Euro 2016 is just round the corner, and what better thing to have a month of your life consumed by than the constant stream of football that an international tournament delivers? None, I hear you say. So to look ahead to it I thought I’d do something a little different to the content that I usually post on this section of the website – a Q&A solely focused on things related to the upcoming competition.
I did a similar thing to this on the ‘blog’ page a couple of months back which went down pretty well, and I got a load of questions this time too which is why I’ve moved it here on this occasion. I’ve tried to squeeze in as many of the queries as I possibly can, although in a few instances I’ve rephrased things due to overlaps or similarities in the questions. Anyway, let’s get into it.
How will France set-up for the tournament, and how would you play them?
They’ve played in a 4-3-3 set-up for quite some time under Didier Deschamps now, with a ‘1-2’ shape in midfield behind the front three. There’s a few different sorts of options available for the deepest midfielder (Yohan Cabaye, N’Golo Kanté and Morgan Schneiderlin), while Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba are pretty much guaranteed to play slightly further ahead in dominating box-to-box roles. Then there’s two narrow attackers either side of the striker, presumably Olivier Giroud, who’s put in consistently excellent performances for the national team for quite some time now. Defensively that collapses into quite a simple 4-1-4-1 shape, and there’s a little bit of pressing at first but nothing extreme.
With this squad I’d play the side in a very similar way to be honest, using Matuidi and Pogba to control things and push forward into the half-spaces when attacking, and I’d keep Giroud as the focal point. Kingsley Coman and Antoine Griezmann would be my choices for the two wide positions, though there’s a good case for Anthony Martial’s inclusion both centrally and also on the left. It’s that deep midfielder that’s the most difficult choice however – and I think I’d lean towards Schneiderlin. He was only called up because of a late injury to Lassana Diarra though, so I don’t expect him to be Deschamps’ first option.
What are your thoughts on Portugal? In my opinion they’re dark horses.
Portugal have a lot of talented players in their 23-man squad that I really like (André Gomes, Raphaël Guerreiro, Renato Sanches and Rafa Silva to name four), though beyond the individuals I’m not sure they’re anything too special. They tend to keep the ball pretty well, but turning that possession into threatening attacks isn’t something that they manage effectively – there’s very little connection between the midfield and the attack. Just 11 goals in eight matches of their pretty weak qualifying group symbolises that.
Having Cristiano Ronaldo when they do get to the final third obviously helps, saying that, and players like Gomes and João Moutinho have actually got the qualities to solve their main issue of progressing the ball. So if Fernando Santos can bring that out of them and encourage the front line to make themselves more available then they’ve got a good chance, otherwise I can’t imagine them doing too much to impress anyone. I would say they’re too good for the ‘dark horses’ tab though – just because that term’s used pretty generously.
Should Cristiano Ronaldo start as an inverted winger, or as a central striker, during Euro 2016?
I’d use him centrally for the most part, with freedom to drift, especially due to the fact that Éder (who has two goals in 25 caps) is the only out-and-out striker that they’ve got in the squad. He’d end up moving into that area from the left anyway, plus for the sake of their balance it’s probably better to have someone on the flank who’ll get more involved in the game and help to connect things to a greater extent.
Do you think there’ll be a lot of shocks in this Euros? Like some less fancied nations who could prevent the more established countries from advancing to the knockout stages?
I think the change of format to the tournament has significantly reduced the possibility of that happening in the group stages. With 16 of the 24 teams going through to the knockout rounds, and finishing third still giving you a pretty decent chance of progressing, it’s going to take a real disaster from an established nation for them to go out so early. There’s some strong mid-tier countries who could cause a lot of problems after that though, such as Austria, Croatia, Poland and Switzerland, so the first knockout round is probably the prime opportunity for shocks to occur.
Which team do you think could be the surprise package of the tournament?
Austria and then Switzerland come to mind, and fit the bill for possible dark horses, although for a more interesting, outside of the box suggestion I’m going to say Iceland. They’ve had a superb rise in the last few years, only missing out on qualifying for the last World Cup due to a loss in the play-off round before going on to beat the Czech Republic, the Netherlands (twice) and Turkey on the way to qualifying for this summer’s Euros. I don’t know much about them in terms of their style or tactics, to be honest, but what they've recently achieved is enormous for a country of their size.
That’s not to say that I’m predicting them to get too far in the competition or anything. Their group of Austria, Hungary and Portugal is fairly tough. Because of the format alterations they’ve got a decent chance of finishing third and still going through, though, and it’ll be interesting to see how they get on.
