When Alan Shearer told the BBC earlier this month that the fact no one expected England to win the Euros, meant that they might just go on to win the Euros, you would have been forgiven for dismissing it as just another nugget of the banal idiocy we have come to expect from the Match of the Day “expert”. Yet when objectively considering England’s chances at this years tournament, Shearer may have surprisingly stumbled upon the truth.
Of course, there have been recent precedents of unfancied teams lifting UEFA’s trophy. In 1992 a Danish team who had only qualified by default reigned victorious while in 2004 a disciplined and often depressing Greece side battled to what many saw as tainted glory. However a lot more went into those sides respective victories than just a lack of pressure.
Although chastised by many, Greece’s defensive pragmatism worked. It led a side of unremarkable journeymen to the second biggest trophy in international football. They may have required a little luck along the way (as is the case with most triumphs in football), but Greece’s success could not be dismissed as a fluke. Keeping a clean sheet for over 180 minutes against forward lines featuring Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Pauleta and Cristiano Ronaldo requires more than luck.
Four years on from Greece’s unlikely tale, Spain introduced the world to tiki-taka. Attractive, assertive football was once again triumphant. Alongside Barcelona’s European domination, Spain’s success brought possession based football in vogue. In many quarters, the Spanish style has been heralded as the pinnacle of footballing philosophies, the most undisputably attractive, but more importantly effective, style of play. Even the FA have begun to re-structure youth development to more effectively mimic the Iberian method.
Although chastised by many, Greece’s defensive pragmatism worked. It led a side of unremarkable journeymen to the second biggest trophy in international football.
While good technique will always be essential at the highest level, it does not follow suit that assertive, possession based tactics are always the most effective means of winning. In the past season we have seen a number of teams with alternative tactical visions win silverware. Most notably has been Chelsea’s remarkable European Cup campaign. Despite the millions of pounds spent, Chelsea found themselves as overwhelming underdogs in the majority of their knockout ties. From a 3-1 deficit against Napoli, to playing at the Nou Camp with ten men and finally playing the final against Bayern Munich on their own pitch. Only against Napoli (a side built to counter-attack themselves) did Chelsea claim the majority of possession. In their remaining ties (including both legs vs Benfica) Chelsea prevailed through disciplined defending, swift and efficient breakaways, reactive tactics (for example deploying Ryan Bertrand in left midfield) and a healthy dose of luck. Messi and Robben do not often miss penalties, yet most defences do not come close to blocking 21 shots, as Chelsea did on Saturday night. A similar, but slightly more adventurous counter-attacking style also saw Chelsea triumph over Tottenham and Liverpool to lift the FA Cup.
Borussia Dortmund are another club to have beaten Bayern Munich in a final, humilating them in the DFB Cup final. Dortmund sat deep and picked off the Bavarians on the break, the speed of thought and vision of playmaker Shinji Kagawa essential to the efficiency of their attacks. With pace on the wings in Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kevin Großkreutz, as well as a physical presence leading the line with Robert Lewandowski (who bagged a hat-trick) Dortmund battered Bayern 5 – 2 with an approach that very much mirrored Chelsea’s in the FA Cup. Similarly, the direct approach of Atletico Madrid trumped the tiki-taka stylings of Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League final while Juventus lifted the Scudetto after a campaign when a counter-attacking 3-5-2 formation was often employed. Even more spectacular in their success were Zambia in the African Cup of Nations, whose defensive solidity saw them overcome the stars of the Ivory Coast in the final.
Where does Alan Shearer fit into all of this? Well, not only should lowered expectations cool the pressure on England’s players, it should also dispel any demands for free-flowing and beautiful football. England are beginning to realize their limitations. This should not be mistaken for an acceptance of defeat. As Chelsea, Dortmund, Zambia and Greece have all shown us, not having the best individual players does not mean victory is out of reach. Against teams such as France, Spain and Germany, England will not dominate possession. They will not get close. To go head to head against these teams with blind faith in our own talents would be suicide. The 4-1 humiliation by Germany two years ago proved as much.
Not only should lowered expectations cool the pressure on England’s players, it should also dispel any demands for free-flowing and beautiful football
Instead, with the absence of arrogance, England can adopt a more pragmatic approach. Roy Hodgson, a manager known for the positionally disciplined and over-achieving characteristics of his teams, is beginning to look more and more like the man for the job. England’s best chance of success will come if Hodgson can makes his players aware of their own flaws and other team’s strengths.
Much has been made of the paucity of talent in England’s squad for the tournament. Yet while the abilities of Hodgson’s men do not come close to those of the Spanish or German, they are not hapless amateurs. England cannot dominate or outplay the top nations, but they can still beat them. A defence featuring Gary Cahill, John Terry and Ashley Cole has already displayed their ability to sit deep and defend against the best. If Scott Parker can get fit he has the defensive skills to thrive in such a system, while the pace on the wings with Walcott and Young can ignite fast counter-attacks.
The key to success lies with the captain but not for reasons you may expect. Steven Gerrard is not known for his tactical discipline. Quite the opposite, he is often derided for his attempts to dominate teams and do everything himself. Despite being deployed on the left wing on that dark day in South Africa, Gerrard continually found himself on the right and in the middle against Germany in South Africa, over hitting passes and under hitting shots. If Gerrard sticks to a position “in the hole” behind a striker, then he could be perfect for a counter-attacking England. No one doubts the range of passing and vision Gerrard possesses. If this can be specifically utilized to find space, instigate breakaways and pick out England’s wingers then it could reap surprising rewards.
There are clearly still many ifs and buts about England’s approach and it remains far from certain Hodgson will employ a pragmatic approach at all. If he does, however, then England can take heart from the aforementioned success stories of this year. Reactive football is having a comeback and England can jump on the bandwagon. Will England will Euro 2012? Probably not. Is it a realistic possibility? Most definitely.
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