Archive for June, 2012

Euro 2012 Quarterfinal Preview, England vs. Italy: Anything But Penalty Kicks Please

Not today man.

Zack Goldman says goodbye to the quarters.

Good morning!  Today we’ve got our last quarterfinal, England versus Italy.

Both teams traveled to Euro 2012 with somewhat muted expectations, having underachieved at the last World Cup and feeling less than confident about their current squads.

Both federations dealt with a fair bit of of internal turmoil in the run-up to the tournament—Italy’s woes regarding yet another match fixing scandal (this leading me to believe that putting a Medieval Times in Italy might be the most fun thing ever), while England’s primarily stemmed from its well-publicized race issues that led to a managerial vacancy and a squad divided.

Let’s check out five things to focus on.

Whither Italy’s squad circle?

ONE.  What formation will Italy come out with?

We all know Roy Hodgson will deploy his typical 4-4-1-1.  So far, his approach has drawn praise from all corners—and rightfully so—as the English have embraced ‘winning ugly’.  It should be mentioned, however, that they could easily have lost all three group stage matches.  But, they didn’t.  And that, my friends, is precisely the point.

Italy’s shape will be much more difficult to predict.  With Giorgio Chiellini out with a thigh injury, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli has to ask himself whether he is willing to revert to the 3-5-2 formation that he deployed in his team’s first two matches in Poland.

Against Ireland, Prandelli both rotated his squad and altered his formation, coming out with a 4-3-1-2.  He preferred Antonio Di Natale to Mario Balotelli, and inserted Federico Balzaretti, Ignazio Abate, and Andrea Barzagli on the backline alongside Chiellini.

Simply put: Prandelli’s choice of which formation to go with today is the lens through which the narrative of this one will be written.

The 3-5-2 and the 4-3-1-2 see Italy play very different styles—and they react very differently to a 4-4-1-1.  While a 4-3-1-2 is much more orthodox, conducive to man-marking England, and allows the Italians to control the game much better with possession football, a 3-5-2 is a much more risky prospect—but one that could play dividends.  So far, England have been very comfortable playing their Hodgsonian style—content to sit back, remain organized, work hard defensively, and then attack as a group (particularly by working the ball into dangerous, wide positions).  A 3-5-2 may help the Italians unlock England’s organized defensive construction, but it would also likely make Prandelli’s men more defensively vulnerable and could force their wing backs to play at an almost suicidal tempo.

TWO.  Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo have been absolutely superb—and have almost identical statistics through three matches.  Stevie G has played provider three times for England and has undoubtedly been the engine of their attack.  Pirlo has also done it all, finding the back of the net against Croatia on a gorgeous free-kick and assisting on two of Italy’s three other goals.  Over the hill?  Hardly.  All eyes on these two today.

THREE.  England must continue their practice of defending from the top-down.  One of the least publicized aspects of Hodgson’s defensive system might be its most intriguing—the allocation of very strict defensive duties to both forwards.

While Wayne Rooney is no stranger to occasionally roaming deeply into his team’s own half and making a crucial challenge at Manchester United, his defensive role is more streamlined and regimented with Hodgson’s England.

The concept is simple enough that Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll, hardly possessing any defensive faculties between them, have done a decent job of buying in: When the ball is being advanced on your side, check back, drop in defensive support, and face-up the man in possession.

It is a simple bit of defensive responsibility and requires a tad more movement for the front-men, but it makes a big difference for England’s defensive shape and keeps the marks organized in the midfield.

Not to be that American in the room, but it’s a little like an effective half-court press in basketball, which uses that extra bit of early defensive effort to try and disrupt shaky guard play.  In any event, a lot of the credit that has gone to the Three Lions’ midfield for holding teams at bay when not in possession should actually go, in part, to the way Hodgson has used his strikers as his first line of defense.  It will be interesting to see how it is used against Italy—particularly if they end up playing with three in the back.

“He is who we thought he is?”

FOUR.  What to do about Ashley Young?  It’s no secret that the lad has struggled throughout his first three matches and has drawn criticism for some poor decisions in the attacking third in addition to some suspect defending.  He seems to be in a rut, both confidence- and performance-wise, and though he is slated to start, one has to wonder if Hodgson pulls him earlier than usual if England are down a goal or look like conceding in a deadlocked affair.

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Winner Don’t Tread Challenge: The Confederation Cup: USA 2, Spain 0

Never need an excuse, or any excuse, to show the first winner of the TSG Don’t Tread Challenge Video Contest.

Still a keeper for many USMNT fans.

Three years ago today the US “flips the script and takes a pass at calling ‘Uncle’”

Euro 2012, Quarterfinal Preview: All About The Benzemas?

This time, Spain’s got the dominant player in Iniesta….

by Zack Goldman, The Google of Euro 2012

…And just like that we’re five games away from the end of the Euros.  Up next we’ve got a mouthwatering clash between Spain and France played in the Donetsk Mothership.  The tiki-taka boys went undefeated in the group stage with 7 points, while Les Bleus made it through Group D in second position with 4 points after dropping their last match against Sweden, 2-0.  That was their first loss in their last 24… but it was a costly one and they now face the very real possibility of crashing out of the tournament with two defeats in a row.

