||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: June 5, 11:00 PM UK
Group D Tactics Board
Nick Bidwell and Kevin Palmer
Spain | Russia | Greece | Sweden
Group A |
Group B |
Group C |
Greece boss Otto Rehhagel, the architect of their incredible Euro 2004 title, recently criticised Group D opponents Spain of over-playing in their midfield, for putting pretty football over effectiveness.
But what does he expect from the Spanish? They boast an engine room overflowing with technical ability of the highest order, players renowned for their superior passing and movement. Possession and a cultured, patient build-up is what the Spaniards are all about, with kick and rush simply not part of the Iberians' DNA.
These days, Spain coach Luis Aragones, a wily old fox if ever there was one, prefers a 4-3-3 system to his old favourite 4-4-2. The reason is Aragones sees the former as the best way to incorporate the country's three most talented schemers: Arsenal's incomparable Cesc Fabregas and the Barcelona pair of Xavi and Iniesta.
To fit them all into his starting eleven, Aragones uses Fabregas and Xavi as classic twin playmakers, while Iniesta's vision and quick feet are employed further forward on the right wing. In order to maintain balance in the middle of the park, Xabi Alonso serves as the gritty, disciplined bodyguard, though he, of course, is no mean passer himself.
The problem with this formation is that the wingers are square pegs in round holes. Iniesta is at his best probing in midfield, while the left flank is normally occupied by Valencia striker David Villa or club mate David Silva, by trade an attacking midfielder.
With both wide men tending to drift inside to join the action, Spain suffers from a decided lack of penetration in wide areas, making it essential for the full-backs, Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos (right) and Joan Capdevila of Villarreal (left) to push on as much as possible. Should Aragones opt for natural wingers, he has Joaquin on the right and Albert Rieira on the left.
Spain will to look to move the ball slickly around before handing over to in-form Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, whose instant change of pace, power and skill makes him the ideal game-breaker. An audacious alternative for Spain would be to use Torres and Villa through the middle, two wingers and just two guys in midfield.
Iker Casillas, arguably the best keeper in the world at the moment, is in no danger of being inactive. The centre of defence, where Pablo and Barcelona captain Carles Puyol are likely to start, may be high on muscle and heart but it is a little low on positional good sense.
Probable line-up - 4-1-2-3 formation: Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Puyol, Pablo, Capdevila; Xabi Alonso; Fabregas, Xavi; Iniesta, Fernando Torres, Silva
Russia coach Guus Hiddink has a well-deserved reputation for getting his tactical sums right in major tournaments.
That after he led Holland to the semi-finals of France 98, South Korea's fourth-place finish at World Cup 2002 and Australia's qualification for the knock-out phase of the same competition in 2006. What is more, he used different formations each time: 4-1-3-2 with Holland, 3-4-3 for the Koreans and 3-3-3-1 with the Socceroos.
This summer, Hiddink will probably plump for a 4-5-1 when defending and a 4-3-3 in possession, but you can be sure he will have a bag full of ideas to add as necessary. The Dutchman has always been the most adaptable of thinkers, never waiting for things to happen, never shying away from the hard-choices which need to be taken at key moments in a game.
Igor Akinfeev is the outstanding first-choice keeper, with Viacheslav Malafeev and Vladimir Gabulov dependable deputies. However, it is common knowledge that Hiddink was not entirely satisfied with the work of his rearguard during the qualifiers, noting that if the CSKA Moscow trio of Sergei Ignashevich and the Berezutsky twins, Alexei and Vasili, were more than robust enough, they lacked agility and pace.
In central defence, Ignashevich is under pressure from Denis Kolodin of Dynamo Moscow and Alexei Beruzutsky could lose out to the much more composed and skilful Roman Shirokov of Zenit St Petersburg. Vasili Beruzutsky may hang on at left-back, while the right-back slot should go to the attack-conscious Alexander Anyukov.
In midfield, Russian Player of the Year for 2007, Konstantin Zyryanov, and Igor Semshov will sit in front of the defence, leaving the slender Diniyar Bilyaletidinov to occupy the role of playmaker.
A large proportion of Russia's attacks come via the flanks and here they have two sprinters in Vladimir Bystrov on the right and the left-sided Yuri Zhirkov. Moscow Spartak's Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak of Zenit contest the one front-running position.
Suspended for the first two Euro 2008 games, brilliant attacking midfielder Andrei Arshavin could well be parachuted in for the final group fixture against Sweden.
