New TSG contributor and co-director of operations for the Pali Blues, Zach Goldman, gives us ONE HELL OF A PREVIEW for group B
There are ‘Groups of Death’ and then there are Groups of DEATH (thank you, Microsoft Word, for making this moment of eloquence possible). Euro 2012′s Group B is the latter. This is a group so monstrously packed with talent that it looks like soccer’s version of The Expendables. There are more fireworks on display here than you can shake a stick at (if you shook sticks at fireworks), so let’s get started. Below is my preview of this behemoth of a group, comprised of Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, and Denmark.
Breaking down the group
Germany and Holland are everyone’s pick to advance out of this group—and I’m not going to shy away from that. I see the Germans topping the table and Holland finishing second behind them—but it will not be easy for either. Portugal and Denmark should bring up the rear, in that order.
The Germans line up in Joachim Löw’s standard 4-2-3-1, much as they did two years ago in South Africa. They are at their best when they are given space to move the ball and are scariest to the opposition when they flow seamlessly into their deadly counterattack. You can see it best in the 4-1 win over England in the Round of 16 two summers ago, when the German counterattack looked like a swarm of killer bees running Gordon Bombay’s patented Flying-V. They are extremely organized, patient, and committed to their system—all things that mean this supremely talented and unselfish group has likely only scratched the surface of their potential. We may very well see their best football yet in this tournament.
The Germans have grown over the past two years into a side that plays much more comfortably in possession. It is a growth that can be seen throughout their perfect qualifying cycle—particularly in the maturation of the central midfield core of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mesut Özil. Özil, in particular, has developed an absolutely deadly final ball over the past two years while playing for Real Madrid—and on a team with the likes of Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Müller, and Mario Gomez (okay, not Mario Gomez) lurking in the attacking third, he could be very dangerous this summer.
Germany is a young team, yes (an average age of just 24.5), but the core of the squad is experienced—except at center-back. Readers of this particular blog, with its proclivity towards attracting a readership of American soccer fans, will be particularly sensitive to how critical this can be for a national team, but more on that later. The bottom line: The squad Löw has brought to Ukraine is certainly the most promising and talented he has had since entering the set-up eight years ago as Jürgen Klinsmann’s number two. They are joint-favorites with Spain to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy—and with very good reason. Their first choice side is scary enough to play against, but even more frightening is the fact that their bench will be loaded with the likes of Toni Kroos, Mario Götze, André Schürrle, and İlkay Gündoğan—all stars in the Bundesliga and all 22 and below. They’re fantastic now, but there’s no telling how bright the future is for German football. That said, even though they should win this group, they would be silly to look past their early opponents.
One of those opponents is Holland, who I’m picking to finish second in the group. This is not Marco van Basten’s Brilliant Orange that we saw in the last Euros, but the disciplined and hard-nosed (read: dirty) Dutch that we saw in South Africa. Though Spain will be remembered as the champions in 2008, it was van Basten’s men who played the most beautiful football (shout-out to Adrian Healey’s unforgettable line “It’s a Dutch Oven and the French are toast,” which will never, ever leave my mind when I think of that glorious display of attacking soccer served up to Les Bleus). Holland brilliantly counterattacked, steamed forward in droves, and decisively finished their chances—truly becoming The Flying Dutchmen on the pitch and supplying a performance that looked a lot like Germany’s in the World Cup two years later.
Under manager Bert van Marwijk, however, the Netherlands are much more steel than silk. Though they operate out of a 4-2-3-1 and they still score goals (37 in qualifying, the highest on the continent), their system is extremely regimented. It may be the same formation as Germany’s, but it is by no means a house of free-flowing, attacking football. Positional responsibilities are paramount (in a way that would make Rinus Michels cry), two holding midfielders are preferred, and the ball is moved pragmatically and calculatedly (often to creativity’s detriment). Yes, they are a more attacking-minded side now than in 2010—something that was particularly apparent during Nigel de Jong’s brief international absence after being dropped for his horror tackle on Newcastle midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa—but one still gets the same feeling watching Van Marwijk’s Holland in attack as one does watching American Pie when it’s shown on cable: there’s more that you’re not showing me.
