is only a seven day span from one's first game to either going home or onward. Seven days is a pitifully short time after two years of build-up. Nonetheless, (for the moment ignoring my thoughts on the massive betting and rigging behind all this), one would expect to see more vigor and will to win and push on the pitches. Example: Didn't the Czechs stop almost all meaningful forward movement once up with two goals against the Greeks? (I'll admit, I dozed off during this rebroadcast at about the 70th minute.) I missed nothing in the last 20 minutes; according to reports both Greeks and Czechs were pathetic.

  10. Brian Something, June 13, 2012 at 8:01 a.m.

    Gardner highlights the fundamental difficulty soccer has in this country. The more important games, the ones that mean that most (the ones the average fan is most likely to watch) are the games that are most likely to be mind-numbingly boring and suffocated with tactics. The most beautiful games to watch are the ones that mean nothing (this is why the 3rd place games at World Cups and continental tournaments tend to be such open matches) and thus are least likely to be watched by a mass audience. Open soccer doesn’t mean there has to be a lot, or even any goals. It does mean that both teams are trying to score. It means there’s meaningful action. I know wanting open soccer is considered “unsophisticated” but tough cookies. Millwall America can have his preference for “work rate” and “getting stuck in” that involve little skill, flair and creativity. Gardner’s allowed his preferences too. It’s a cliche that the hardest thing in soccer is to score a goal. Shouldn’t we want to see the exceptional? I do.

  11. beautiful game, June 13, 2012 at 9:29 a.m.

    Paul has some good points, but it's safe to say that exhibitions mean nothing and the players are more relaxed. And if they have the spirit, they will produce entertaining soccer. Definitely, the coaches have nothing on the line and there are no tactical restrictions.

  12. Andres Yturralde, June 13, 2012 at 10:13 a.m.

    Exactly, IwN, I couldn't have said it better myself. Although I'd have to insist that there has been a lot of spirit and entertainment in Euro 2012. And the streets keep reminding me that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

  13. Ramon Creager, June 13, 2012 at 11:10 a.m.

    Carlos, totally agree about the constant fouling. I don't know what the refs were told; all I know is that the number of elbows, forearms to neck, foot stompings, leg-whipping tackles, cleat-rakings that are going unpunished by a card is quite frankly a bit shocking. In the Russia-Poland match referee Wolfgang Stark was far far too lenient, allowing foul play that should have garnered a card to go unpunished time and again. My wife said "Those Russians need to stay up!" and I would say "watch the replay." And sure enough, there was a card-worthy foul that went unpunished. In one particularly egregious sequence Stark indicated 'play-on' after a Russian foray forward was ended when the player was scythed down in what was clearly gross foul play, then turned around and gave the player a card for dissent. Pop quiz: what's going to happen next? A: Retaliation and escalation. This, and the earlier match between the Czech Republic and Greece, were probably the worst, but other matches have followed this pattern. Fans and commentators must take some of the blame, of course. If referees try to clamp down on this one inevitably hears the wails about "card-happy refs", and how the ref is depriving the fans of the chance to see their favorite thug. This is wrong. The players have a responsibility to play within the rules. If they cannot stay on the field, their managers should perhaps rethink using them.

  14. Brian Something, June 13, 2012 at 11:12 a.m.

    One thing I’ll add, though, is that if an Argentina-Brazil match in World Cup qualifiers, Copa America or World Cup produces this open and entertaining a match, then I’ll be impressed.

  15. Carlos Thys, June 14, 2012 at 7:35 a.m.

    Mr. R. Craeger: Excellent comments above. What is always instructive to me is the true total minutes played out of 90. Thankfully UEFA is measuring this, placing it on their website PDFs / each match report. We of the general public can view this key stat at UEFA dot com. What one sees is too typical; only 61, 62 minutes actually played out of the 90. Sorry, as a consumer this is unacceptable. I had the blessing and opportunity to play at high enough levels and experienced plenty of rough play, but my time proceeded the routine elbows to chin, cheek, jaw and skull, the face slaps done purposefully in the direction of nose & eyes, and the ubiquitous ramming of elbows and forearms (now fists too) into the center of the opponent's back. I've lost entire half years to the sport having bones broken in my feet from purposeful stomps and studs in. My ankles would never survive what is today just par for the course. Ergo, I would have found another sport. This modern game at this highest level is in complete disarray. The thugs prevail, and they've made their deeds an art form. Any player not abiding by this is considered weak, unfit and will not see major club or national team selection. I do believe that we will see the first serious spinal chord injury within the next year; it will be considered "serious" and given attention ONLY because it will be on a major "world class player." [I really do find it odd that so much attention was given to that Bolton player who collapsed, nearly died in April in the English Premiership match with Tottenham Spurs. It is great to see all the concern for his welfare and health. Why does this not extend to craniums and spinal chords in the weekly fray we are now served up in every big stadium?] It will indeed take placing a player into paralysis and permanent wheelchair condition to have any hope of slight on field behavior changes. I am also seeing referees err repeatedly on advantage calls (any good ref, using his linesmen and the two on the goal lines with their hand-held walkie talkies can later walk up and card or verbally reprimand the offender -- LATER). Mr. Craeger, you would be most interested to know that three of Germany's top officials at this UEFA tournament and who were live in the stadium for referee Wolfgang Stark's management of the Poland-Russia match gave him assessment scores in writing: They awarded Stark absolute superlative marks. (I more agree with you.) In this last match I was dismayed when the Swedish referee did not yellow card Thomas Mueller for slicing into the heel of the Dutch player in the second half. This was terribly obvious. This sport at this highest level is not really sport and has nothing any more to do with 'Fair Play.' What this means is we viewers, pay-per-view customers, and live ticket holders see a perverted product, one that is not worth viewing because it no longer delivers the slightest chance for skills, rapid end to end, and flow.

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