About a week ago, in a full outrage, I wrote about how the ESPN studio team covering Euro 2012 was abysmal and that it had the potential to set the development of the game back a few decades in this country. I was mostly kidding, but not at all about the fact that Alexi Lalas and Bob Ley should never be allowed to talk about soccer.
Former German international, Michael Ballack, speaks English well for, say, an actor playing a half-naked barbarian bent on pillage, but not well enough to contribute an intelligent player’s perspective in a 30-second soundbite. The one adjustment the producers have made is to introduce Taylor Twellman, of U.S. international and New England Revolution fame. Twellman’s good and he has a future doing what he’s doing, but the conversation between the four of them is so ridiculous it doesn’t matter. Lalas: platitude. Ballack: Yah but dees ees not a fact. Twellman: Let’s talk about forwards. Ley: This is what they’re saying in my earpiece. Now back to Ukraine. Nothing about the players, their countries, or the hosts. Bah.
The good news is that the tournament has been fantastic. In successive World Cups we’ve seen controversies about the refereeing, complaints about the ball, and lots of games without goals. More than that, we’ve seen the tactical noose tighten round after round creating tournaments with stolid, nervy elimination rounds. Frequently, the best teams haven’t won, though Spain turned that momentum and, I think, they deserve much of the credit for the trajectory of this contest as well. The first goalless draw came yesterday, between England and Italy in a quarterfinal, and throughout Euro 2012 creative midfielders have been, without doubt, the main players on a stage full of goals created less by individual brilliance than by incisive team play.
In my first blog, I suggested that Spain and Germany were favorites, Italy on form, and Portugal, Holland, and France dangerous. Spain and Germany have not disappointed and they are still favorites. The Germans have played like German teams–organizes, cohesive, and improbably fast in transition– but they have never had a midfield like Mehsut Ozil and Sami Khedira, who are breathtaking in their combination of tactical know-how, technical brilliance, and physical dominance. With that center to revolve around, players like Gomes, Muller, Reus, Lahm, and Klose have taken turns punching through defenses at will. The team is without a great central defender, though Badstuber is good, but Neuer can be dominant in goal. In one semifinal, they’ll face an Italian team without great physical presence and without great central defenders. Mario Balotelli, everyone’s favorite villain, has been excellent and Andrea Pirlo deserves to be on a tournament team completely made of creative midfielders. Italy are cohesive and technical, but they will struggle to match the German team’s speed.
Spain, with its amoeba-shaped team, has allowed only one goal and scored eight. Silva, Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas could play 4 v. 4 keep away in a toolshed and never lose the ball. But their success has been interesting to watch because it is a different formula from the one Barcelona employs with many of the same players. Barca has Messi and Alexis Sanchez, killers with speed and strength, to make goals. Spain can introduce Pedro, Navas, and Jordi Alba for speed, but they win games differently. Their team is powerful, smart and technical in the back. Sergio Ramos has been the best defender in the tournament along with maybe Pepe from Portugal. Busquet, Pique, and Xabi Alonso form a distribution nexus going one way and a tangled net going the other. Spain passes teams into utter exhaustion and then brings Fernando Torres on to run behind leg weary defenders. The game is utterly predictable but fascinating to watch. 300 and 400 passes in a half. Then one slide rule through ball to a player ready to create a play in a small space. A goal. One is enough. Two are better. The only way to beat them is to punish them on the counter attack, which means you have to take risks and you have to chase shadows in the hope that you’ll catch hold of one eventually.
France and Holland succumbed to the blight that seems to be endemic to those teams. Call it disunity, or petulance, or racial strife, or the absence of a real leader or whatever, but neither team ever played well and they are both gone. Portugal, on the other hand, is still a nightmare for opponents. Bruno Alves and Pepe have been strong in the back, Meireles busy in the middle, and CR7 an absolute terror. He’ll need to make two goals if they are to beat Spain, but it’s hard to imagine he will see the ball enough to do that.
The point of this, my second rant, is to get you to watch the semifinals and to trumpet the hope that FIFA’s rule changes protecting attacking players have finally caught up with the tactics of the game, and world football is open and beautiful again. I hope Brazil is listening. Jogo bonito.