If it sounds antithetical for the team with the most attacking verve in the tournament along with Spain and Germany to play this way, that’s because, to some degree, it is. It is important, however, to note that the Netherlands were one Arjen Robben breakaway finish away from lifting the World Cup by playing this way—and that Van Basten’s Holland were sent crashing out in Basel four years ago after being hypnotized in defense by the spritely Andrei Arshavin. It should also be noted that Holland are experimenting with finding a more forward-thinking balance in center midfield, particularly with the way they have begun to partner the attacking-minded Rafael van der Vaart with Mark van Bommel in the middle of the park.
Holland’s real weakness is, like Germany, at the back. The heart of the Dutch defense is a partnership between Everton’s player of the season in Johnny Heitinga and Málaga’s Joris Mathijsen. Heitinga is a capable marker and helped anchor what was actually a very decent backline this year on Merseyside. He is also, however, a converted defensive midfielder and still suffers, much like similar cases in Johan Djourou (or, for you Major League Soccer fans, Carlos Mendes), from a tendency to dive into challenges (often dangerously so) and concedes his fair share of bad fouls. More importantly, especially for the purposes of Group B, Heitinga is only 5’11” and has undeniably struggled in the air in the past. I wouldn’t expect this to change much against the likes of Klose, Gomez, and Denmark’s Nicklas Bendtner.
The other half of the partnership is Mathijsen, who has been a mainstay in the Dutch defense for some time now. I use the word ‘mainstay’, however, much as I would use the term to describe The Steve Harvey Show in the WB Network’s lineup throughout the late 90s—it’s okay, but you’d really want something else there if you could have the choice. Who knows, though, if Mathijsen will even play at all during the tournament as he deals with a hamstring injury. Wilfred Bouma and Ron Vlaar are waiting in the wings and will battle for the spot should it open up. Vlaar may have helped his cause with a goal and a strong performance in a 6-0 victory over Northern Ireland in the squad’s final tune-up.
The biggest problem, though, comes at left back, where Holland have not found a solution since Giovanni “Oh my God, no he didn’t, yes he did, goodnight Cape Town” van Bronckhorst retired following his World Cup swansong. Erik Pieters of PSV initially looked slated to fill the void for this tournament, but pulled out of the squad after fracturing a metatarsal in his right foot. After Pieters, the pickings are slim. Jetro Willems, also of PSV, who is actually second-choice to Pieters in Eindhoven, is likely to get the nod—and here’s the part where I tell you that he is 18 years old (EIGHTEEN! Full disclosure: I’m only 21, but I’m old enough to know what crazy young looks like). Willems only has two caps to his name—both earned in tune-ups this past month. As tasty as Holland look to be in attack, the question marks undoubtedly remain at the back
Nevertheless, I expect Holland to qualify for the next round right behind Germany.
The Portuguese found their way into the Group of Death for their second tournament in a row—and are really up against it. They are not a very different squad from the one they sent to the World Cup, but they do have a new manager now in Paulo Bento, who has really emphasized playing a 4-3-3 that is focused on attacking football.
The Portuguese system is unique—especially going forward—as it consists of two world-class wingers flanking a pretty average striker. You have some guy named Ronaldo on one side, a bloke named Nani on the other—and then Hugo Almeida or Helder Postiga front and center. Look for Almeida or Postiga to win balls, hold them up to build numbers into the attack, and then knocking them back, out wide, or through the holes of the backline. Neither has brilliant vision, but it won’t necessarily take Xavi (or even Tomáš Rosický) to send Ronnie or Nani clean through on goal. Raul Meireles, João Moutinho, and Miguel Veloso form a capable midfield trio, but they represent a problem that will resonate all too well with US Men’s National Team fans reading this—a classic example of trying to get your best players into the midfield, rather than the right ones. All three are decent passers and ball-winners, but there is no evidence of a true playmaker in the squad. Gone are the days of Rui Costa—and, boy, the things he would do with talent like this. The back is solid with the fantastic Fabio Coentrão on the left and a centre-back pairing of the powerful (again, read: dirty) Pepe and Bruno Alves. What’s new is the presence on the right, a guy by the name of João Pereira, who, at the fresh age of 28, has finally found himself starting for his country. Unearthed by Bento at the beginning of the qualifying cycle, Pereira rose to prominence at Sporting Lisbon the past two years and has recently signed for Valencia. Between the sticks is another Bento discovery, Rui Patricio.