5 things to think about:

ONE: You may remember the last time these two sides met in a major tournament.  It was the Round of 16 of the 2006 FIFA World Cup when Zinedine Zidane’s masterful performance steered the French to a 3-1 victory in Hannover, with two goals coming in the last ten minutes.  Six years on, the reputations of these teams are extremely different—but, even as the reigning world and European champions, you can bet the Spanish are still smarting a bit from that clash and want their revenge.

Hmm….Cesc or Nando? Nando or Cesc?

TWO: Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, or none of the above?  Manager Vicente del Bosque has said that he is still undecided on his lineup as of Friday night, but the crux of his dilemma likely focuses only on the question of whether to deploy a proven striker against France or to play Fabregas as a ‘False 9′.  Torres got the nod over Cesc in the last two group matches, but he failed to make much of an impact against Croatia.

By contrast, despite playing only a half-hour of football in the past two matches combined (and being hauled off in the final stages of the opening match against Italy), Fabregas has probably had the biggest impact for his country of any player.  As the engineer of Spain’s winner against Croatia and scoring goals against both Italy and Ireland, it seems unthinkable that Cesc could be left out.  However, he is clearly the ‘sixth man’ (literally and figuratively) of the midfield and that means his inclusion would deny Spain the opportunity to play with a true striker.

Cabaynayaha!

THREE: Is there a more underrated player in this tournament than Yohan Cabaye?  The Newcastle midfielder has been a revelation on Tyneside this year after his arrival from Lille in the summer.  A consummate professional by all accounts—something that the French need more than anything—he has come from nowhere in the past two years to become first choice for Laurent Blanc.

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Euro 2012, Quarterfinal Preview: Greece vs. Germany: The Bailout Bowl

Bailout!

Zack Goldman has your afternoon and lunchtime Cliff Notes right here.

Out of all of the old rivalries and politically-charged matchups that the European Championships have thrown up in recent years, this is one of the most compelling.  Let’s sink our teeth into the second quarterfinal, Greece against their sugardaddies… this is… The Bailout Bowl.

What we learned from the group stage.

Germany

Not as greasy as Ronaldo, but just as effective….

Essentially, we learned in the group stage that while Germany is not unassailable, they will be an extremely difficult out in this tournament.  At the risk of sounding reductive, they are an incredibly talented side that moves the ball well, defends competently, and works tirelessly as a team for 90 minutes (my Group B preview found here describes their playing style in greater detail).

Sami, unheralded….

The midfield spine of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mesut Özil has been every bit as good as advertised and absolutely central to the success of Die Mannschaft so far.  The trio is versatile and look as though they play the game with a single brain—always on the same page and moving off the ball in support.  They embody what is great about Joachim Löw’s team: they defend together, they attack together, and they run their socks off.  Look no further than their collective performance against Holland to see the difference they can make together.

At the defensive end of things, Mats Hummels has answered any questions about his readiness for a starting role with three dominant performances at center-back.  Superb anticipation, commitment to ball-winning, and a commanding presence in the air have made German fans forget all about that pre-tournament five-goal fiasco in Basel.  What’s more, Hummels has embodied the free-flowing spirit of the side with his willingness to become a meaningful part of the attack.  Whether it’s something like his stellar run against Holland—which parted the Dutch like the Orange Sea—or just lending support to the midfield by being available to bounce passes off in the center of the park, Hummels has done his part on both sides of the ball through three games and looks much more comfortable straying from the backline in possession than he once did.

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More Reaction: US Player Development

Agudelo for US Soccer….

So, should your star high school son take his talents to college or the pros?John Parker looked into that yesterday with, “Toting The Old Ball ‘N’Chain: Player Development in America.”
Here’s some more reaction to keep the discussion going below.

From Travis Clark, Staff Reporter & Editor at Advanced Soccer Media/TopDrawerSoccer.com & expert on youth soccer.

For now, college soccer remains the best option for aspiring pros. While the training sessions and seasons obviously are much different, a player is better off spending at least a year or two in college adjusting to a higher level, and hopefully not picking up too many bad habits along the way. A spot in MLS can then be claimed. However, if we’re talking players with national team desires and hopes, by all means they need to skip that route — or play no more than a season. Is it ideal? No. But in 2012, this moment, it’s better than not playing any games in the league or a scatter shot reserve league.The buck needs to stop with MLS when it comes developing players. Name one country across the globe where their first XI didn’t originate (at least initially) from a domestic club. And no, Middle East countries don’t count. MLS has only been developing players for roughly 4-5 years, and that’s a stretch. If player development continues to progress and improve at the domestic level, there’s no doubt that it benefits the national team long term. Just how that happens exactly is anyone’s guess.

From TSG Contributor, Ryan McCormack, who penned “A Treatise: The State of American Youth Soccer.”

John makes a strong argument for youth contracts in the United States in an effort to improve prospects at the international level.  The country will eventually need to decide if the amateur/professional designations are still relevant or outdated.  The prospects of youth contracts could yield results not only at the international level, but also in building a stronger domestic league and youth system.

