After 31 days, 51 matches and 108 goals, the 2016 European Championship reached its culmination on Sunday when a gritty and well-drilled Portugal trounced hosts France in their own backyard to climb to the pinnacle of European football.
Euro 2016 was already differentiated from its predecessors, thanks to a change in format that saw twenty-four teams make the cut instead of sixteen. In addition, Spain — the winners of the last two editions – no longer seemed to have the air of invincibility around them after a horrible World Cup campaign in 2014. Their reign as European Champions was also brought to an end by a spirited Italy side in the Round of 16. It confirmed the end of an era.
On the other hand, England’s position as perennial under-achievers was further strengthened when their youthful side was embarrassed by an Iceland side that was living a fairytale. If that wasn’t painful enough for the English fans, seeing neighbours Wales battle the odds to reach the semi-finals only added to their misery. In the end, the only unbeaten team in the competition were crowned its champions as the hosts’ bid for a near perfect tournament fell at the last hurdle.
As the dust begins to settle on the month-long European football carnival, we assess what the latest version of it taught us.
Hard work and passion scored over talent
Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. This old saying wouldn’t get a better testimony than Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph. Barring, some sparks of brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal had to toil to get through every game. Each game was a challenge and they kept on overcoming them. Their opponents in the final — France — were the exact opposite. Exuberant and expansive, France rode on their talented front men to reach the final, where they were simply undone by the drudgery of Portugal. Hard work scored over talent.
The tone, though, was set right at the start of the tournament when Antonio Conte’s Italy — limited in terms of talent — totally dismantled the star-studded Belgian side. Almost clockwork in their approach, the Italians then matched Spain’s swagger with sweat and captured the last remaining check post of their empire. Italy’s run only ended after a crazy penalty shoot-out defeat to world champions Germany, who adopted a more pragmatic approach to counter Italy’s work-rate and discipline.
On the other hand, if there was one chart that you expected Gareth Bale to top after guiding his team to the semi-finals, it would be the goal chart. But Bale, surprisingly, was on top of the ‘duels won’ table (58), instead of the goal chart, pointing to the fact that the worker in Bale scored over the flair-player in him in terms of contribution to the Welsh cause. So even at an individual level, it was hard work that scored over talent.
A Cristiano Ronaldo like never before
Premier League, La Liga, Champions League, FA Cup and Spanish Cup — Cristiano Ronaldo had it all at club level, but a barren international career was proving to be a blot on his legendary status. Struggling to be a hundred percent fit, Ronaldo only showed glimpses of his sublime best on the pitch throughout the course of the tournament and managed three goals — a fairly average tally by his own standards.
But Ronaldo was always there in the thick of things for Portugal. He was the face of their grit and attitude and led them from the front. Ronaldo wasn’t always perceived among the best of the leaders in the game. The Portuguese had rarely in the past displayed great leadership skills. Maybe, playing under strong leaders like Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, and Gary Neville could have overshadowed his leadership instincts, but Euro 2016 proved he has certainly picked up things from these top captains.
From pushing and instilling faith in Joao Moutinho for taking the penalty during the shootout against Poland, to his Fergie-like demeanour during the final, Ronaldo has come out as an excellent captain. His leadership fuelled Portugal’s march to the title.
Coincidentally, his astute captaincy comes as a stark contrast to that of Lionel Messi, who not just failed to lead Argentina to success in a major tournament, but also retired from the national team thereafter.
Whether Ronaldo can now be considered a better player than Messi is a debate for another day, it can be said that Portuguese has proved to be a better captain than the Argentine. Thanks to Euro 2016, the admirers of the beautiful game have had a chance to see a totally different side of the Real Madrid forward.
Time to pass tiki taka?
Tiki Taka has pretty much been the theme of the European Championship in the last decade with Spain passing teams to death. Many teams over the last few years have tried to adopt that style of possession football and even reaped rewards. But at Euro 2016, large amount of possession has yielded very little.