I can’t see Portugal getting out of this group—only because they come up against extraordinary Germany and Holland sides. They must find a creative force within the 23 to put teams like that on the back foot by fully unlocking Ronaldo and Nani. If they can do that, who knows how far they can go.
Pretend this tournament takes place 100 years ago. We’re the delegation representing the Danish Football Association at the tournament’s draw and we have to return home with the results. I probably wouldn’t. And, if I did, I would have two words for my team: “Holy crap.” And then two more: “Buckle up.”
To be honest, though, Denmark should have fun with this group as they are used to punching above their weight. They run a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-1-3, depending on how far into the attack wingers Michael Krohn-Dehli and Dennis Rommedahl get. Nicklas Bendtner has a knack at playing well for the national team when he needs to—especially now that he is supported by Christian Eriksen in attacking midfield (more on him later). Though their attack may look downright impotent compared to the rest of the group, they are a team that relies on going forward to keep their opponents at bay. They must take their chances when they get them. Look Denmark to push the pace of things, even if it leaves them exposed at the back.
That shouldn’t be that much of an issue given the team’s predilection to deploy two holding midfielders in Niki Zimling and William Kvist, who really stay rooted to their spots on the pitch like Viking versions of Makélélé. As Eriksen pours forward, they stay back—and it is a defensive dedication and balance that will come in handy against teams like Germany, who run such a swift counterattack. Denmark possess a backline that those who watched them two years ago will be familiar with—from left-to-right: Simon Poulsen, Daniel Agger, Simon Kjaer, and Lars Jacobsen. In goal, they are forced to deploy Stephan Andersen, rather than the usual Thomas Sørensen—but, again, more on that later.
Denmark probably won’t get out of this group, but I have a feeling they will surprise people with some very entertaining football. Unfortunately, three games on the run with opposition this tough is a hard ask. Expect at least one reasonably bad loss.
Predictions for the tournament
I’m picking Germany to bring home the cup. They are a trendy pick at the moment—perhaps even more than Spain—but I think they just have too much firepower and too many wonderful options if for any reason they aren’t clicking right away. The state of the backline is concerning and a Spanish side with a healthy Puyol and Villa would win this thing in my opinion—but, in their absence, I’ll stick with Die Mannschaft.
I will now say one thing that I will probably laugh at in about two weeks’ time: Do not count England out. They will not win it all, but they will have a much better run than people expect. It has nothing to do with low expectations and everything to do with Roy Hodgson. If there is one person who can ‘Rehhagel’ them to the semis or the final, it’s him. I think sitting two matches will do to Rooney what it did to Arshavin four years ago and the man will be an animal when he comes out against the Ukrainians. A rigid 4-4-2 gives England the shape they need to stay in every match—and maybe Roy has some Fulham magic left that can take over from there.
The second round of fixtures in this group pits together the pool’s two best storylines. Germany v. Holland and Denmark v. Portugal.
I’ll limit my discussion of Germany v. Holland to the rivalry’s sporting significance—and, really, it is one of the best in classic soccer rivalries. What’s more, we have a role reversal of classic footballing stereotypes. The Germans now in many ways embody the attacking freedom of Total Football and the Dutch play with the organization and physicality of the German sides of yore. Here’s hoping this clash of styles brings us a match that is worthy of being put next to the 1974 World Cup Final or the semifinal matchup of Euro ’88.
In Denmark v. Portugal, we have an emerging rivalry with two nations that can’t get enough of each other. These teams encountered one another in qualifying for both the 2010 World Cup and this tournament, and, despite a noticeable gulf in their reputations around the world of soccer, it was the Scandinavians who topped the qualifying group on both occasions.