The problem may go even further than he suggests.  As we know from the “Pay for Play” model of soccer, many socioeconomic disadvantaged kids who have a strong skill set in soccer have to give up playing the sport at the most competitive levels due to money.  They cannot afford club dues, coaching fees, club gear, or travel costs.  By creating a youth contract, the talent pool grows, making every level stronger as well.

Euro 2012 Quarterfinal Preview: Czech Yourself Before You Selecção Yourself

More from Euro expert Zack Goldman

So?  How’d you like that, then?

Krohn-Dehli: Eliminated but…”Mo’ Money..Mo’Money…Mo’….”

So far, Euro 2012 has kept us on the edge of our seats with a thrilling group stage that seemed to have everything.  Replete with great goals (and lots of them – 2.5 per game), some glorious and unpredictable team performances, and controversy over Nicklas Bendtner’s underwear, the first 24 games were simply enthralling.  Those who took a break from obsessively tracking the soap operas of Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres were treated to magnificent outings by some of the more unheralded footballers on the continent.  The names Alan Dzagoev, Mario Mandžukić, and Michael Krohn-Dehli may not feature in the next round, but they have thrilled audiences with their industrious and determined play, which has given this tournament such a unique zest.  The matches to come in Poland and Ukraine will likely feature the juggernauts of European soccer, but many of the headlines in the group stage go to an unexpected cotillion of debutantes, has-beens, and never-weres from the continent’s footballing periphery.

Yes, it had everything—everything, that is, except a clear frontrunner.  Pre-tournament favorites Germany looked impressive, yes, and Spain acquitted themselves well by picking up 7 points en route to the quarterfinals, but this tournament, like so many past editions of the Euros, has looked a lot like freshman year of college.  Some might walk taller than others or come in with better CV’s, but everyone eventually looks vulnerable at one point or another.  Even you, with your croakies and Vineyard Vines polos, Germany.

But, as we’ve learned from international competition so many times before (especially you, Euro 2008, when you let that Arshavin kid play), prior form goes out the window now.  Everyone is only three wins away from a European Championship (yes, even you, England).

We’re onto the quarterfinals.  Let’s break down today’s matchup, Czech Republic v. Portugal.

CZECH REPUBLIC (Group A winners) v. PORTUGAL (Group B runners-up)

What we learned from the group stage.

Czech Republic

Nedved no longer for the Czechs…

After collapsing to Russia 4-1, the Czechs recovered remarkably to win Group A (with a negative goal difference) and now face Portugal in the quarterfinals.  The story of the group stage for the Czech Republic is a classic tale of learning from your mistakes and making adjustments on the fly.  After being broken down again and again by counterattacks against the Russians, manager Michal Bilek restructured the center of the park by introducing holding midfielder Tomas Hubschman as a starter, thereby freeing up Jaroslav Plasil to take the reigns as a deep-lying playmaker and allowing Tomas Rosicky to move more freely as the engine of the attack.  Unencumbered defensively, the advanced midfielders also drew focus away from the wings, where the Czech Republic attacked with gusto, particularly against the Greeks.  Between the marauding runs of right back Theodor Gebre-Selassie and the purposeful, darting off-the-ball movement of wingers Petr Jiracek (who was moved out wide from a more central role against Russia) and Vaclav Pilar, the Czechs now look much more dynamic going forward than they did early on in the tournament.   They break up attacks well, get forward in numbers, and already have a few goals under their belt that exemplify their tremendous ability to take chances when they find a yard of space in the box.  Rosicky’s fitness is still up in the air—and he would be a huge boost to any hopes they have of progressing to the semifinals—but Czech fans can at least rest easy knowing that they’ve made some magnificent adjustments coming into this match.  There’s no doubt that this team is still lucky to be in this tournament (they could have conceded a few more in each of their three group stage matches), but they look more steely in the midfield, more deliberate on the counterattack, and are legitimately frightening in the final third with brilliant movement down the wings, incisive through-balls, and clinical finishing.

Portugal

Bento: Strategy in a box…

Unlike Michal Bilek, Portugal manager Paulo Bento was less intent on fixing his side’s glaring weaknesses that were on display throughout the group stage.  The Portuguese gaffer chose to play to his team’s strengths, gambling on their stellar attacking play and ultimately coming away with six points and the second spot in the Group of Death.  On the face of things, Portugal’s results sound pretty good—a narrow 1-0 loss to Germany, defeating Denmark, 3-2, in their next match, and then dispatching Holland, 2-1.  These results, however, belie the tactical problems of Bento’s system.  For all of the talk about the manager’s emphasis on defensive solidarity with his midfield trio, his team still, at the same time, gives up an awful lot of space on the wings.  Ronaldo’s clear indifference toward his defensive duties—as emphasized best in the game against Denmark in which Lars Jacobsen and Dennis Rommedahl practically skipped carefree down Ronnie’s flank—cannot continue to stand, especially against a side like the Czechs, who rely on being able to dart down the channels.  Worse yet, Ronaldo lines up in front of Fábio Coentrão, who, despite getting forward brilliantly in this tournament, is often guilty of neglecting his rearguard responsibilities in favor of getting into the attack.

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