If you look at the teams with most ball possession in the competition, only Germany (63%) among the top eight managed to reach the semi-final. Portugal and France — the two finalists — are ranked joint eighth in average possession charts with 52%. Seven out of the teams with most ball possession in the tournament failed to even reach the quarter-finals. Spain (61%) and England (59%) have rarely looked more toothless in attack.
A look at Germany’s top passers in the tournament would probably give a fair idea why the possession-based football is failing. After Toni Kroos, the second player to have completed most successful passes is Jerome Boateng. Similarly, Gary Cahill was England’s second best passer as was Ramos for Spain. This is a result of high pressing strategy, which teams like Italy and Wales have executed perfectly against the passing teams, resulting in a lot of ball possession in areas of little threat for opponents.
The tiki taka was great, but it seems to have got a bit outdated. It’s time to give it a pass.
Euro 2016 — Beginning of a tactical evolution?
With tiki taka quite clearly not being as effective as before, teams have been tactically a lot more fluid. At Euro 2016, managers have chosen to play to their strengths and have lined up formations that get the best out of their players. Usually, a team like Iceland would have been cautious in their approach and gone with a five-man midfield irrespective of the players at their disposal, just to make themselves hard to beat. But they went with a 4-4-2 instead, and the rewards are there to be seen.
Fernando Santos’ Portugal side lacked a good out-and-out striker and he paired Cristiano Ronaldo with Nani up front. Both, who are natural wingers, drifted away in tandem to stretch the opponent’s defence and thus create spaces for the midfield runners to exploit.
The 3-5-2 was widely used in the tournament, with Antonio Conte’s Italy being one of its finest practitioners. Wales too used it to good effect. What was common for these two sides was the presence of a defender with great distribution skills. Leanardo Bonucci almost functioned like a deep-lying play-maker and it was his pass that split open the Belgian defence for Italy’s opening goal in the tournament. Similar roles were played by James Chester for Wales and Mats Hummels for Germany when they switched to a back three.
The Germans were tactically flexible at times and that was one reason why they managed to reach the last four despite lacking genuine bite in the attack. Against Italy in the quarter-final, Joachin Loew went cautious to nullify Italy’s threat on the counter-attack and was rewarded with a win, albeit a fortunate one.
Pep Guardiola triggered a tactical evolution when he took charge of Barcelona. Euro 2016 may possibly have kick-started another tactical evolution in European football.
The format — Having 24 teams is good, but the draws need changes
Euro 2016’s new format has come under heavy criticism ever since its announcement. However, after one tournament under the new format, it appears to be a mix of the good, bad and the ugly. Having more slots in qualifiers has seen five teams make their European championship debut in France. Moreover, four out of these five teams qualified for the knock-out stages. Having two third-qualifying spots has given lesser teams hope to reach the knockout stages, which has spurred them on and gotten the best out of them. Iceland is perhaps the best example.
But the problem has been with the draw, which pitted most heavyweights on one side. Winners of groups E and F, irrespective of their performance, didn’t get the chance to play a third-placed team. This gave little incentive for the teams from Groups A-D to put out stronger teams in the final group matches, as they had already been assured of playing against third-placed teams in the Round of 16. Had merit been a criteria, it could have reduced the likelihood of drab matches, especially for the final round of group stage.
Hence, there need to be some radical changes made to the way teams are put in the draw to make the competition even more exciting and entertaining. But, increasing the number of teams participating has been a positive development.
FIFA will have to take measures to curb violence during 2018 FIFA World Cup
For all the exhilarating football played on the pitch, Euro 2016 was marred by incidents of off-field violence, especially involving fans of Russia and England. The failure of Russian fans to control their hooliganism resulted in a suspended ban being imposed on them. Fortunately, their football team did as poorly on the football pitch and exited the competition before they could be banned.
However, this raises huge concerns about the 2018 FIFA World Cup that will be hosted by Russia. Despite one of the Russian ministers assuring utmost safety and security for touring parties, FIFA will have to lay down strict rules to punish those who indulge in such violence. They need to avoid the showpiece event being hurt by hooliganism that surfaced on a consistent basis in the initial stages of Euro 2016.