Are there any nations who you think will rely too heavily on the same player or two every game?
Portugal are probably the obvious one – as I said before I think they’ve got lots of good individuals aside from Ronaldo, but if they don’t sort out their team structure in possession then they could end up being very dependent on the Real Madrid star’s qualities in the final third. Aside from them I wouldn’t say there’s any other ‘big’ nations with the same possible issue, although there are a few of the smaller ones.
If Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko are kept quiet then Ukraine could really struggle in attack, for example, while Northern Ireland (Kyle Lafferty), Sweden (Zlatan Ibrahimović) and Wales (Gareth Bale) have similar problems of there being one standout player for opponents to target. And even if I think they’re better than people generally give them credit for, there’s a case for Poland and Robert Lewandowski too.
What do you think will be the most successful way of playing during the competition?
It might be a slightly boring answer, but I think trying to identify tactical trends over such a small sample of games leaves too much room for inaccuracies and generalisations. The only notable thing shape-wise from the last World Cup was more countries using three-man defensive systems, and even that was only really four teams: two of whom, Chile and the Netherlands, switched their shape depending on who they played. So personally I’d say it’s more just a case of which countries will execute their own plans most effectively from match to match, rather than there being a common way which lots of sides will have success in using. By that sort of logic, maybe adaptability will be key.
Which injured player are you most disappointed about not going to the tournament?
Marco Verratti is the biggest one for me. I think he’s the most talented player of Italian nationality around right now, and he’s one of the best in the world at moving the ball and making things tick from midfield. So not having him there is a real shame from a neutral perspective. Dani Carvajal, Ilkay Gündogan, Marco Reus and Bernardo Silva also come to mind, although there’s probably plenty that I’ve not thought about.
Where there any omissions from their respective squads that surprised you?
I was surprised that Jorginho was left out by Antonio Conte, especially with Verratti not being available. The two share a number of similar qualities, and without them there’s no form of mobile, controlling midfielder in the Italy squad; Thiago Motta’s got the ball retention ability but not the pace and capability to carry possession forward from deep. Even if that’s not the style which Conte wants to base his team around, having that profile of player available is surely a logical thing.
Saúl Ñíguez not being in the Spain side was also disappointing, although given that Vicente del Bosque holds a large bias towards his regular core of players it wasn’t too out of the blue. A similar thing applies with Isco. I also find it pretty weird that João Cancelo isn’t Portugal’s starting right-back, let alone him being uncapped and not even in the squad at all, but hey, maybe that’s just me. Again, though, I’m sure there are lots that I’ve missed for this!
Which not-so-obvious players do you think will end up impressing during the tournament?
In relation to my backing of Austria to do well, I think Julian Baumgartlinger and Zlatko Junuzović could form an excellent Bundesliga-based midfield trio alongside David Alaba. Their 22-year-old attacker Marcel Sabitzer, similarly now in the German top-flight after RB Leipzig got promoted, also has the potential to do well as an impact player for them and earn himself some more plaudits.
Away from Austria, Poland’s Arkadiusz Milik (who scored 21 goals in the Eredivisie in 2015/16) and Piotr Zieliński (who’s really impressed on loan at Empoli) can use the tournament as a great platform to boost their ever-growing reputations. Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Vladimír Darida and Gylfi Sigurðsson, for Turkey, the Czech Republic and Iceland respectively, could also play go on to play big roles for their countries.
What would constitute your Euro XI, including your favourite formation?
In terms of the selection of the best individuals, I’d go 4-3-3: Neuer; Alaba, Boateng, Ramos, Lichtsteiner; Busquets, Modrić, Iniesta; Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Bale. Not too bad a side on paper, I think.
As they’re very ‘obvious’, bigger name players, though, I thought I’d also do an XI of players that I think will go on to have good tournaments. Excluding all of those that are mentioned in the side above, of course. That’s also in a 4-3-3 shape: Sommer; Hector, Dragović, Alderweireld, Juanfran; Krychowiak, Gomes, Baumgartlinger; Konoplyanka, Morata, Griezmann. These aren’t exactly hidden gems either, but I’m backing them to do well regardless.
Who do you think will win the tournament?
Hmm. I keep changing my mind, but if I really have to stick my neck out once and for all then I’ll go with France to win the tournament they’re hosting. Or Germany. Maybe Spain. I’ll happily be proven wrong by England, though. Just saying.