Almost every team at Euro 2012 is at war with itself.
This is how football works, usually: the defense or holding midfield gains control of the ball and passes the ball upwards to the forward-minded midfield, who move the ball either by passing or running with the goal of getting to the opponent’s final third of the pitch. Once successfully there, depending on the defence’s vulnerability, an attacking midfielder tries to cut through the middle or pass to players on the wing. The final phase is for a player with the ball near the boundary of the penalty area to either pass to a striker with a good chance of scoring or to try their luck to see if they can come up with a piece of brilliance themselves. Either they score or lose possession, and then we start all over again.
If there has been a calling-card to this Euro tournament, it is varying levels of belief in a team’s ability to execute that principle, specifically in the relationship between the midfield and the attack–some teams don’t believe in their strikers, and some too much.
As I write this, France is about to play Spain. The world champions have completed a four-year metamorphasis to a passing juggernaut–2,100 passes in this tournament–that centres around playing tiki-taka, a style of short, one-and-two-touch passes that aims to bring the ball into the final third so that a brilliant player can do something good with it.
The problem with this system is that it was invented by club team Barcelona for Argentina’s Lionel Messi, possibly the most brilliant player currently playing soccer. Messi does not play for Spain. This still worked fine when La Furia Roja could rely on brilliant strikers like Fernando Torres in Euro 2008 and David Villa in the 2010 World Cup, who could convert passes into goals with good service. But Torres has lost his magic between then and now, and Villa is injured.
Spanish manager Vincente del Bosque has preferred in this tournament to name Cesc Fabregas, a midfielder, to the striker’s spot over Fernando Torres, creating the much-ridiculed 4-6-0 formation (in soccer, formations are to be read defense-midfield-attack). Spain’s tiki-taka has no longer meant brilliance, but stubborn stifling of movement. Though they still have the best passers in the world, the passes only lead to further passes which nobody can intercept. When Torres does play, he’s uninspiring, so it’s hard to call del Bosque wrong for refusing to believe in him.
But other teams in this tournament are relying wholly on their attackers. This is how Portugal woke up and qualified through the group stage: no longer the team of heroes Luis Figo and Pauleta, the team has looked up to its remaining legend, striker Cristiano Ronaldo. No longer relying on a balance between midfield and attack, they believe entirely in Ronaldo, and their team has been flat or wonderful depending on his performance.
Italy repose on a more gentle but wavering hope that striker Mario Balotelli can create something wonderful, and England have responded to a crushing national self-doubt by refusing to put its belief in anybody and putting less resources into the attack. The elephant in the room is Germany, who has achieved balance. Striker Mario Gomez has lit up the scoresheet rather than pundit’s favourite Meszut Ozil, a midfielder, although the success of both relies on each other. When manager Joachim Loew pulled both Gomez and striker Lukas Podolski for the quarter-final against Greece, the team still created chances and operated appropriately.
France, the opposite number to the world champions today, have a system of players who may not be great but simply very good. Strikers Karim Benzema and old hand Franck Ribery are being counted on to make some sense out of Spain’s sweltering midfield heat.
When asked about them, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas scoffed “Benzema and Ribery? Our front line is better.” Spain does not start any strikers. The glaring 0 in its formation is a belief that no front line at all is better than its third-greatest all time scorer Torres. As I write this, midfielder Xabi Alonso has managed to get his head onto a cross and put it into the goal, and France is down 1-0 while not yet seeing a chance.
This Euro tournament is about which team can overcome or ignore their own self doubt.