Denmark, in addition to leaving strollers outside and having delicious hot dog vans on its squeaky clean streets, has a reputation for its national squad’s great team spirit. Morten Olsen has referred to this as his team’s defining feature in the run-up to the tournament—and, oh yeah, by the way, he’s in his 12th year in the job. This guy is everything Bruce Arena has ever wanted to be and more. He’s such a prominent figure in the national set-up that the media have been known to call the national team ‘Olsen’s Eleven’. This emphasis on team spirit is nothing new for Denmark, whose Euro-winning squad in 1992 was widely praised for being a team that was more than the sum of its parts—a theme that this Denmark team will have to tap into if it is to somehow escape a group so difficult.
Portugal carries, in many ways, the exact opposite reputation as a squad lacking a cohesive team ethos. The Portuguese are famous for failing to make their individual positional dominance count (particularly in the attacking third)—and many explain this phenomenon by citing their lack of togetherness. Pundits have also long branded Portugal as an offensive juggernaut, but, in reality, their positive performances in recent major championships have usually been the product of decent defense. It is the attack, surprisingly, that has suffered (in games not against North Korea)—and manager Paulo Bento has sought to fix that. He might start by taking a page from Olsen’s book and forcing his charges to play as a team first and individuals second.
Players to Keep an Eye On
This section is not necessarily about a team’s best or most important player as much as a player whose positive performance will be central to his nation’s success in the group. Let’s start with the Germans:
Germany: Center-back #2 (Per Mertesacker/Mats Hummels)
One thing looks certain in Germany’s center of defense: Holger Badstuber will start. With Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker partnered together, the German backline was ripped to shreds by Eren Derdiyok and Switzerland, looking disorganized and flat-footed in a 5-3 defeat. Yes, Löw was without eight Bayern Munich players who were out on club duty (including Badstuber), but the loss was nevertheless a jarring reality check about Germany’s defensive options.
Mertesacker looks the more likely of the two to start at center-back, but he faces concerns about both fitness and form. He is coming off a dismal start to his career at Arsenal and only recently returned from an ankle injury he suffered in February. His speed and agility, which even by hulking center-back standards are less than impressive, have come under criticism in the past year—and especially since the Switzerland game. While Hummels was able to find the net in that friendly, his marks were also quite low on the defensive end of things. Unlike Mertesacker, he is actually coming off a stellar double-winning season at Dortmund (where he partnered with Neven Subotić), but he has not yet been able to consistently translate that Bundesliga form to the national team—or even top-tier European competition in the Champions League.
It is not yet clear who Löw will start when Germany take the field in Lviv for their opening match against Portugal. Whether Mertesacker or Hummels, whoever it is will need to be on top form to keep the clinical strikers of the Group of Death at bay. If they don’t, the ball will be in the net faster than you can say ‘Derdiyok’.
Netherlands: Robin van Persie
As the PFA Player of the Year and Premier League top goalscorer, Robin van Persie has had a banner year by all accounts. And nothing could increase the value of his next contract or transfer fee (err, I mean ‘cap it off better’…) than a stellar performance at the Euros. If Van Persie can exhibit that same magic touch he has had at Arsenal this season, there’s no telling how far he can take this Dutch team. It goes beyond sheer finishing as well, as I’m sure Robin will relish the chance to lay the ball off (as much as he ever does ‘lay the ball off’) to Arjen Robben and Ibrahim Afellay after a year of chance after chance spurned by the likes of Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin on the flanks.
Portugal: Ronaldo (Duh.)