Probable line-up - 4-2-3-1 formation: Akinfeev; Anyukov, Kolodin, Shirokov, A Berezutsky; Semshov, Zyranov; Bystrov, Bilyaletdinov, Zhirkov; Pogrebnyak
Hoping that lightning does strike twice, the defending European Champions will again be banking on coach Otto Rehhagel's tactical expertise and always impressive powers of motivation. Under the 69-year-old's astute leadership, the Greek formation can change from 4-3-3 to 4-5-1 to 3-4-3 to 4-4-2.
Yet the fundamentals remain the same: the flawless back-line organisation, the use of an old-style sweeper, the emphasis on defending en masse prior to the swift counter, the high pressing game and the clever set-pieces. However, as Rehhagel readily admits, one essential ingredient of the 2004 triumph is missing this time around - the element of surprise.
Rehhagel's main problem concerns the form - or lack of it - of his key defenders and keeper. Sweeper Traianos Dellas is, in the eyes of many, well past his imperious best, attacking right-back Georgios Seitaridis has been hampered by injury problems of late and number one goalie Antonis Nikopolidis is never far away from a gaffe of Keystone Cops proportions.
Much more reassuring are the rock-like centre-back Sotirios Kyrgiakos of Eintracht Frankfurt - who is a real threat in the air at corners and free-kicks - and dynamic left-back Vasilis Torosidis, a right-footed left-back.
Midfield is the area where the Greeks look the strongest. Skipper Angelos Basinas is a much-underrated anchor man; industrious, combative and thoughtful in his distribution. Meanwhile, on the right-side, Benfica's Kostas Katsouranis has developed from a one-dimensional ball-winner into an exceptional all-round player, especially dangerous with his long range shooting.
The most important creator, though, is little Giorgos Karagounis. Nimble, inventive and a striker of a fearsome free-kick, he is a real threat to the opposition. Technically and in terms of application, Rehhagel has all the bases covered here.
Perpetual motion Theo Gekas is the central front man, a role he plays with hunger and opportunism. He is flanked on the right by Angelos Haristeas and Ioannis Amanatidis on the left, who both track back assiduously as well as taking it in turns to hunt in box.
Probable line-up - 4-3-3 formation: Nikopolidis; Seitaridis, Kyrgiakos, Dellas, Torosidis; Katsouranis, Basinas, Karagounis; Haristeas, Gekas, Amanatidis
The longest-serving coach at Euro 2008 - he has been in the job since 2000 - Sweden's Lars Lagerback is not one for change for its own sake.
He has long thought that a 4-1-3-2 formation best suits the characteristics of the players at his disposal and he continues to set huge store by traditional Scandinavian virtues of solid organisation, physical strength and buoyant team spirit.
His side will certainly not approach Group D with a gung-ho attitude. They will hope to stay as compact as they can, invite the opposition on and quickly hit on the break. Lagerback says that one of his priorities is a high number of players able to contribute in both attacking and defensive areas.
Of course, the Swedes are not completely a 'play by numbers' side. In forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they have a gloriously gifted wild card, someone who can change the course of a game with one moment of impromptu skill. And Lagerback successfully wooed Henrik Larsson to return to the squad at 36, having retired after 2006.
Lagerback recognises the extra dimension the Inter Milan star offers and gives him great freedom to roam wherever the mood takes him. In contrast, strike partner Marcus Allback does his best work in the box. Johan Elmander and Marcus Rosenberg provide more attacking strength in depth than Sweden have had for years.
Injuries have not been kind to the Swedes. Ultra-reliable defensive midfielder Tobias Linderoth is struggling with a pelvic problem, left-back Erik Edman was ruled out by damaged knee ligaments and skipper Freddie Ljungberg is a big doubt after breaking a rib while playing for West Ham.
To replace Linderoth, Lyon's versatile Kim Kallstrom may be used in a deeper midfield position than he occupies at club level, while usual right-back Mikael Nilsson should switch flanks to take on Edman's old berth, Fredrik Stoor coming in at right-back.
In the absence of Ljungberg, Christian Wilhelmsson would move from right to left, Kennedy Bakircioglu or Birmingham's Sebastian Larsson taking up the slack on the right side of midfield.
The central defensive duo of Olof Mellberg and Daniel Majstrovic will be a tough nut to crack. Much more worrying is the lack of first team football this season of number one keeper Andreas Isaksson, who lost his starting spot to Joe Hart.
Lagerback will be hoping his first choice stopper wasn't damaged too much by his last competitive game of the domestic season, when goals aplenty flew past him in Manchester City's shock 8-1 thrashing by Middlesbrough.
Probable line-up - 4-1-3-2 formation: Isaksson; Stoor, Mellberg, Majstrovic, Nilsson; Linderoth; Wilhelmsson, Svensson/Kallstrom, Ljungberg; Ibrahimovic, Larsson