A lot has been made of club links being replicated in national sides at Euro 2012. Spain have their Barcelona and Real Madrid connections, Germany revolve around a core of Bayern Munich players, the entire midfield (and the majority of the strikers) of Russia are based in Saint Petersburg and England, like it or lump it, have a group of Liverpudlians. Michael Cox, known to many of us as @zonal_marking, has mentioned this theme, noting it as a key one for the tournament:
“Football is, more than ever, based around familiarity and cohesion when it comes to passing moves. Club football has never been so superior to international football, and it’s now obvious that international sides suffer by not having enough time to work on attacking moves as club sides.” (Michael Cox)
In their opening game, Czech Republic were easily brushed aside, succumbing to the superior skills of Dzagoev and Arshavin et al and failing to find a way to the quick and accurate passing of the Russian midfield. All of the Czechs in their starting XI represented a different club side. Was this a factor?
Firstly, that stat, while true, is a little misleading. Vaclav Pilar and Petr Jiracek enjoyed a six-month spell together in the same Plzen side this season before Jiracek headed to Wolfsburg in January (Pilar will be joining him after the tournament), and the season before Jan Rezek and Petr Jiracek were part of the Plzen side that won the Gambrinus Liga for the first time in their history. But that isn’t exactly a nucleus the likes of Germany or Spain boast.
Under the surface of that starting XI, there is a real hub of Plzen players. Frantisek Rajtoral, David Limbersky, Vladimir Darida, Milan Petrzela and Daniel Kolar (in addition to Pilar and Jiracek) have all regularly been in the starting line-up for Viktoria Plzen this year. As a unit they know each other’s movements and nuances, at times showing a telepathic understand of where their team-mates will be at any given moment.
However, it is not just about the personnel that a team has - it is perhaps more to do with how that team is set up. Spain play like Barcelona, this German side have their similarities with Bayern and so on. But this Czech side don’t play like Plzen do and if they did their results might be a little different.
One glance at the UEFA-produced statistics tells the tale. The Czechs completed only 66% of their ‘short’ passes. Plzen, while containing gifted players who can string a bunch of passes together, are often at their most thrilling in a direct counter-attacking style: Petrzela and Pilar running with the ball and the veteran playmaker Paval Horvath pinging balls from deep, bypassing midfield lines in an instant.
In Jaroslav Plasil, Michal Bilek has a player at his disposal who can perform in that role and perhaps a change in emphasis from neat, short passing to a more direct style would work. The statistics back it up: the Czechs had significantly higher pass completion rates over ‘medium’ and ‘long’ distances than Russia.
Replicating successful club-based patterns are proven to work on the international stage. It may be time for Michal Bilek to copy this model and replicate it on the Czech national team. The only thing that could hold this back, however, is one of his favourites: Milan Baros. Can he be the target man required for a more direct style of play and, conversely, is his reliance on the ball played to his feet holding back the other 22?