I’m really sorry. I wish I could offer you something more creative or tactically interesting than just talking about Ronaldo. The reality, though, is that Ronaldo is the key to Portugal’s fate in this tournament—and, intriguingly enough, this tournament is in some ways the key to Ronaldo’s own fate as a legend of the game. European glory this summer would go a long way for the Madrid star’s legacy, starting with a Balon d’Or and an acknowledgement that he was able to bring the international triumph that the likes of Eusebio and Figo could not. Of course, we could talk about any one of the other big names in the lineup, from Pepe to Nani, but Ronaldo is clearly the x-factor. He must show up for Portugal to have any chance of getting through this group. If he ‘goes Ronaldo’ on everyone, who knows what success might follow (Author’s note: ‘Going Ronaldo on everyone’ refers to the soccer version of the Kobe Bryant underbite—the ‘I’m rolling up my shorts and pointing to my Iberico ham haunch of a thigh’ mindset that Ronaldo gets into. It refers to that moment where you meditatively concede to yourself that this man, as much as you may dislike him, might just be right—that this is his world and we just live in it. Messi has made my jaw drop hundreds of times with his goals, but when Ronaldo ‘goes Ronaldo’ on everyone, it is an entirely different brand of “Oh my God”).
Denmark: Stephan Andersen (honorable mention: Christian Eriksen)
I could use this space to talk about Christian Eriksen, the youngest player at the last World Cup and up-and-coming midfield maestro for Ajax and Denmark. He is only 20, but already considered to be the second coming of Michael Laudrup by the Danish press. Fleet-footed and imaginative, he coasts past defenders and plays the final ball with an ease and maturity that seems unnatural for a player of his age. He’s worth talking about because he is the key to Denmark unlocking the defenses of the Group of Death. The more pressing key to success, however, will be how well goalkeeper Stephan Andersen adjusts to the spotlight.
With 101 caps to his name, Thomas Sørensen is as familiar to followers of Danish soccer as Hans Christian Andersen is to Danish fairy tale aficionados. Sørensen has been between the sticks as Denmark’s ‘number one’ fairly consistently since the 2002 World Cup, but has been ruled out of the tournament with a back injury. Enter Stephan Andersen, goalkeeper for Ligue 1 club Evian TG. Andersen has only won 10 caps for his country—and all of those matches pale in comparison to the importance of these fixtures ahead. It is a safe bet that Andersen will face a barrage of dangerous chances from Holland, Portugal, and Germany—and it will be his ability to stand on his head and keep the Danes in those matches that will give the squad hope of taking home some points and maybe, just maybe, moving on.
Most interesting matchup
The most interesting match in the group has to be Germany v. Holland. This is a match that boasts mind-blowing quality on the pitch, a fantastic rivalry, and it’s in the group stage?! In the immortal words of Bart Scott: “Can’t wait.”
Something to Chew On
I’ve hit on most of what I’ve found interesting so far in the other sections—the wonderful rivalries, the fascinating playing styles, the rather disgusting visual conflation of Ronaldo’s thigh and an expensive cut of meat (… sorry about that one . . .). What I haven’t yet written about is the fact that the Netherlands may have a pretty special individual sitting on their bench for the duration of the Euros. You might know him. His name? Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Is Klaas-Jan Huntelaar the most impressive striker to never be first choice for his national team at a major tournament? He has to be one of them. Holland had 37 goals in Qualifying—more than any other country—and 12 of those came from Huntelaar. He tallied 44 goals in 47 appearances this year for Schalke 04 and led the club to a Champions League spot. He’s hit the onion bag 31 times in 51 appearances for Holland (apologies, Tommy Smyth) and is 9 goals behind legend Patrick Kluivert for the Dutch record. Oh yeah, and he’s 28 years old. Two problems: he plays in a system that will not budge from having one striker—and his name is not Robin van Persie.
Huntelaar struggled to find his feet in both Madrid and Milan—and finally seems happy with his role as the focal point of Huub Stevens’s attack at Schalke. That said, a big tournament from the striker and he may find himself leaving for bigger places yet again (his contract runs out in 2013 and he is rumored to have a €20 million transfer clause). I’m not sure how likely that big tournament is though given Huntelaar’s inevitable relegation to the super-sub role while playing for the national team. Can he play that part to perfection though? Will the gaffer consider moving Van Persie out to the left flank and slotting Huntelaar in up top? Stay tuned… it’s gonna be an extremely fun ride.